AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson’s 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship isn’t a redemption story. It’s not a comeback. And his monumental success on the track this year shouldn’t be confused for amends made after he missed most of the 2020 season.
Larson was absent from NASCAR for the majority of last year because he said the N-word during a live-streamed iRacing event that April. His sponsors quickly bailed, NASCAR suspended him and Chip Ganassi Racing fired him. So yes, he returned to NASCAR this year behind the wheel of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but his dominating 10-win championship season should not be portrayed as a typical sports story where an athlete triumphs over adversity.
“I haven’t once felt like this year has been a redemption tour or anything like that,” Larson said last week. “I’ve had lots of people ask if I felt that way, and I don’t.”
He wasn’t an underdog, he wasn’t sidelined with an injury and he wasn’t racing for a team on the brink of closure. He used a racist slur — a disgusting and derogatory word that perpetuates anti-Black sentiments and shouldn’t have been anywhere near the tip of his tongue.
Facing the consequences of his words, Larson’s wounds were self-inflicted, his punishments deserved and his atonement remains a work-in-progress. Nothing he does behind the wheel can accelerate that, and his performance shouldn’t be viewed as compensation for the harm and pain he caused last year.
“We always like giving second chances to really bad actors,” said Dr. Louis Moore, a sports historian and professor at Grand Valley State in Michigan.
“We always give them these opportunities to move on. And that’s fine, that’s NASCAR’s business. But it doesn’t mean we have to forget what happened. … And maybe that’s the punishment, that people’s memory, he gets judged by that.”
As a generational talent, Larson was almost certainly going to get a second chance in NASCAR. And even after he signed with Hendrick Motorsports, no one could have predicted this level of consistent dominance throughout the season, culminating in his first Cup title — also a first for an Asian American driver and alumnus of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.
Success for him was expected, though. So the latest test for the 29-year-old driver and newly crowned champ is what he does next as he crosses the threshold to a new level of stardom.
“He’s definitely been the most dominant driver this year, so what does that success look like?” said Mike Metcalf Jr., a Chip Ganassi Racing pit crew coach who is Black, was on Larson’s former pit crew and is still the No. 42 team’s fueler. “How are you using your influence and resources to empower the communities?”
If Larson continues on this professional track, he’s going to be a NASCAR star for years, maybe decades, to come. Now that he’s a champion, his job security seems more stable than ever — he’s signed through 2023 and team owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday he hopes Larson retires with him – and perhaps more sponsors are likely to team up with him. His fan base is growing, and multiple drivers said he had the largest impact on NASCAR this season. So will he use his growing platform to fight inequality and be actively anti-racist?
“Regardless of your stance on politics or race or whatever, I think everybody can agree that none of this stuff moves quickly,” Metcalf continued last month. “[I’m] more interested in the long run. It would be real easy for him to write a donation check to somewhere and go do some appearances. But I think the real measure is how you do it five, 10 years from now.”
There’s no acceptable excuse for Larson using that word, and he acknowledged last year that he was “privileged” and “ignorant” for not knowing its history, why it’s deeply offensive and why it was in his vocabulary to begin with.
So Larson worked to educate himself and help push back against inequalities to create change. He volunteered with and fundraised for organizations that provide educational opportunities for children of color and underserved communities, including the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia and retired soccer star Tony Sanneh’s foundation in Minneapolis.
“At the Urban Youth Racing School, pretty much all their children they have there are Black, and so that’s why it was important to me to work very closely with them because I’d already had a relationship with them in the past and really wanted to grow on that this year,” said Larson, who’s worked with the school since 2017, according to founder Anthony Martin.
“They’re able to pick up the phone and call me whenever they want to ask me questions. I’ve donated a couple iRacing simulators to their school, and usually it’s them calling me and asking how to get around a certain track and stuff. It’s been it’s been great working with them.”
Larson said this fall, he visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. He said he spent “a few hours” in the mammoth museum, gaining a “better perspective on life” and “learning more about experiences that African Americans had to overcome to even get to where they’re at today.”
Earlier this year, he also launched the Kyle Larson Foundation — which aims to help communities in need through “hands-on support” — and through it, the “Drive for 5” initiative with a goal of raising $500,000. For the fundraising effort, he pledged personal donations of $5 for every lap completed and $5,000 for every top-5 finish, which amounts to $145,000 for the 2021 season. Larson said last week it’s raised more than $200,000 with help from other contributions.
The money, per Hendrick Motorsports, will go toward at least five student scholarships through the Urban Youth Racing School, provide daily meals to at least five families in need through The Sanneh Foundation and help at least five communities through school grants. And Larson said he hopes those types of contributions can become an annual tradition.
Martin, his wife, Michelle, and several others from the Urban Youth Racing School were at Sunday’s championship race, watching the finish near the No. 5 team’s pit box and celebrating on pit road. He hopes the school can expand with franchises in other cites to help “increase the participation of African Americans” and “have a major, major impact” on racing.
Larson’s fundraising efforts are a good next step that could have real-world impacts. But much of his efforts in the last year and a half seem to be about proving he’s not racist when taking steps to be actively anti-racist could help accomplish both.
“Actions speak louder than any word could ever speak,” said Martin last month. “You can talk all day about what you plan on doing in the community, or you can have goals and ideas of what you want to do in the community. But if you’re not doing those things in the community, it means absolutely nothing. And what Kyle has been doing — he’s actually been putting in the work.”
“You cannot let up what you’re doing,” Martin continued. “You have to continue to do great things and do things within the community and helping folks.”
It’s OK to think that Larson deserved a second chance in NASCAR. It’s OK to believe his remorse is genuine and his efforts to grow and create positive change are authentic. Martin, sitting on the pit wall after the race, said he believes Larson has sought real change and continues to be willing to put in the work. Michelle Martin agreed, adding: “Off track is where he has had his biggest wins.”
So it’s OK to root for him and to celebrate his massively successful season. But his accountability hasn’t ended with his return to the sport and a championship.
We see it happen in sports all the time: An athlete’s controversy away from competition is erased or rewritten with their return to the field, court or race track. And with Larson winning his first championship and having a massively successful NASCAR season, his professional successes shouldn’t mitigate his personal failures or his responsibility to employ his growing platform to help dismantle inequalities.
So it’s OK to be happy for Larson and celebrate his success while also holding him to a high standard of accountability and expecting more from him to come. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Let’s see what Larson does next.
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