How Larson made his way back into NASCAR after suspension
Following his use of a racial slur during an iRacing event, Kyle Larson was suspended from NASCAR and let go by Chip Ganassi Racing. Seeking redemption, Larson was signed by Hendrick Motorsports for 2021 - but is he fully rehabilitated?
When Kyle Larson uttered a racial slur, speaking into his Esports headset on 12 April to his sim racing spotter - it quickly became amplified around the world via social media, including his own Twitch stream. It was followed by stunned silence, and in a split second the gravity of the situation began to take effect.
It led to the 28-year-old, six-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner's professional world collapsing around him - completely of his own making. His team, Ganassi Racing, immediately suspended him. Then sanctioning body NASCAR did likewise.
As NASCAR's rulebook states: "Member actions that could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension, or termination: [includes] Public statement and/or communication that criticises, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person's race, colour, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition."
How Larson paid the price for his racial slur
A couple of days later came his contract termination, after every major player involved - Credit One, Chevrolet, McDonald's - publicly pulled their plugs on him. Brutal? Yes. Punishment fitting the crime? Absolutely.
To Larson's credit, he apologised straight away - and on video too, rather than hiding behind a legal-written statement. In my book, apologies mean much more when you see someone's lips move.
"Hey, I just want to say I'm sorry," he told his Twitter followers. "Last night I made a mistake and said the word that should never, ever, be said. There's no excuse for that. I wasn't raised that way, it's just an awful thing to say. I feel very sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community and, especially, the African American community.
"I understand the damage is probably unrepairable. I own up to that. But I just wanted you all to know just how sorry I am."
Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only top-tier African American driver, then revealed that Larson texted him "within five minutes" of the incident and Kyle tried to call him that night. They facetimed the following day, which Wallace said was "a good conversation, his apology was sincere". He also noted that Larson's "emotions and pride were shattered".
So, there's never been any egregious denial of wrongdoing here, just the heinously dumb act in the first place. And he's been consistent in his contrition since: "I was ignorant and immature" has become his penitent mantra.
Perhaps the conflating issue here is Larson's own ethnicity; his mother is Japanese American, her parents having spent time in an internment camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It's highly likely that he's been on the receiving end of some racially-motivated, horrible words in the past too.
Despite having Asian roots, however, the word he used was absolutely not his to speak.
Larson's long road to redemption
While he's been banned from NASCAR, Larson has been proving his unblemished driving skills in the World of Outlaws winged sprint car series. Typically, he's won a lot - 42 wins from 84 races - including the 2020 Chilli Bowl Nationals, which is like the Daytona 500 of midget racing (for non-winged cars).
And he's been busy off the track, in a praiseworthy attempt to right his wrong...
• 21 April: Completed NASCAR sensitivity training.
• 27 April: Started diversity inclusion training (six sessions) with Doug Harris of The Kaleidoscope Group.
• 15 May: Volunteered at Tony Sanneh Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota (food drive and public speaking).
• 19 May: Volunteered at KIPP School in Charlotte, North Carolina (personally delivered groceries to families of the school as part of food drive).
• 20 May: Completed diversity inclusion training.
• 22 May: Visited Jackie Joyner-Kersee in St. Louis. Toured her community centre and surrounding area, including city of Ferguson, Missouri, site of protests in 2014.
• 28 May: Volunteered at L-Life Food Bank in Lebanon, Missouri (packed food and delivered it to families).
• 2 June: Made food donation and delivered it to KIPP School in Charlotte.
• 15 June: Volunteered at Tony Sanneh Foundation and visited memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis.
• 25 June: Visited Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia. School was out for the summer, but a handful of students were in town and Larson spoke to them and shared his experiences, both in racing and in life.
• 11 September: Started working with RISE, a non-profit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations. Spoke with CEO Diahann Billings-Burford.
• 14 September: Spoke with 15 members of the NASCAR Diversity Council to share experiences and answer questions.
• 18 September: Visited Urban Youth Racing School, worked with students on the racing simulators.
• 28 September: Visited the Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
• 13 October: Sit-down interview with James Brown of CBS Sports.
The interview with renowned sports broadcaster Brown, which was aired on national TV, was perhaps the biggest step he needed to complete to convince the public of his reformed ways.
"I know deep down I'm not a racist," said Larson. "I said a racist word... and I could fully understand why people would label me a racist."
When pressed on just why he'd said it, Larson replied: "I'd raced with him [his spotter] in Australia and the group that we were with kinda used the word casually, as a greeting, I didn't use it in a way to degrade or insult anyone.
"I guess I didn't think of how it took African Americans, probably in their thoughts, took them back to slavery and injustice, things like that they've worked so hard to overcome. It's not my word to use, I need to get it out of my vocabulary, and I have. What I said was extremely hurtful, and I would fully understand if I was never allowed to race in NASCAR again.
Brown's zinger question was this: "Why should anyone believe you?"
