NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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The Kyle Larson Pandemic: Lack of a Cure Proving Worse than the Disease

Earlier this week, I compared Kyle Larson’s disastrous use of a taboo slur during an iRacing event to the current pandemic that has brought much of the world to its knees. Nearly a week later, it’s still proving an apt comparison.

KEITH: LARSON’S SLUR BECOMES NASCAR’S PANDEMIC

As my sixth weekend in quarantine comes to a close, those of us fortunate to be in the United States are lucky that, despite the rash of alleged “panic buying” that struck in mid-March, the nation’s food supply chain continues to hold steady. It has not, however, stopped seemingly all segments of the population from resorting to cannibalism prematurely, eating their own with no potential endgame in sight.

Watching the ongoing duels between the White House blaming governors from New York to Maryland for having insufficiently prepared for the pandemic while the same governors blame the White House for the national strategic stockpile proving insufficient to meet their states’ needs has me flashing back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Every level and party of government has someone to blame, and that’s about it. Meanwhile, supplies remain short for the medical community, and all the while, death tolls rise.

Twitter-morning quarterbacks have spent the better part of the weekend eviscerating Florida officials that allowed beaches in Jacksonville to reopen on Friday night (April 17), despite the fact allowances for outdoor recreation have been universal across nearly all states and are, in fact, necessary for the health of the populace. Peaceful protesters demanding that economically-destructive stay-at-home orders be rolled back in numerous states were met with torrents of hostility on social media, branding such protesters idiots without consideration for the type of economic desperation that many in this country face having been without work for a month. 

Yes, seeing protesters flout social distancing norms to make their point contradicts the advice of nearly all doctors in this country. But branding folks idiotic for engaging in the political process while keeping it peaceful is not constructive nor empathetic. Besides, if I was a Michigan resident being told that I couldn’t buy gardening supplies, I’d have been protesting as well for my own mental well-being… my backyard potato patch is my new home track. For now.

That same level of vitriol, founded or not, has unfortunately infected the racing community since Larson’s incident last Monday (April 13). As if 2020 hasn’t provided enough examples that the world is off its axis, those who deserve applause for their handling of this situation are those that take much of the wrath for the sport’s woes… the sponsors, the ownership at Chip Ganassi Racing and the sanctioning body itself.

CHEEK: KYLE LARSON, CHIP GANASSI RACING PART WAYS 

CreditOne Bank, FirstServ, McDonald’s all acted decisively, opting to move on rather than add potentially millions in spending to an already expensive form of advertising attempting to defend their association with a very toxic mistake. CGR made the absolute correct decision to cut ties with its former driver, in doing so protecting not just a bottom line but likely the entirety of a race team that puts No. 42 cars on the track. As for NASCAR itself, the sanctioning body responded to Larson’s incident with a trait it seldom displays: consistency. Officials leveled the same suspension and reinstatement requirements as it did for Jeremy Clements and his similar offense in 2013. 

This timeline happened in a span of less than two days, which, given the likely complexity of the contracts involved, is warp speed. Never mind the fact that Larson, for an utterance, however profane, has faced more professional and disciplinary consequence than Cup drivers Kurt Busch, Scott Wimmer and (allegedly) Michael Kennedy, er, Waltrip, faced for incidents behind the wheel that literally put innocent lives at risk.

The same method and composure were sadly lacking from much of the racing community. The variety and volume of attempts to equivocate Larson’s incident would have been amusing if it wasn’t so cringeworthy, with countless Twitter users trying to minimize his slur by deeming it synonymous with a lyrical profanity. That’s not to say it didn’t go both ways: it did.

I hate to call out Bob Pockrass, who is single-handedly the man I most respect in NASCAR’s media ranks (that doesn’t work for Frontstretch, anyway) but this Tweet was worthy of a facepalm.

Let me be as unambiguous as those castrating Larson all week have been about how wrong his choice of words was. If we’re taking the stance that his slur is the sin that it is, that choice of language in iRacing is wrong. But so is Kendrick Lamar’s every time he takes the stage. There is NO way to take seriously a multi-millionaire who obviously lacks for nothing in terms of material or opportunity to lecture a teenage girl that it’s important for the pursuit of equality to treat the words he not just uses, but makes millions off of, different because of his skin color.

And, unfortunately, such was the case in many articles that took the approach of being scorched-earth, holier-than-thou pontification throughout the week. Despite recounting no less than half-a-dozen episodes in the text of his article that described Larson’s family heritage and understanding of his racial background, Marshall Pruitt’s published take in Road & Track was titled “We Don’t Know Kyle Larson” and even went as far to question verbatim “is he a closeted racist…?”

