For the most part, things had been going quite well for NASCAR in 2020. Minus Ryan Newman’s horrific accident in the Daytona 500 where many people assumed the worst, I’m not sure you’ve could’ve argued anything remotely negative about the season. TV ratings had been up for the first four races before COVID-19 shut down everything last month.
And even in the shutdown, NASCAR took the lead with virtual sports — also known as esports — by using iRacing software. The first week they started the “eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series,” they had nearly one million viewers and the last two installments saw over a million watch on Fox or Fox Sports 1. Yes, that’s how starved we are for normalcy — over one million people have been tuning in to virtual races each week.
I’ve really enjoyed watching them because it gives me something to do on a Sunday afternoon since sports consumed about 99 percent of my TV viewing life up until this pandemic. I even tuned to NASCAR’s YouTube channel for a “Monza Madness” race late Sunday evening to see 60+ people from all walks of auto racing tackle the oval portion in Cup Series cars on the infamous Autodromo Nazionale di Monza circuit. For those unfamiliar with the Italian track, Formula 1 runs the road course each year and the oval portion — which hasn’t been used since 1969 due to too many injuries/fatalities — has up to 38 degrees of banking (Talladega Superspeedway has 36 degrees and Daytona International Speedway has 33 degrees for a reference).
While I watched the main broadcast, other drivers were streaming what they were doing — along with driver chat — on various internet sites/platforms. It’s on one of those sites where NASCAR’s Kyle Larson used the N-word in the group chat, thinking he was only talking with someone on his private chat (iRacing allows spotters — much like in real life — and I would assume he thought he was talking to his spotter).
The videos I’ve seen online of the occurrence are downright cringeworthy, with current Xfinity driver Anthony Alfredo stating, “Kyle, you’re talking to everyone, bud.” IndyCar’s Conor Daly responded with “Yikes.”
By Monday morning, the damage had been done. Chip Ganassi Racing suspended Larson for the comment and NASCAR followed suit minutes later.
Despite giving a public apology video on his social media accounts saying that he takes the blame for what happened, he then lost his main primary sponsors in Credit One Bank and McDonald’s along with a host of others.
On Tuesday morning, Ganassi officially released Larson altogether — a stunning turn for a 27-year-old that’s arguably one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR and motorsports in general. Later, Chevrolet also cut ties with Larson.
In today’s world, anything racially insensitive can create a firestorm, not to mention one in the sports world whenever no actual sports are taking place. That’s what happened on Monday as the story was picked up not only nationally but across the globe.
Once I heard this happened, I was really angered by it. I’ve not made a secret that auto racing is my absolute favorite thing to watch, and here we have a driver that just went and gave racing the worst possible black eye it could receive right now.
NASCAR has been trying to break away from the old stereotypes of the sport — and I feel they’ve done a very good job of that over the last 10-15 years. But with this, it just further fuels the non-fan to say it’s a bunch of dumb, redneck, racist Southerners that fly Confederate flags while drinking homemade moonshine thinking the South will rise again.
The irony of this is Larson’s mother is Japanese-American and he was the first graduate of NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity Program” to make it to the Cup Series. But with one word, all of that is gone for now.
Another problem I’ve seen is the amount of people that think suspending and firing Larson is an overreaction. To those people, I say this — wake up and get educated.
It is not right to use racial slurs in any circumstance. It wasn’t right yesterday. It wasn’t right today. It won’t be right tomorrow. What he said was incomprehensible. More alarming, to me at least, was the ease that he dropped the N-word. It was said like someone that casually drops the slur at anytime among his inner circle. That word — or any racial slur for that matter — should not be in anyone’s lexicon. For someone of Larson’s stature — along with his own family’s heritage and hearing Asian slurs said to him while coming through the motorsport ranks — to use the word, you have to be punished to the fullest extent. There is just no excuse for that in the year 2020. Sadly, there are people out there that will never understand this and will continue to say it’s just a word.
So where does Larson go from here? For starters, I don’t think you see him in the Cup Series this season once he’s reinstated. He’ll likely spend time dirt racing across the country and will need to go on an apology tour like no other to repair his reputation. If he shows remorse for what he did, which the video he posted you can clearly see he was distraught and disgusted with himself, then he’s going to get a second chance. He’s too talented as a race car driver not to get another go at it if he rehabilitates his image. While he was everyone’s favorite candidate to replace Jimmie Johnson in the 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports next season, I think he eventually winds up at Stewart Haas Racing someday because co-owner Tony Stewart has been on record in saying he wouldn’t limit Larson’s dirt racing activities — quite the opposite of what Hendrick Motorsports would do. However, that was obviously before Sunday night’s event.
Regardless of what happens in the future, Larson will now be etched in the books as a prime example of how you can lose it all if you choose to be careless and stupid. It’ll be up to him now on how he recovers personally and professionally.