Larson replied: "I understand that people who might not know me might think I'm just checking a box. I feel like I've definitely grown more in these last six months than the last 28 years I've been alive."
His latest publicity step is to appear on the Dale Jr Download show, a hugely popular podcast that's also broadcast on NBCSN with NASCAR's most popular personality. In this week's show, which airs on US TV on Thursday evening, Larson reveals he recruited Doug Harris as a personal diversity coach, which was "nothing that [NASCAR] required me to, but stuff I wanted to do to better myself".
Dale Earnhardt Jr, and co-host Mike Davis, asked about his emotions during his banishment and the trauma of being forced to sell his 'dream' house that he was having built at the time (he still lives in his original home just outside of Charlotte) due to his sudden firing.
"I wondered what's my life going to be like now?" Larson replied. "I had a lot of thoughts like where am I going to live, do I even need to be in North Carolina, what am I going to do if I never get to race in Cup again?"
On his support side, Larson says many in the NASCAR community reached out while he "repaired my image" - including Rick Hendrick.
Larson said: "Once he heard what I was doing off the track, I think that really impressed him. He's an amazing person, and I'll learn a lot off of him. I'm really fortunate. I just wanna race. I think I'll be better than I was before as a racecar driver too."
Larson also revealed that Jeff Gordon - NASCAR's original Californian golden boy - was a key to this deal and has been hugely supportive from day one. "He called me the next day [after the incident], and he said: 'get ready, this is going to be a rollercoaster' - and he was absolutely right, I've lived through some of the darkest days of my life," said Larson. "But to slowly progress from that, to educate myself into a better person, it's been good for me."
Davis asked if Larson feels he can ever capture redemption across society after what happened: "I think, for me, it's the things that go further than apologies, I'm talking about actions, it's been important for me to go out and do all these things, but without promoting yourself in doing it. I think people see through the BS.
"Certainly some have forgiven me, but it's certainly going to take longer than these six months to really get people to forgive me. I know that's going to take a long time, and some people will never, ever change their opinion of me. But I want to show I'm genuine and authentic, and I've always been that person."
What do the sponsors think?
If a week is a long time in politics, and time is a great healer, then this is a good example of what six months looks like in corporate NASCAR-land...
On 14 April: "Chevrolet does not tolerate the inappropriate behaviour exhibited by Kyle Larson. As a result, Chevrolet is immediately terminating its relationship with Mr. Larson."
On 28 October: "Chevrolet supports NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports' commitment to prioritise the values of diversity and inclusion across the sport and for all fans. We have a long and respected relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and have openly shared our position as a sponsor that we will continue to hold our racing partners and affiliate drivers accountable to behave in ways that adhere to these values, on and off the track. Kyle has taken positive steps focused on listening and learning and has expressed his commitment to be an agent of change for the positive when it comes to inclusivity and diversity in NASCAR."
Hendrick confirmed in a conference call on Thursday morning that, as of right now, the car Larson will drive is unsponsored.
What comes next for Larson?
Before this incident, it was only a matter of time before Larson found his way to one of NASCAR's grandee teams. And now it's come to pass, but in the strangest of circumstances.
In Hendrick Motorsports, he lands at a no-nonsense operation run by billionaire car dealer Rick Hendrick. Famed for its NASCAR domination with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, in Larson it sees all the attributes necessary for success at this level.
Larson can run the high line more accurately at banked speedways than many of his rivals, his dirt racing background giving him an acute feel for finding grip just inches from the wall. Earnhardt Jr often describes feeling a 'cushion of air' between the rear quarterpanel and the SAFER barrier, and - if that's true - then Larson can feel the air just like Dale Sr on superspeedways!
Although his six wins in six seasons smacks of an underachiever, Larson hasn't had access to a true powerhouse operation that should provide him with top-10 kit week-in, week-out.
It's also fitting that Hendrick has brought the #5 back for this project. An original number for Hendrick's nascent 'All Star Racing' effort in 1984, it brings a small-acorns feel - without any of the prestige hangover of the #9, #24, #48 or even Dale Jr's #88 it replaces.
It's got a new-start connotation, which is exactly what Larson needs right now.
"Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world," said Hendrick of his new signing. "He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track programme. More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners and NASCAR."
Hendrick also appeared on Earnhardt's show on Thursday, and he justified why he's put such faith in him...
"What I've been so impressed with is how he took ownership of what he said, how embarrassed he was and what he's done to help in the communities around the country," he said. "I love the new Kyle Larson, showing his heart and not being ashamed to say he was wrong.
"I think our country is all about second chance. And people wanna give you a second chance if you've shown that you've changed, and I think that's the key. Are you just saying it? Or do you really mean it? What have you done, and what are you gonna do?
"Everybody deserves a second chance but, in order to earn that, you've got to show people you're willing to do more than people ask of you. I'm super impressed with what Kyle has done, the steps he's made. And he says he's willing to do this forever."
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