As the virtual iRace cars crossed the finish line at virtual Richmond Speedway this past weekend, there was no number 42 car on track and no mention of the driver who would’ve piloted the car.
Kyle Larson, now former driver of the Ganassi number 42 car was not present and will not be for some time. Larson was fired in the previous week for using a racial slur during an iRacing event.
To the shock and disappointment of many fans and drivers, Larson uttered the N-word to a competitor in the iRace at Monza and he immediately faced consequences. NASCAR, iRacing, his sponsors, and team were quick to respond and in a day Larson had been suspended without pay from NASCAR and iRacing, along with being fired from Chip Ganassi Racing, and losing his sponsorships with McDonalds, AdventHealth, Chevrolet, and Credit One Bank. Larson will also attend sensitivity training at the order of NASCAR, all of this following an apology from Larson.
“I feel very sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community. And especially the African-American community,” Larson said. “I understand the damage is probably irreparable. I’ll own up to that. But I just wanted to let you all know how sorry I am.”
Larson then went on to apologize to one of the sport’s top African-American drivers Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr, who also issued a statement.
“The sport has made combatting this stereotype one of their top priorities,” Wallace said. “Diversity and inclusion is a main priority for the sport across every team, every car, every crew member, and employee. With that said, it hurts to see the African-American community immediately throw NASCAR under the bus with the ‘I’m not shocked, it’s NASCAR’.”
What Bubba Wallace said is true and it has been a huge issue that NASCAR has been working on for many years. Since the sport takes its origins in Prohibition Era Bootlegging and eventually racing officially through the Southern United States, racism has connected itself to the sport. Even though NASCAR has taken strides to break the connection, the sport has been dominated by white men since it’s beginning, fueling the stereotype.
This is why what Larson said was so disappointing for everyone. Larson who is of Japanese descent, was a student of NASCAR’s Driver Diversity Program and featured in a NASCAR PSA supporting diversity. The Driver Diversity Program started in 2004 and aims to bring more women and minority drivers into the sport. The program is showing great progress as names like Bubba Wallace, NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion Daniel Suarez, Chase Cabre and Hailie Deegan work their way to success in the ranks of NASCAR. As the four aforementioned names are succeeding, they are not the only women and minority drivers. In addition to their Diversity Program, NASCAR has three development series, in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
Not only was Larson’s comment crushing for the sport, but it shocked the racing community as well. Larson is not only a skilled driver in many different types of race cars, but he is a family man who clearly understands the weight of what he said. As a professional representing NASCAR and it’s sponsors, its growing and expanding fanbase, and a friend to minority drivers, the word Larson used should not be in his vocabulary.
The consequences are heavy from NASCAR, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Larson’s sponsors. The situation has some fans wondering if Larson will return. Some athletes and fans took to social media to support Larson and push for him to get another chance, while others shunned him completely. New York Mets Pitcher Marcus Stroman tweeted that he believes Larson should never race again, then he expressed that he was offended so heavily that he would like to fight Larson in a charity event. Others expressed their disappointment with Larson’s comment, but are willing to allow him to fix his mistake.
As Larson joins the list of athletes who have unfortunately uttered racial slurs, the question remains, will he drive in NASCAR again? It is not likely, at least for many years. NASCAR has several development series, with plenty of drivers ready to step up and take seats in the Monster Energy Cup Series. As drivers like Seven-Time NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson race their final seasons, young drivers like Ross Chastain, Chase Briscoe, Brett Moffit, and Austin Cindric are making cases to be full time drivers in the top series. NASCAR is fresh off bringing up one of it’s best rookie classes ever including Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, and Christopher Bell who won 20 of 33 races last season combined, with Reddick taking the title.
To make a complete comeback, Larson will have to do a lot of work with diversity programs and what he said will not sit well with people for a long time, especially sponsors.
“I think after fixing his image, a few years down the road or sometime in the future he (Larson) should be allowed to return,” said Chemung Speedrome Public Relations and Social Media Manager Emily Knowlden. “The only issue is, who will pick him up? That will be a PR managers nightmare when that happens.”
With the increasing number of hungry young drivers racing for Cup Series spots and the pending PR nightmare that could fall upon anyone who takes Larson, it could be a long road for him. NASCAR has made it clear they are committed to changing their image in favor of diversity and unfortunately for Larson, he has made a very costly mistake.
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