When one of the chosen ones makes a poor choice, everyone loses. In the past 10 days, NASCAR has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Last week, Bubba Wallace rage-quit during an iRacing Series promotional event on live television, a relatively embarrassing but ultimately harmless scenario for everyone except Wallace himself. (He lost a sponsor via Twitter, with a company that reportedly used President Donald Trump’s image to further dunk on him, but that’s another story.)
But what happened over the weekend with Kyle Larson is an error of a far different echelon, one that calls into question a lot more than just the judgment of one man playing video games with his colleagues. While checking his sound and thinking he was speaking in private, yet in fact was on a hot microphone, he called someone a “n—–.”
Tuesday, Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Exactly. The n-word is not akin to profanity that can be just brushed off. As a Black motorsport fan, it’s great to see NASCAR take that seriously.
It is in the same category of behavior that allowed Spaniards to show up in 2008 in blackface to provoke Lewis in F1.
— Tiffani Ashley Bell (@tiffani) April 14, 2020
Without getting too far into the deeply violent historical semantics of his tone in using that word, one thing is obvious: It was disgusting. That’s not in question. What’s not so obvious is that the 27-year-old from Elk Grove, California, isn’t your lamely stereotypical redneck who doesn’t know right from wrong.
Larson was a member of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (known as D4D), an effort that over decades has seeded multiple teams and organizations across the league with so-called nontraditional (aka non-Southern white) faces and brains. He is arguably the program’s most successful alum. Before his suspension, he was racing on the Cup Series and has won plenty of times there.
He’s also one of two drivers of Asian descent in all of NASCAR. His mother is Japanese and his maternal grandparents were survivors of American internment camps. His story growing up as a kid destined to race was well-documented by ESPN’s Ryan McGee for E:60 two years ago. In that story, McGee, who’s covered motorsports for the better part of two decades, called him the new face of NASCAR.
He knows better than to casually drop racial slurs, because he’s quite literally been taught better by the very league that propelled him to stardom.
At the NASCAR Hall of Fame, history is everywhere. The communicative storyline of the entire place is designed to teach you about where they’ve been in the U.S. and how far motorsports have come. Between the glorious full-size cars and trucks, the splashy trophy displays and the walls and walls of old names, faces and racing suits, you can get lost in it all very quickly. It’s the best hall of fame in all of sports.
When it comes to diversity, there’s really just one display in the otherwise dazzling facility. But this is not particularly indicative of the league’s efforts in recent years. NASCAR has been focused on diversity for a while, and the names involved are more prominent than you think.
The earliest iterations have been around since 2003, the same year the NFL’s Rooney Rule was put into practice. Coincidentally, former NFL defensive lineman Reggie White teamed up with former NFL head coach Joe Gibbs turned NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs to create a version of a diversity program that would later be adopted more largely.
Phil Horton is a guy who has seen it all. The director of athletic performance for Rev Racing came to the sport as a pit crew “coach,” a title he adopted over the years for his work on the athletic side of race teams. His current boss, Max Siegel, owns Rev Racing, a team that develops minority drivers for NASCAR. Siegel was once president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. before starting his own team, one that Larson, along with the aforementioned Wallace and Sergio Pena, were a part of.
A former strength coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, Horton brought his strategy for making pit crews get better through training beyond just the mechanics aspect, and people noticed. He had no plans to be a part of any diversity program; it just ended up that way.
“We’re proud of our record and what we’ve been able to get done in NASCAR,” Horton said this week. “We have made headway, and we’ve made advances. We’ve made some great strides, probably more than any other diversity program [in sports] throughout the country. We have made real strides and changed people’s lives.”
These days, the culture of the sport and most of its fans still reside in the South. So, mindsets, in many ways, are changed from that starting point, which isn’t always pretty, but sometimes leads to a fantastic cultural exchange.
Point being, no one is accusing Larson of speaking for all of NASCAR or its fans. The reaction from the incident alone was telling enough. Basically, everyone went quiet and told him he was on a public channel.
This is the exact reason why i don’t feel bad for Larson at all. Why do people not understand this pic.twitter.com/0sLamYMYPN
— Justin Champagne (@ChampagneRacin) April 13, 2020
As for Horton, he knows Larson. He’s worked with Larson. And Horton, a North Carolina native, is no stranger to having to straighten people out for using inappropriate language both in the pits and elsewhere. No one in racing is naive to the realities of America, but Horton has seen too many drivers come through D4D, basically thinking that talking like that is cool. Obviously, it isn’t.
“I can vouch for Kyle Larson as an outstanding young man and driver in NASCAR … he made a grave mistake in judgment and has been sufficiently punished for it,” Horton said Monday. “I hope he can return to NASCAR in the future and this major misstep not be held against him for the rest of his career.”
For fans of the sport, this iRacing thing was really just starting to pick up. What was a relatively innocuous although honest attempt at building a new type of fan blew up in their faces to the detriment of everyone. For a lot of black racing fans, the hands-off experience of virtual racing is a large part of it anyways, because going to the track can be a daunting task; white people in the South don’t love having black folks telling them how to do things better.
iRacing from an esports standpoint is unique. For all the expansion and blowing up that’s happened in the gaming world, motorsports has a completely different tie to the sticks. Essentially, iRacing is racing, more valuable driving training tool than a game.
“Those years that I was working at D4D, iRacing was one of our sponsors,” Dylan Smith, a former driver who now still works in motorsports, said Tuesday. He was a part of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and even worked on Larson’s car specifically at one point. “They gave us a bunch of money and they gave us, like, six accounts, and every night, I would be on there. I would race iRacing every night. This is before it got so big. So back in 2011-12, I’d get off work at 4, and stay at the shop until 11-12 at night doing races, because that was the only way I could practice, to get better at my craft. You can’t just pick up a ball and go shoot.”
It’s a tool that Larson, specifically, has been a part of on more levels than just stock cars. As someone who grew up on dirt tracks, Larson is part of the reason that iRacing wanted to simulate that, too. Which makes this whole situation all the more unfortunate, not just among his former teachers and mentors, but his peers as well.
Smith, whom you might recognize from BET’s Changing Lanes, didn’t just work with Larson. He and Larson are friends.
“There’s no justifying it. It was wrong. It was 300% wrong,” Smith said. “Kyle knows it was wrong. He’s going to have to work to make things … I don’t think he can make it necessarily right, but to make amends. I have a relationship with him, he’s my friend. And I was disappointed to hear it. I hate the word, personally. He definitely knows that his life is obviously changing. He’s going to have to put in a lot of work.”
For people who’ve connected to this part of the sport, it reflects poorly on both the gaming and the racing side, two worlds that already have their own obviously bad reputations for toxic language or communities.
The worst part of the Kyle Larson situation is as an African American fan of NASCAR, fans have pretty much been the exact opposite of what happened tonight… I’ve been a fan since ‘97 and been to a bunch of races since ‘04 and never once did I feel out of place.
— Phil Spain (@philenespanol) April 13, 2020
So, while NASCAR wins all sorts of diversity awards across sports, there’s clearly a disconnect on the ground. Where the rubber hits the road, if you will.
“Honestly though, it’s just disappointing because not only is he from the diversity program, but dude isn’t even 30,” Kyle Barnes, 33, who used to work for NASCAR and the Motor Sports Racing Network, said Tuesday. “I would expect a ‘good ol’ boy’ to just drop it like that freely, but like, c’mon. …
“The other thing that is hurtful is how quick we are asking how can he gain redemption, and not focus on why [he’d] spew slurs.”
There is much to focus on, all of it off the track these days. NASCAR once again has a new time to beat. Its past.