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.
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.
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.
Many comments on my feed have asked why is it ok for n-word to be used in music without public outrage. I think this (from Vanity Fair) paragraph and quote from Kendrick Lamar gives perspective: pic.twitter.com/qynJ8BD7GL
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) April 14, 2020
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.
How is it controversial to condemn a racial slur or simply say it’s wrong — even if it’s a racial slur said by someone who is a friend of yours? https://t.co/z1UYwYxNV6
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) April 15, 2020
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.
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.
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?