People lose their jobs all the time for all kinds of reasons. Many of these firings are for good reasons – like perpetrating an upper decker in a small office bathroom or writing that the boss is a stupid orangutan in lipstick across a window. These do not seem like positive workplace behaviors.
To lose a job because of reprehensible actions is kind of how the system works for most people. For people in the public eye, the situation becomes more challenging, with corporate backing and bosses with influence in different arenas choosing the best method for damage control and the best way to proceed.
When Kyle Larson uttered his now infamous and unfortunate epithet during an iRacing event, the way forward appeared obvious. With his sponsors dropping him as quick as they could check with their legal departments, Chip Ganassi followed, and soon Larson became persona non grata.
Larson, however, fell upward. After disappearing from NASCAR, he returned to his racing roots and scored 46 wins on the dirt tracks of the country. The talent was never so apparent and the judgment so curious.
During the offseason he scored a ride with Hendrick Motorsports, landing a top-tier ride and winding up with the very team that many people thought he would when his contract ended with CGR.
Larson won this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his fourth race since returning from his NASCAR exile.
Brad Keselowski stated, “I think everybody loves a good redemption story. He’s fought really hard for his opportunity to come back. I told him I wanted to win the damn race. But if I couldn’t, I’m glad he did. We’ve all been kind of pulling for him.”
For some people, the win looked like redemption, like Larson has served his penance and was made whole by crossing the finish-line first in an auto race.
Such thinking is disappointing, myopic, and off-target. Larson did not redeem himself. He was not saved from sin or evil because he won a race. He did not regain something from his victory, paying any kind of debt with his accomplishment.
What Larson did was make good on his talent that everyone seems to recognize that he has anyway. What Larson did was create a feel-good story of someone making the most of an opportunity that presented itself. It is difficult to even call Larson’s win some kind of comeback.
Prior to losing his ride for his mistake, Larson drove for a pretty solid team that saw its second driver, Kurt Busch, roll into the playoffs. While Chip Ganassi racing might not be Hendrick Motorsports, his new home, it is also not a team struggling to make the field each and tallies finishes in the 30s each week.
None of these remarks are an indictment on Larson. In fact, Larson has shown real remorse for his lapse in judgment. When Larson broke his media silence last August, he detailed the ways that he has tried to rectify his mistake.
In many ways, the piece authored by Jenna Fryer looked like it had been sculpted from a PR team. Larson came across as contrite and the work he was doing was widespread. Even if that element were in play, Larson still came across as a person working to improve himself and to examine his actions.
That’s where all of this becomes so important. While Larson may be doing the hard work, the sport has often shown little action in making necessary changes.
Consider the fact that Johnny Reb rode into victory circle on the hood of the winner’s car for so many years at Darlington’s Rebel 500. The imagery of a Confederate soldier joyously celebrating each winner does not provide the best sort of picture to offer to everyone.
Combine that element with things like what had been the omnipresence of the Confederate Flag, the treatment of African American drivers like Wendell Scott and Bill Lester, and the sport looks tone-deaf. Then there was Mauricia Grant’s departure from the series, the African American official that filed a lawsuit against NASCAR for its racist treatment against her and settled out of court. The sum total of these events offers a sweeping indifference and frequently hostile treatment toward African Americans.
When Larson won, he did not change the narrative. In fact, all he did was make himself look good and allow people in the sport a method of putting the whole ordeal in the rearview. Larson is now in the playoffs and Hendrick can count more money and the sport can act like it did something. But it did so little.
In Formula 1, the sole Black driver, Lewis Hamilton has been pushing for reform. He irks his bosses and makes people uncomfortable by wearing T-shirts that memorialize Breonna Taylor or address racism head-on. He led the charge to have the drivers address equality at the beginning of each race last season. Even more so, he called out his own sport.
Hamilton criticized the whiteness in F1, how all the bosses are White, and questioned the status quo. He sought to bring about a discussion regarding the sport’s questionable attitudes toward racism. Hamilton may not have always been eloquent in his approach but being an orator is not what this was about – he was attempting to use his social capital to bring about change. Coming from a driver that has faced consistent racism during his career, his voice is the one that certainly holds the most merit, the cache of championships only help in supporting his cause.
Larson, unfortunately, did not speak of racism after the win. He did not speak about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. And that’s just how NASCAR would like it. Many of the fans do not want to be confronted with such names or the issue, instead hoping for a ‘stick to sports’ mantra.
But sports do not happen in a vacuum. NASCAR is a product of Southern culture which is a part of American culture; it is a byproduct of all the systems and biases that exist outside of itself. Sponsors are not beholden to just stay in NASCAR, they are nationwide and international.
When Hamilton speaks out, one can imagine that people involved in the sport hold their breath. In NASCAR, no one needs to worry. Larson fits right back in to the mold that NASCAR has championed – clean cut male who thanks his sponsors, offers comments about the race and likely thanks God in some capacity. This whole thing is a cycle that will repeat itself, with another young driver making a similar error.
Larson may have found ways to expand his views, may have found ways to help those in need – like with his establishment of the Drive for Five charity – and may have found new inner peace, but this past Sunday all he did was find Victory Lane.
There was no redemption, just racing.