Larson has begun the difficult work of rebuilding his reputation and career
Kyle Larson's downfall last year was swift and shocking. While talking on a nationally broadcast audio feed during an iRacing event during NASCAR's temporary shutdown, he used the N-word. In a matter of days, NASCAR banned him, his sponsors cut ties with him, and Chip Ganassi Racing fired him. It appeared that the driver long destined for greatness would instead be consigned to infamy.
Larson disappeared from view for months. It could have been the end of his stock-car career, a fact he openly acknowledges. Derided as a racist and his career in tatters, he worked to repair the damage outside of the public eye. He hired a diversity coach, volunteered at a food bank in Minneapolis, and had frank and difficult conversations with Bubba Wallace and Mike Metcalf, an African-American who was a longtime member of his crew at Chip Ganassi Racing. He also met with Anthony and Michelle Martin of the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia, with whom he already had a relationship.
"The thing that goes the furthest is actions, actually doing things, rather than talking about it or trying to advertise what you've been doing," Larson said on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s podcast, The Dale Jr. Download, in October. "That's been important to me, to go out and do all these things but don't try to promote yourself doing it. I think people will see through the BS."
Shortly after Larson was fired, Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, called him. It was an act of friendship, a "Hey, man, how are you?" kind of call, nothing more.
As the summer wore on and support for Larson's return started to swell, the two discussed whether Larson could return under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. It was a decision fraught with complications. His peers endorsed his return, and NASCAR reinstated him, but the court of public opinion was a key consideration, and there was no consensus there. Hendrick had to be certain he wasn't moving too quickly.
"I had to be careful," Hendrick says. "I wouldn't do something that would hurt our company, our name, our brand. That was important to me."
Hendrick said Larson's behavior since his termination convinced him the driver had earned a second chance. "He just laid his heart out to everybody. It takes a man to admit, 'Hey, I did something terrible, and I want to make it right. I'm going to learn, I'm going to go, I'm going to do.'"
Larson will drive the No. 5 car; that's the number Hendrick's team used when it entered the sport in 1984. His crew will come from Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team, including crew chief Cliff Daniels.
Larson has long been considered a driver of generational talent on par with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. He won roughly half the 80-plus dirt races he entered during his NASCAR suspension. But he has shown only flashes of brilliance in his NASCAR career, with just six wins in 223 races at the Cup level (and four of those came in a six-month stretch in 2017). Insiders have long thought that his relative lack of success was due to the less-than-stellar equipment provided by his former team, Chip Ganassi Racing.
Now that he'll be in top-of-the-line cars at Hendrick Motorsports, he is expected to compete for championships right away. He'll be scrutinized on and off the track.
Before and after the announcement he would drive for Hendrick, Larson's behavior was closely watched. In a one-on-one interview with CBS and a group interview with NASCAR writers, he answered every question thrown at him — about racism, whether he was sad he said it or sad he got caught, whether he paid a steep enough price — without a hint of defensiveness. He said bluntly that his own ignorance derailed his career, and he would have understood if he never drove a stock car again.
He deserved to be fired and publicly pilloried, he said. "I don't feel like I got a raw deal at all," he added. "I fully believe that the way it was handled was the right way."
The work in his career resurrection is far from over. Hendrick has not found, or really even sought, a sponsor for Larson. It's one thing for his NASCAR friends and fans to forgive him. It's something else for corporate America to spend millions on him.
"It's been such a short time since this all happened," Larson says. "I still have a lot of my reputation to rebuild."
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)