When the NASCAR Cup Series season was on hiatus in the spring due to COVID-19, Kyle Larson‘s career took a nosedive following his indefinite suspension for using a racial slur during an iRacing event. Six months later, as the Cup Series goes through the playoffs, Larson is hoping to return to the NASCAR world as a changed man. On Sunday evening, he posted an essay to his Kyle Larson Racing website detailing his efforts to redeem himself.
In April, a month after the season was halted by the pandemic, Larson said the N-word during the Monza Madness iRacing event, unaware that many fans watching and fellow drivers could hear him. In a matter of days, the six-time Cup race winner—who was seventh in points at the time—lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, much of his sponsors, and was placed under suspension and ordered to go through sensitivity training to be reinstated.
“Auto racing is my passion,” Larson wrote. “During the NASCAR off-season, I’ve sometimes competed overseas. On one of these trips, I was around a group that used the N-word casually, almost like a greeting. Of course, it doesn’t matter where this happened, how the word was used or what the people around me did. The fact is that the word was said in my presence and I allowed it to happen unchecked. I was ignorant enough to think it was OK, and on the night of the esports event, I used the word similarly to how I’d heard it. As I write this, I realize how ridiculous, horrible and insensitive it all sounds.”
In addition to taking responsibility, he added that he should have, and did, know better than to use the slur. Larson, a Japanese-American whose grandparents spent time in an internment camp during World War II, was a graduate of the Drive for Diversity, a program to help minority and female drivers find their footing in NASCAR.
Larson wrote that he “wanted to hide” as the backlash occurred, closing down his social media accounts and noting that mask requirements during COVID-19 made him “feel more comfortable.”
The impact of Larson’s suspension was especially felt in NASCAR in the summer. Following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and the ensuing protests, the sanctioning body stepped forward to support the Black Lives Matter movement; Bubba Wallace, the lone full-time black driver in the Cup Series, has become the sport’s biggest name in 2020. Wallace spoke to Larson after his suspension, later explaining in a statement that although he condemned his usage of the slur, he did not have anything against him and supported a second chance.
Although he continued competing in the World of Outlaws, where he is enjoying one of the greatest seasons in dirt track racing history, Larson wrote of taking steps to better himself beyond NASCAR’s senstitivity training, which he completed in May.
“I realized how little I really knew about the African-American experience in this country and racism in general. Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago, because it would’ve made me a better person – the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. The kind who makes an effort to understand the hate and oppression it symbolizes and the depth of pain it has caused Black people throughout history and still to this day. It was past time for me to shut up, listen and learn.”
In June, he visited the Urban Youth Racing School, a Philadelphia-based institution to help people of colour break into the world of racing. There, he reconnected with the owners and a student who had attended his October 2019 Cup win at Dover. In the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Larson visited the city to support impacted neighbourhoods, and talked with black athletes and drivers like Willy T. Ribbs. He also hired a diversity coach, Doug Harris, with whom he engaged in discussions about the prejudices faced by black Americans.
“[T]he conversations [Harris] has to have with [his children] about things like driving around town and interacting with police when they’re pulled over – not if they’re pulled over, but when – gave me a level of awareness I hadn’t had before, but it also made me realize the kind of privilege I’ve taken for granted. I mean, my livelihood is literally driving.”
Of course, as with any apology statement, it is not unreasonable for one to question the integrity of Larson’s remorse. In August, he spoke with the Associated Press in his first NASCAR-related interview since the suspension, where he emphasised his intention to educate himself and that his plans were not just for the sake of getting back into the sport.
“After I said the N-word, anger came at me from all angles. Being labeled a racist has hurt the most, but I brought that on myself,” he continued in the essay. “What I didn’t expect, though, were all the people who, despite their disappointment in what I did, made the choice to not give up on me. It motivates me to repay their faith by working harder, not giving up on myself, and making sure something positive comes from the harm I caused.”
Larson has yet to be reinstated by NASCAR as of the essay’s publishing.