Most people have heard the story by now of Kyle Larson’s NASCAR suspension for a racial slur used during a streamed iRacing event. One week ago (April 12), the incident wound up costing him millions in sponsorship and his full-time job from Chip Ganassi Racing.
Let me be clear; there is no excuse for Larson using the N-word under any circumstances, especially during a publicly viewed competition. I’ve heard some argue there is a double standard here, considering rappers, for example, use the word all they want. Other people on iRacing may have been guilty of similar or even worse behavior on a regular basis; they just didn’t wind up caught.
For me, the double standard argument has no bearing on Larson’s actual guilt in the matter. But his punishment, while needed, did not fit the crime unless we are going to start considering having the death penalty for parking violations.
Let’s tackle the double-standard first. Turn back the clock for a little story from the summer of 1978. My father, who was closer to Archie Bunker than a progressive liberal when it came to race relations, explained it to me with his actions and words. One of his managers at the Plating Shop he supervised was an African-American man named Matt who moved his family to the town of Cicero, Ill. Cicero wasn’t friendly to minority folks back then… and they showed it. All four tires on his truck were frequently damaged when my Dad picked Matt up for work. Riding along, I heard my Dad called “N-Lover” and heard that hateful word thrown at Matt as he walked over to my Dad’s car. I learned at that minute that some words can never come back from their hateful connotation!
Jumping ahead to 2020, younger folks nowadays have become very loose with the use of such language because music lyrics of today are filled with those words. Lost due to the lack of historic context is the fact that double standard exists for a reason! This weekend, I watched the movie “Uppity” which was a documentary about the life and career of Willy T. Ribbs, the first African-American driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1991. Ribbs was called “Uppity N” and wore that as a badge of honor back then (and still to this day). But white folks who called him that? They were mean-spirited and vile human beings.
The bottom line is double standards never go away! They’re actually important for people who are being victimized by their use to turn them around on the vile human beings of this world.
But the Kyle Larson saga that is unfolding in front of our eyes is a classic example of the type of “all or nothing” punishment that goes on today for such behavior. For example, if you love President Donald Trump, you make excuses for his past actions and comments about women. If you hate Trump, you make excuses for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s past actions towards women. If you watch one news channel, you have one opinion of the world at large while if you watch another, that opinion is 180 degrees different.
Larson deserved a suspension, and maybe a long one, to make sure that everyone in the sport gets the message. But unless we are prepared to apply that “all or nothing” logic to everything and have the death penalty for parking violations, we need to learn a little more finesse with how things are handled.
It was so easy for companies like Chevrolet, McDonald’s, Credit One and Clover to cancel their sponsorship of Larson within a day or two of the racial slur being uttered. It’s their money, so they get to decide how to spend it or not to within a sport whose survival depends on corporate backing.
But let’s also take a look at some of Larson’s now former sponsors when it came to race relations. General Motors has had its share of racist problems over the years. Recently, nooses and signs saying “Whites Only” appeared at some of its manufacturing plants across the nation. Until a story hit the national news about this Toledo, Ohio plant it doesn’t appear the company did too much to put a stop to this idiocy.
Now, did everyone decide to boycott GM just like they are shunning Larson? No. The company was simply told to do better and given a chance to show improvement.
Another major Larson partner, McDonald’s Corporation, is currently being sued by several African-American executives who claim they were demoted based on what they called “systematic racial discrimination.” A group of at least 10 current or former minority franchise owners has also filed suit against McDonald’s claiming racial discrimination on the franchise level. There’s a laundry list of transgressions the company is accused of, which, if true, would arguably cause more long-term damage than one word. One mistake.
Let’s say those McDonald’s allegations prove to be true. Should we all boycott them going forward just like they cut ties with Larson? Or will the world keep ordering Big Macs while just demanding them to do better in the future?
Both companies, along with many others, cut ties with Larson as fast as they could. The rationale was to show how attentive they are when it comes to anti-discrimination. But it’s fair to wonder how proactive longtime NASCAR sponsors have been through the years in their efforts to diversify the sport. (Larson, of Japanese-American descent, is a Drive For Diversity graduate).
One of the reasons we didn’t see Willy T. Ribbs as a champion in NASCAR or INDYCAR was because he lacked money. This man beat the best of the best over in England in the Formula Ford Championship and won 17 times in the tough Trans-Am series. That’s back when that division featured some of the best racers in North America in the 1980s. Finding sponsorship at the Trans Am level versus INDYCAR or NASCAR is a huge difference, though, in terms of financing.
Thankfully, Ribbs had supporters such as Jim Trueman (Red Roof Inn Founder), Dan Gurney and Paul Newman who helped him get that far! Many of us fans of the old Trans-Am series loved the brash Willy T. Ribbs who would do the “Ali Shuffle” to celebrate a win and always were shocked sponsors didn’t flock to this flamboyant racer.
While one might say, “Well, that was then and this is now.” Turn the clock forward to the mid-2010s and another young African American driver by the name of Michai Stephens faces the exact same problems.
Stephens won the prestigious Team USA Scholarship (TeamUSASholarship.org) for two years in a row in 2014-15. This program has produced many stars here in the USA over its history that dates back to 1990. Guys like Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Jerry Nadeau, Buddy Rice, Andy Lally, AJ Allmendinger, Charlie Kimball, JR Hildebrand, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly and more have been able to find the sponsorship to excel in INDYCAR, NASCAR and sports car racing. In fact, former winners of the Team USA Scholarship swept every North American open-wheel title this season.
Maybe, instead of just being part of the cancel culture pandemic taking place in our country right now, these sponsors involved could have come up with a unique strategy with Larson. Instead of shunning him and looking like “Woke” corporations by quickly cutting their ties, they could have continued their relationship with the driver. To learn from his mistake, they could have compelled him to coach and commit money to help sponsor young African-American racers trying to make it in today’s racing world. They could have fined Larson a significant amount of money, but matched those fines to commit to using this bad incident to make a difference in sport’s diversity down the road!
Larson is guilty of being stupid and careless, using a racial slur in the midst of NASCAR simply try to survive like the rest of us during this global pandemic. He deserved a suspension and serious financial ramifications for his actions. But the corporations that cut their ties with him so fast have hardly done their part to make auto racing a more diverse sport.
Unless we all support death penalties for parking violations, we need to find a middle ground between the “all or nothing” solutions we are being offered to everything in today’s society.