Kyle Larson has spent most of 2020 sitting on the Cup Series sidelines. After he used a racial slur during a just-for-fun iRace against other professional drivers, he’s found himself without sponsorship and without a NASCAR Cup Series ride. And while he’s finally coming out to apologize in the public eye, he still has work to do.
I’m referring largely to the apology letter that Larson penned, which is currently available on his website. In it, he owns up to the fact that he used racially disparaging language, that he should have known better, and that he’s been working hard to educate himself. Those are all noble goals, and if you haven’t read his letter, you should—it comes across as a heartfelt, no-bullshit response to what Larson calls his career-shattering moment.
He details apologizing directly to a fan of his, Jysir, who has been an active part of the Urban Youth Racing School and who had celebrated in victory lane with Larson. Jysir and his mom, in turn, educated Larson on the history of racism in America and why he’s not allowed to say certain words.
But it does raise some much larger questions that need to be addressed by both Larson and NASCAR.
In his apology, Larson notes that he spent time overseas with a group of friends that used the n-word pretty freely, and he admits that he threw it around pretty casually in the ways he’d heard it used before. He notes that he’s the son of an interracial couple, that his Japanese grandparents were interned in America during WWII. Ultimately, that he should have known better.
Larson also notes that he’s been doing research and educating himself with on-the-ground communications. He traveled to Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to understand both the murder and the Black community’s response. He spoke to Black athletes. He spoke to Jysir and his mom.
And that matters. That’s a strong step forward. He knew what he did, and he’s holding himself accountable.
There’s still more work to do.
In his letter, Larson notes that he picked up the n-word through his friends and in some ways absolves himself of guilt; he was just using it in a friendly context, after all. And while he notes that he should have known better, he illustrates a level of ignorance that’s been exposed in NASCAR as we talk more about racial disparities in America: plenty of folks involved in the sport can claim that ignorance.
As with many form of motorsport, the NASCAR paddock largely exists within a bubble of privilege that everyday microaggressions don’t often penetrate. Larson is right to note that he has no reason to be ignorant to those microaggressions. It’s also an indictment of the culture of motorsport that he—a person with his own minority background—could exist in 2020 without ever hearing that the n-word isn’t his to use.
Now, Larson has a choice. People have been speculating that he’ll have a chance to rejoin the NASCAR Cup Series paddock in 2021. To do so, he’ll have to complete mandatory sensitivity training. At that point, he could move on and ignore that 2020 ever happened.
But if he’s really ready to atone in the ways he suggests in his apology letter, he’ll have to go a step further. He’ll need to keep up his activism, bringing those difficult conversations into NASCAR’s bubble. Larson alone can’t change NASCAR’s culture, but he can be a key player in shifting it in the right direction—and if he’s honest in his apology, that’s what he’ll have to do.