August 25, 2020
Larson Tells Media he was “Just Ignorant”
Kyle Larson races for NASCAR, a sports brand that has spent some time this year, making strides in improving the racially-tinged stigma on the brand. However, Larson had also been branded. In fact, a recent story in the Associated Press asked a significant rhetorical question about the professional racer: “What do you do when the world believes you’re a racist?”
In Larson’s case, the answer to that rhetorical question has been to transform himself emotionally and intellectually as a human being.
To understand why he’s in this spot, one has to go back to the early days of racing after COVID, when NASCAR drivers were competing in virtual races to please sponsors and stay sharp. During one iRacing competition, hosted on Easter Sunday, Larson was having trouble hearing his spotter in his headset. In trying to get his attention, Larson used a racial slur. From there, the consequences came quickly. Sponsors fled Larson’s camp, and he lost out on not only his job but also, as the AP put it, “any shot at a multi-million-dollar” free agency contract.
Larson was down, but, he says, not out. He’s a racer for a reason. Competition is what he does, so Larson started down a road to self-improvement, trying to understand why he uttered the word and what he could learn from the experience. The driver’s conclusions were blunt, honest, and interesting. Here, in part, is what he said about the journey:
“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 of how hurtful that word is…”
Part of his journey of discovery included taking a “sensitivity training course,” which Larson says he signed up for and took “immediately.” After that, he decided more needed to be done to give him what he thought he was missing from his perspective. Larson says he “connected” with soccer star Tony Sanneh, volunteering at a youth foundation Sanneh runs in Minneapolis.
Sanneh told the Associated Press that Larson’s interest in helping was sincere, adding: “I take my work very seriously, and I made it clear I was not here for any dog and pony show where he shows up and writes a check, and we do a photo op… But we were taking 20 pallets of food on 100 degree days and sorting them for hours to be distributed… He was here to listen, to learn… this was about him growing personally.”
Speaking about his childhood and his sheltered worldview, Larson said, “I never realized how privileged I was, I never had to worry about anything. I didn’t have a full understanding of people struggling on a daily basis. It was very impactful, very moving.”
Many people have come out in support of Larson, both as a person and as a racer. There’s no telling what impact this might have on his future as a racer, but he seems content to be growing as a person for the moment.