Frontstretch alum Nick Bromberg both wrote and Tweeted ad nauseam about his frustration that NASCAR’s stable of Cup drivers wouldn’t engage in the equivalent of an Orwellian “two minutes of hate” regarding the Larson episode, castigating Cup drivers for their silence while ignoring the seemingly obvious.

Case in point: despite an almost immediate call from social media and Kyle Larson alike (who contacted him within five minutes of the incident happening), it took Bubba Wallace nearly three full days to put out a statement on the matter (of note, USA Today‘s Michelle Martinelli had a take worth reading on Wallace being dragged into this mess). With the cancel culture vultures out in force, including countless persons that wouldn’t know a NASCAR racecar from a Matchbox, why would any driver speak out and risk using a wrong word or phrase? Besides, as stated unambiguously earlier in this piece, what Larson did was WRONG.

Clear enough?

Also ignorant of the obvious sensitivities surrounding this matter was Forbes’s Terrence Martin, who blasted Larson’s sponsors for taking as long as they did to fire their driver (it should have been done Sunday night, says he). Of course, given that Martin’s take claims Wallace is the only black driver in a sport that, without franchising, is open to whomever wants to participate, and that NASCAR races “are not representative of the general diversity in the country” while ignoring that the same type of mismatched racial demographics is true in nearly every professional sport in America, there’s no reason to take this demand too seriously.

Not even my home at Frontstretch was immune from this trap, with our editor-in-chief Tom Bowles (the man I most respect in NASCAR’s media ranks, bar none) making a deliberate choice to stack a paragraph about NASCAR’s history with presidential candidate George Wallace right before mentioning their 2016 endorsement of Donald Trump for the same office. Factual or not, Bowles’s decision to mention Wallace and Trump while omitting that A) the NASCAR community has been endorsing Republican candidates consistently for decades (nine of 10 Chase drivers in 2004 publicly endorsed George W. Bush for re-election, while Republican nominee John McCain attended races in Charlotte and New Hampshire in an honorary capacity leading up to the 2008 election) and B) That Republican nominees being tied to white supremacists is not unique to Wallace or Trump (see McCain, 2008) was strategic and even inflammatory. Our readers noticed… just look at the comments page.

BOWLES: ONE NASCAR CAREER SELF-DESTRUCTED BY KYLE LARSON

But perhaps most distressing of anything I read this week was the take of NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, whose piece made many think he was writing off ever covering Larson again. 

The article’s structure was strategic (the line “that mea culpa rang hollow” was hyperlinked, though the link only went to Larson’s video apology with nothing substantiating the allegation that said apology rang hollow). The language was hyperbolic (calling Larson’s slur “the most dehumanizing and reprehensible of racial slurs.”) I would certainly argue it rang hollow to those who endured different types of slurs while interned at Manzanar, like Larson’s Japanese-American grandparents, or that many in the Jewish community have endured both in this country and abroad…. 

Bordering on the incredulous, Ryan questions whether “Larson… ever truly was ready for the intense scrutiny and spotlight that accompanies racing in the major leagues.” Ignoring the undisputed fact that Larson has been a full-time Cup driver for six seasons, with million-dollar sponsorships for all of them, the supporting evidence cited falls way short of proving he was in over his head as a Cup driver. 

Larson treated his team poorly in a press interview to the point it was widely documented just once, in 2017 (and that was after three straight DNFs). That’s far less of a track record than Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., drivers that have won four of the last six Cup championships. Larson joked that Hendrick Motorsports was cheating, just like 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski did in 2017 when commenting on Toyota’s newly-approved body.

More from Ryan: “There were the subtle reminders that NASCAR often felt no more than a 9-to-5 gig he had to work to pay the bills, so he could play in the dirt.” Sounds an awful lot like three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.

Most striking, and most telling, in this piece, was Ryan’s handling of Larson’s “is that an Asian joke?” quip during the Southern 500 rain delay last summer. Calling it “tone-deaf” in 2020’s lenses, Ryan ignores the fact that fellow Cup driver (not to mention Cup veteran and three-time Daytona 500 champion) Denny Hamlin also made a similar Asian joke within the same interview… and that said interview was broadcast on NBC Sports, Ryan’s employer, while hosted by NBC Sports colleague Marty Snider.

