Until Sunday, Kyle Larson was known as a talented and popular NASCAR driver who was quick with a joke.
He also was the crowning success of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which seeks to give opportunities to minorities and women in the almost all-white, all-male sport.
Now Larson has been suspended by NASCAR and dismissed by his team after using a racial slur during a live stream of a virtual auto race.
Chip Ganassi Racing, which had suspended Larson without pay a day before, dismissed him on Tuesday.
“After much consideration, Chip Ganassi Racing has determined that it will end its relationship with driver Kyle Larson,” the team said in a statement. “As we said before, the comments that Kyle made were both offensive and unacceptable.”
NASCAR had suspended Larson indefinitely on Monday.
On Sunday, dozens of professional drivers who have been kept off real tracks by the coronavirus competed in a simulated race and bantered with one another as fans watched and listened.
During the race, Larson at one point said, “You can’t hear me?” and then said the slur. Several other drivers reacted, saying, “Kyle, you’re talking to everyone, bud” and “Yikes.”
Larson apologized on Monday: “Last night I made a mistake and said the word that should never, ever be said. There’s no excuse for that.”
Where He Got His Start
At 27, Larson has been driving on the top NASCAR circuit since 2014 and has six wins in the No. 42 blue Chevrolet Camaro. Last year, he placed sixth in the standings, his highest finish.
Like most pro drivers, Larson, from the Sacramento area, got his start young, racing karts at age 7. He moved up the ladder quickly, to faster, more highly powered cars.
Larson’s father is white and his mother is Japanese-American. His maternal grandparents were put in an internment camp during World War II.
“I really don’t know a whole lot about the time my grandparents spent in an internment camp, so that experience in their life isn’t a big part of my family’s identity,” Larson told Discover Nikkei, a website for people of Japanese descent, in 2016. “Growing up I didn’t feel any different from my friends or the other kids I raced against, and was never treated any differently.”
He also said, “I don’t think there’s any prejudice or scrutiny toward other drivers in NASCAR because of their ethnicity.” He said that diversity was important to all sports.
His Role in Drive for Diversity
Larson spent 2012 in the Drive for Diversity program, getting opportunities on minor league circuits. “The program helped me get some track time and helped out Chip financially by providing me with a place to race,” Larson said. He got a full-time ride on NASCAR’s main circuit in 2014, at age 20, and won rookie of the year.
“I have heard of Kyle for years now, and I am blown away by this kid,” the NASCAR star Jeff Gordon said in 2013. “He makes me look like nothing.”
Larson won for the first time on the circuit at Michigan in 2016, and won four more times in 2017. He now has six wins and four top-10 seasonal finishes, including a career-best sixth in 2019.
Beyond NASCAR, he has spoken of giving the Indianapolis 500 a shot. He competed in the 24 Hours of Dayton, and was part of the winning team in 2015. He has continued to race midget cars as well, and in January finally won the Chili Bowl, a race in Tulsa that he had failed to win 12 times before.
“I’m sorry, NASCAR, I’m sorry, Daytona, but this is the biggest race I’ve ever won,” he told MavTV, adding an expletive.
His Joking Has Caused Problems
His personal web page says that Larson is “the life of the party and the first to crack a joke.” That has occasionally stirred the pot in the conservative world of NASCAR.
He apologized in 2019 after saying in an interview that a rival team, Hendrick Motorsports, was cheating. He said the remark had been a joke.
“I want to be who I am, and I think fans and media members appreciate that,” he told The Associated Press. “But at the same time, yeah, I think in our sport you have to be a little bit more thoughtful before you speak sometimes.”
In March, Denny Hamlin posted a video of him crashing his shopping cart into Larson’s at the supermarket, making light of a crash incident in a race that day. Chip Ganassi, Larson’s team owner, responded, “I have a building full of people including myself that do not think that’s funny.”
“It was a pretty funny video,” Larson told The Charlotte Observer. “I think some people maybe didn’t see the humor in it.”
Larson had been expected to be a sought-after free agent in the next off-season. There was talk of him moving to Hendrick, perhaps to replace the retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
After he used the slur and was dismissed, the odds could be long for a lucrative move, or even a return to NASCAR racing any time soon.