Former Chip Ganassi Racing NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was suspended in April for using a racial slur on an open radio channel during an online racing event. His suspension from NASCAR coincided with a suspension from his CGR team and the loss of his McDonalds and Credit One sponsorship deals. Following an interview this week with the Associated Press in which he appeared apologetic for his fuckup, Larson formally requested reinstatement to the eligible NASCAR ranks.
Larson has been racing in sprint cars and has positively dominated, winning 24 races outright, including last Sunday’s $50,000 prize sprint at Knoxville, in just four months. It’s clear that he didn’t lose his talents as easily as he threw around the N-word. NASCAR confirmed to Motorsport.com that Larson has requested reinstatement, that the case remains under review, and Larson remains suspended from the sport.
Larson told AP’s Jenna Fryer, “I was just ignorant. And immature. I didn’t understand the negativity and hurt that comes with that word. That’s not a word that I had ever used. I grew up in Northern California, all I ever did was race and that’s all I was focused on. There’s probably a lot of real-life experiences I didn’t get to have and I was just ignorant to how hurtful that word is.”
I cannot stress enough how little I believe that someone who just nonchalantly throws out that word has never used it before. I grew up in a community where it was a fairly common occurrence to hear it, whether at school or at home. I know how easy it was to say when everyone around me was saying it, but I was ten years old, and Kyle Larson was 28. You don’t get to be 28 and claim you don’t know how hurtful it can be.
That’s not to say I don’t believe someone cannot learn from their mistakes and grow to become a better person, but I do believe it takes more than four months and an AP interview to prove you’ve grown and learned. Kyle took NASCAR’s mandated sensitivity course and volunteered with The Sanneh Foundation in Minneapolis before the killing of George Floyd, and returned to continue his volunteer works following the aftermath. His volunteer work, and the personal lessons he’s learned in recent months, point toward a Larson that has made an effort.
Is it enough?
Ultimately, that decision will be one that NASCAR has to make. It would seem that there are teams eager to accept Larson back into the sport. NASCAR took some significant steps in the fight against racism during the 2020 season, steps that I didn’t think we’d ever truly see from the sport. Like banning the confederate flag, or standing behind the sport’s lone Black driver when hate was suspected, or publicly admitting that Black lives matter. Whether or not NASCAR is willing to accept a young man tainted by his own use of racial slurs back into its sport could be very telling.
It’s likely that if Larson were to come back, it would be in a Stewart Haas Racing car. Tony Stewart has been quite vocal about getting Larson in a Cup ride again, and soon. There aren’t many seats open in the sport right now, but the going rumor is that Clint Bowyer will retire at the close of this season, potentially for a job in the announcing booth, leaving his #14 Ford Mustang open for a Kyle Larson rehabilitation tour. If he still proves as poisonous to sponsors as I suspect he might be, Haas Automation could potentially end up being the primary sponsor of his ride, drastically lowering that hurdle.
In an interview with CBS Sports on Thursday, Tony Stewart had this to say about the Larson situation:
“NASCAR has gotta get off their ass and do the right thing and give this kid an opportunity to get back in a car. I think he’s paid his penalty and he’s served the penalty long enough where you know we’ve had similar instances in the sport that have happened and the penalties didn’t last as near as long as this has lasted with Kyle.
“It’s changed Kyle’s world, it turned everything upside down and not only did it affect him. It affected his family and a lot of other people that didn’t deserve to be affected. So I think it’s been long enough. I think it’s time for NASCAR to get off their ass and to do the right thing and allow him to come back to the series now.”
Obviously Tony Stewart doesn’t make the rules at NASCAR, and it’ll be the sport’s own reputation at stake. Has Kyle Larson served enough public-facing penance to earn his way back into the sport? For most fans, it doesn’t seem to matter and never has, but for the potential new fans that NASCAR is attempting to court, it could be all the difference in the world.