I’m going to assume that the lack of a hyperlink to that video gem was a coincidence, not a strategic omission by an NBC employee on a mission… just like referring to that exchange occurring “on national TV,” not “on NASCAR on NBC,” which it was.

1,700 words into my rant, have you noticed what’s missing? Any, and I mean, any, discussion of Larson as a racecar driver. No consideration for his considerable talent behind the wheel, talent that has seen Larson win the 2020 Chili Bowl Nationals and enough Cup races to have him (until this week, anyway) a rumored candidate to take the No. 48 seat of seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson next season. 

That’s not to say Larson’s talent excuses his iRacing conduct (being unambiguous, Larson was WRONG). But this episode and the week of coverage it has spawned goes a long way to explain why many of the same fans that used to pack NASCAR’s grandstands are sticking to the same dirt tracks Larson loves playing on. Namely, the story more often than not isn’t what’s happening on the racetrack.

That’s not to say dirt tracks are a refuge for slurs and questionable conduct. But they are a refuge from talks of Drives for Diversity, large corporate presences and meticulously-crafted press releases. While there are certainly star drivers on these dirt tracks, the story on said bullrings is more often than not, rather simple: heat races and features. There’s a reason that I, being an exceedingly fortunate writer to have a large travel budget and a NASCAR hard card, spend more time and miles frequenting local short tracks than I do major NASCAR circuits: Being at a track with no amenities, no big names (and sometimes, no phone reception) is a relief. It’s the escape most race fans want racing to be. A test of man and machine – nothing more.

Kyle Larson’s language in #Monzamadness endeared him to no one. The licks he’s taken both in the press and in losing his backers and his job are justified and his to own. But to see so many in the racing community rush in to pick his bones clean, stomping down an already damaged but still special talent with harsh takes bordering even on the revisionist serves no constructive purpose. To see the NASCAR community engage in the same bloodletting that so many across the country insist on inflicting on their fellow citizens as they attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of COVID-19, and the mistakes made in handling said pandemic, is just another example of how big-league racing is no longer an escape, but an extension of reality that one doesn’t need to leave home and buy tickets for.

This unhinged, cannibalistic behavior has struck close to home for me during this pandemic. My former home in Dare County, North Carolina has opted to abuse a provision in the state code most often used after hurricane landfalls to ban non-resident property owners (including several of my family members) from their land, citing safety concerns while all but labeling out-of-towners “plague carriers.” The exchange has led to a literal war on social media between locals and angry non-resident property owners, some of whom have filed a federal lawsuit against the county. 

One of the more prevalent commenters on this battlefield recently quipped that locals down there have no reason to visit grocery stores, as they were busy “eating their own.”

To the NASCAR community, et tu?

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About Bryan Keith

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17 comments

  1. Avatar

    Wow, I need a few days to dissect this love letter to Kyle Larson!!!!!!!!!!! Love beams are blinding me to a point that might be made. I have never been more annoyed and pissed off at a Frontstretch article. Larson screwed up like it or not, agree with it or not. And yes, his little stupid, shocking out of place hit piece towards Marty Snyder once he had the camera’s rolling in the MOHO did matter, it showed where this clown’s mindset was, and always has been! IMO! What Denny Hamlin did was irrelevant, and stupid. It shows how mature Denny isn’t. That is all it shows. A child’s argument….”well he said it too” Just stop.

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    As a Michigander I would like to correct a few of your impressions of the’ ‘peaceful protests’ in Lansing. Are you aware that many of the protesters were there without any protective measures standing shoulder to shoulder? That means they can now spread the contamination to anyone else they come in contact with, thus indangering MY health. I’m not aware of many ‘peaceful protests’ that came complete with men carrying guns…pistols, shotguns, and the all time favorite M 15. How peaceful is that? Are you also aware that the carried Nazi flags and anti Semetic signs? There was very little that was peaceful. They kept ambulances from getting to a nearby hospital. I have no issue with a true peaceful protest, but the DeVos family initiated this, not ‘the people’.

    It is NOT against the law to garden, just not allowed to spend time wandering the aisles of big box stores to browse. Perhaps you should investigate your facts more thoroughly before you pass judgement…what you are accusing others of doing about Kyle Larsen.

    • Avatar

      Unlike your little antifa poutriots, there was no violence. Thus, it was peaceful. Also, what is an M15?

    • Avatar

      LMAO, “M 15”?!?! You’re either looking for the AR-15 or the M-16, but your eludes to you mean the AR-15. So, tell me. The 2nd Amendment, keep and bear arms, were they violating anything? How many people have been shot and injured/killed? Just because someone has a rifle or pistol, doesn’t make them violent. In fact, no one goes out on my ranch without a firearm to protect against poisonous snakes, and would boar that roam and can become quite aggressive towards people.

