When a race car crashes, what do we do once we know the driver is OK? We instantly try to assess the damage. How bad is the wreck? Is the car done for the day? Where will it end up in the final finishing order? Then, just as quickly, we move on, shifting our attention to the cars and racers who are still in the hunt.
But the shockwaves from that crash continue long after we, the spectators, have stopped paying attention. That isn’t just a wrecked race car that’s being towed back to the garage. That’s a machine that had been worked on for months — by some measurements, years — by hundreds of people: engineers and fabricators, mechanics and over-the-wall crew, engine builders and aerodynamicists, car wrappers and the people who work for the sponsors featured on those wrap jobs. For them, when that car crashes on the racetrack, no matter if by fault of the person driving or simply a “racing deal,” it isn’t merely the end of a bad day; it is a literal derailing of countless hours of work and effort, an incident that hurts hearts, pride and bottom lines. So much momentum, enthusiasm and money are all gone in an instant.
When Kyle Larson dropped the N-word on a hot microphone during a virtual NASCAR race with nearly one million people watching, it was just like one of those crashes, with the tip of a sheet metal iceberg carrying so much mass beneath the surface that there is still no telling what kind of damage it ultimately will leave in its wake.
Larson has always been one of the nice guys. He is biracial, and he has long admitted that as an adult, he has worked harder to embrace the Japanese half of his DNA. He has always been a dirt-covered, hammer-down racer, a sprint car ace who has never lost touch with his roots, even as he became a winner at NASCAR’s highest level. He also is the man many have listed as the leading candidate to take over Jimmie Johnson‘s legendary No. 48 Chevy after the seven-time champ retires at season’s end. Some have criticized the Northern California native for an inability to reach his full potential, as he is the winner of “only” six Cup Series races in seven full-time seasons. But with Larson just 27, there was plenty of time for him to fulfill those expectations.
By Monday’s end, all of Larson’s partners and employers were putting distance between themselves and the driver, from sponsors Credit One Bank and McDonald’s to Chevrolet and even NASCAR itself. That is exactly what they should do, despite what many with ties to the sport — fans and otherwise, the “oh, but he’s a good guy who made a tiny mistake” crowd — are trying to frame as an overreaction.
Those individuals are so close to the sport that they seem to have lost touch with the outside-perception struggle that NASCAR still grapples with every day.
This was the sport that in its first 65 years had exactly one full-time minority driver, Wendell Scott, who was robbed of celebrating his only Cup win in 1964 because Jacksonville, Florida, track operators didn’t want him to kiss a white woman in victory lane. This was the sport that back in the day locked arms with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and greeted winners of the Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina, with a guy in a Confederate uniform waving the stars and bars. This was the sport that in the 1980s used one hand to try to help black racer Willy T. Ribbs and with the other flipped him off behind his back.
That’s why what Larson did was not a tiny mistake.
The reality is that the NASCAR garage looks different than it used to. The once whitewashed pit road is now filled with black pit crew members, many former college athletes. For years, NASCAR’s front office has had women and minorities in executive positions. And Bubba Wallace, the son of an interracial couple, is in his fourth year driving the sport’s most iconic car, the No. 43 owned by Richard Petty. That’s as NASCAR old-school-turned-new-school as it gets.
Yes, the push to diversify stock car racing has been agonizingly slow, but there has been a push where there once was pushback. Larson himself is a graduate of NASCAR’s well-intended but oft mismanaged Drive for Diversity program. Bubba Wallace alone isn’t enough behind the wheel, and his social media feeds are still too pocked with racial jabs, but his fellow racers and the sanctioning body have always stood by his side. NASCAR races are still America’s greatest weekly concentration of Confederate battle flag displays this side of Civil War reenactments, but NASCAR has tried to bring that number down, even setting up flag trade stations where turning in a Confederate banner will earn fans a free flag of their favorite driver or racetrack.
For the past two decades, NASCAR brass have rolled that boulder up the mountain, tirelessly working to change the sport’s long ago earned but increasingly dated perception as a safe place for racists.
On Sunday, Larson pushed the rock back down the hill with two syllables. He says he didn’t mean to. That doesn’t matter because the truth is that he did it. And he immediately made life a helluva lot more difficult for a helluva lot of people who don’t deserve it.
It would have been bad enough had he slowed only NASCAR’s surprising momentum procured during a five-week, coronavirus-lockdown, esports phenomenon. It would have been bad enough if he had wrecked only his own resurgent NASCAR career. But he did way more than that.
He gave people the excuse they needed to pull out the old newsreel footage of George Wallace at Talladega and Johnny Reb at Darlington, to talk about Wendell Scott having his only win taken away by racist race officials or to hit play on the new Willy T. Ribbs documentary “Uppity” while they are stuck in the house.
“See?! Nothing has changed in NASCAR, has it?!”
Is that fair? No. But neither is this situation that Larson has created.
Perhaps Kyle Larson will figure out how to save his career. Perhaps he will even figure out a way to remove what is most likely to be a lifelong asterisk of *that guy who said the N-word. I hope so. I hope he learns from this, and I hope even more strongly that he uses this experience to help others learn from it. We’ll see.
But right now, for anyone who says they truly love NASCAR, Larson’s future shouldn’t be the immediate concern. Just like with a crash on a Sunday, there’s a lot more damage to fix here than can be seen from the grandstand.
Let Larson do his own repair work. There’s plenty to go around for everyone else.