Race has always been a tricky subject for Kyle Larson. But, alas, we could not avoid it. He was the biracial Japanese-American phenom who hadn’t just reached Nascar’s highest rung but was being touted as the second coming of Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon … by Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon. And I am the rare black writer who covers motorsports on a national level. We have to go there.
My first meeting with Larson was in the winter of 2014 at a dirt-track racing extravaganza in Tulsa, Oklahoma, called The Chili Bowl – an event that definitely causes a chill if you happened to be one of the few non-whites attending for the first time. Larson forever struck me as a reluctant, though accommodating, trailblazer. On the one hand he has a fascinating family history: a mother whose parents were put in a Californian internment camp during the second world war. On the other hand, because of the horror of that experience and the urgency to assimilate afterward, Larson stays mum about that part of his biography.
As for the rest, well, it was pretty white bread. To hear him tell it, he grew up no different than many Sacramento boys did in the 90s, inhaling burgers, not speaking Japanese and worshiping at the altar of Gordon. The idea that his own Gordon-esque ascent from dirt tracks to Nascar’s upper echelon would make him a role model to Asian-American fans seemed to leave him as staggered as a blown tire at 200mph. “Growing up, I didn’t think anything about being Japanese, or [that] I would even have to talk about it when I got older and higher into racing,” he told me back in 2014.
And though he dutifully took on that responsibility – and the imprimatur of Nascar’s PR-motivated Drive for Diversity program despite having little need for the publicity – it took people like Ryan Iwasaka, an LA-based corporate lawyer who led the effort to name Larson the Japanese Bar Association’s trailblazer of the year, for Larson to appreciate the enormity of his role as an agent for inclusion. The more outreach efforts increased, especially when Nascar toured on the West Coast, the more comfortable Larson seemed to be as the face of the sport that Nascar at least aspires to be. “I do feel like I’m making some sort of an impact,” he told me last year.
Of course all that went up in smoke on Sunday when Larson was caught calling his spotter, a white person, the n-word during a virtual race last weekend. Things escalated quickly. By Monday, Larson was hit with indefinite suspensions from Nascar and his team, Chip Ganassi Racing, which was in full damage-control mode as Chevrolet, McDonald’s, Credit One Bank and other major sponsors distanced themselves from their radioactive racer. By Tuesday, Larson was out of a job. This, after his brief social media apology tour on Monday where, among other things, Larson apologized to “the African American community” and conceded “the damage is probably unrepairable”.
All the while Larson made Nascar a trending topic for all the wrong reasons at a time when there is little else to talk about in sports. Everyone from Stephen A Smith to Charlamagne Tha God to New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman (who, apparently, is spoiling for a fight) has registered an opinion on Larson’s heel turn. That it couldn’t have happened to not only a nicer guy, but also stock car racing’s model minority, is a twist only the whitewashed world Nascar could offer.
Still, let’s be clear: Larson got what was coming to him. Not only is the 27-year-old far too smart for teenage gamer hate speech, but he’s been in the racing game long enough to know the job doesn’t stop when your entire industry moves into the virtual world. What’s more, he just saw Bubba Wallace, the Cup series’ resident black driver, lose sponsorship after he quit an iRace in frustration. The stakes been high, my guy.
But canceling him was the easy way out. It gives Nascar too much credit for champions of inclusion when, last I checked, the sport still turns a blind eye to fans who drape themselves in Dixie flags and Maga hats and whose 40-odd car Cup grid is now down to three diversity program drivers – Wallace, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suárez. It gives Ganassi Racing too much credit for severing ties when, last I checked, there was no Nascar racing going on and Larson’s contract was set to expire anyway. (“I told Kyle he can come back from this,” team owner Chip Ganassi told the Associated Press. “He can even come back from this with our team.”) And it gives his sponsors too much credit for seeming principled when, last I checked, none of them pressure their on-track rivals to nurture drivers who aren’t white male legacy kids. Or, more globally, to pressure their corporate neighbors to make their prejudicial practices in hiring – and pay and career advancement and lending and living – a thing of the past.
That right there is the real privilege – the power to oppress, a power that Larson hints at with his use of the n-word but doesn’t have anymore, if he ever had it all. Nascar may even have done Larson a favor by banishing him. More than any young driver Larson, who figured to be the prize of the offseason free-agent market, seemed like he could take or leave Nascar. When he finally did conquer the Chili Bowl earlier this year, after 13 tries he called it the biggest victory of his career, paying short shrift to his six career wins in Cup. He seemed like he would be perfectly happy racing out of the spotlight on dirt tracks and living a much smaller, much simpler life.
Certainly, he’s made enough money – an estimated $10m in 2018 alone – to make the downsize seamless. But the most disappointing part about Larson’s fall from grace, the most stunning off-track crash I’ve witnessed in my years on the Nascar beat, are the more odious, more bigoted elements of racing fandom coming forward to pledge their allegiance to a driver who looks for all the world like another white-passing Asian who’s down for the cause.
No doubt Larson is the biggest loser in all this. But mark my words: he’ll recover. (To paraphrase the activist filmmaker Tariq Nasheed: Traffickers of white supremacy are transferred, not fired, only to return “rehabilitated.”) Less certain is whether the progress Larson came to represent will ever get back on track.