      The ignorance you show about firearm knowledge is astounding, which rather insightfully shows the ignorance of the use of firearms. They are nothing more than a tool to be used. A firearm, btw, has an effective range of about 1/2 mile. Even then, it must be a well placed shot beyond a couple hundred yards. A firearm can contain maybe 2,000-4,000 lbs of force when the round leaves a barrel. A 2,000 lb car moving at 2 ft per second easily hits that maximum, and can continue that force over hundreds and thousands of miles. But we allow 15-16 year olds behind the wheel and call it okay, because they need their freedom. Now you’re coming in and saying that protesting for freedom while holding firearms, which is granted in the Bill of Rights is violent? I pray you never have to learn what the definition of violence truly is.

      As far as Kyle? Author is correct. It’s a double standard, and you’re a fool to ignore both sides of the story in the name of political correctness or searching out scapegoats for whatever your agenda entails. Get over it, I don’t care what he said, the sponsors are free to react however, you’re entitled to react however, and so am I. Other than that, Nascar has lost a fan for overreacting and being ridiculous, and the lack of objectivity people show, instead, thinking with emotions, is scary to think about. Stuff like that is how fascist states come into existence

      • Avatar

        I really don’t think this is the forum for a political argument. I’m sure a well organised militia would be the proper place for those arms as the constitution states. I feel badly for Kyle Larsen, but unfortunately he is the cause of the problem, and sponsors, rightly or wrongly, have every right to decide who represents them. Without a sponsor, Ganassi couldn’t put a car on the track, so he was left without much choice. I think it’s a shame that Kyle could lose his professional standing because of one mistake, but all he can do now is try to mitigate the cincumstances.

  3. Avatar

    Finally, an independent, critical thinker offers a rational perspective on this incident. The rabid monkey circle-jerk was exhausting.

  4. Avatar

    Bryan, thanks for a great column! You have brought insightful clarity and sense to what has been a nonstop crucifixion.

  5. Avatar

    This all boils down to the mob rule mentality that social media breeds. Yes it was wrong but who has suffered except for Larson (and rightly so to some degree)? Show me someone whose life was really altered as a result of his bonehead mistake. The fake indignation that the PC crowd has fostered in our culture undermines any due process, any rational discussion about fair justice. Whatever, I’m not here to defend Kyle Larson I’m just asking for people to think about justice and not to right for the death penalty. Mob mentality is not justice.

    • Avatar

      Exactly. I though Bryan’s article was a fair assessment of the situation, and not, as kb said, a “love letter to Kyle Larson”. Actions have consequences, and hopefully Kyle has learned a valuable life lesson. The PC crowd is never satisfied with an apology; they want a pound of flesh and the word RACIST branded on the forehead of every person who doesn’t play by their rules. Kyle Larson has lost his job and severely tarnished his reputation, and it’s his own fault. I’m okay with that, not that it matters. I hope he realizes why what he said was wrong and works to repair his image, and if he does that, I hope he is eventually reinstated. Everyone deserves a second chance.

  6. Avatar

    I guess that when I see a lot of people carrying semi automatic weapons I don’t immediately assume they are into ‘peaceful’. The confederate, Nazi flags and anti Jewish signs might have been another influence in that direction. I guess ordering seeds or paint on line was too much for those demonstrating? I whole-heartedly agree that they have every right to endanger their health if they choose. I would just like them to now carry signs saying they haven’t followed recommendations and are potentially dangerous to other people. Like me. I wonder if they think it’s also OK to yell ‘FIRE” in a crowded theater?

    • Avatar

      Maybe they would walk around with a chain saw.

    • Avatar

      Not that I disagree with your sentiment,,,,”I would just like them to now carry signs….”. Maybe we could give them black armbands to wear with a little Rx symbol on them. And when people see them on the street I am sure they will treat them with respect. Making people bear a scarlet letter is a pretty dangerous ledge to walk out on. With that said, I feel the same way about people who refuse to get vaccinated for measles, mumps, etc., but still, a very dangerous slippery slope.

  7. Avatar

    I agree, Kyle was wrong for saying what he did, but the backlash does not fit the crime. He i# a very talented driver and I have no doubt he will again be in a NASCAR ride. He young and will overcome, Kurt Busch did it….Hopefully Stewart-Haas will take on another star.