For what feels like the 50th time in an already severed NASCAR schedule (in which only a few races have even taken place), there’s yet another hair-raising story gracing national headlines. Amid a pandemic that’s changing how we live our lives, events from the weekends have somehow managed to give NASCAR the same old black eye we’ve been fighting for over sixty years. Kyle Larson, a 27 year old superstar on the cusp of becoming a universally recognized face of the sport after this year, is now without a job and persona non grata to the corporate entities that make his career a possibility, and millions of Americans both fan and observer alike. So let’s talk about the incident, the overall reaction, and where do Larson, NASCAR, and its fans go from here?
A brief overview (skip to the next paragraph if you already know, sorry): on Sunday night a special NASCAR style iRacing event was organized by eRacer and NASCAR veteran Landon Cassill. Around 60 drivers of varied fame levels from all disciplines of real life racing and eSports competed on the virtual Monza Oval broadcast via the internet. This was not the network broadcasted “invitational” events that have been making national headlines, however NASCAR simulcast the event on their website along with most drivers streaming their own racing streams on Twitch. This was meant to be a just-for-fun mixed bag event with crazy speed and crashes on a fantasy-esque track to shake things up on the evening of Easter Sunday. During the race, Kyle Larson was having trouble with the in-game radio communication with someone on his virtual team. Using the push-to-talk feature, in what apparently was a “mic-check” intended only for his team, Larson uttered a racial slur (“Hey N——“) which was broadcast to all the drivers currently in the game server. Keep in mind that most of the fellow competitors were broadcasting their own streams with the unfiltered radio chat and race audio. So while not on the “tv style” broadcast (which continued unabated as this was not heard there), thousands of people heard Kyle Larson make this remark. The immediate reaction in-race was stunned silence for a few seconds, as some drivers equipped with a face-cam noticeably winced before one spoke up to inform Larson that his audio had been broadcast to the entire server. While the race continued, the audio clip immediately began to make the rounds on social media, and by the next morning “Kyle Larson” was trending on Twitter for something far different than anything the NASCAR community would have wanted. The resulting fallout was swift: Larson’s real life NASCAR employer Chip Ganassi Racing suspended and subsequently fired Larson once major sponsors McDonald’s, Credit One, and Chevrolet among others severed their relationship with the driver. The governing body of NASCAR further suspended Larson indefinitely and have required him to enroll in sensitivity training pending any attempt at future reinstatement. In short, Larson’s career in NASCAR is in doubt, and the entire racing world is embroiled in opinion, talking points, and raw unfiltered emotion.
(Opinion starts here, thank you dear reader)
It shouldn’t be a bold stance to take, but Kyle Larson was in the wrong, and must be punished. Spouting a word that has been used for centuries to devalue a group of people, a word that in its most pejorative origin roughly means “less than human,” should never be uttered by non-black people no matter the context. The opinion that “black people can say it…rap music….double standard” is as tired and dumb as most of the people that make that argument. Claiming that the use or non-use of a word is unfair to a group of people only shows that you don’t understand why it’s such an improper word to be using in the first place. As a white man, I won’t be preaching on this any further, but if you can’t understand what I’m saying here…reach out to someone who does, it’ll benefit you exponentially. Larson’s use of the word may not have been a direct attack on a group or individual, but ignorance and immaturity is no excuse when you’re paid to be a public person. The cool and calm demeanor in which Larson chose to use this word tells me that he’s one to use it casually with his friends, and only this time is in a situation in which something like that would have been caught. You don’t have to be a fundamental racist to speak inappropriately, and freedom of speech doesn’t apply to paid endorsements or free market employment. Larson was not arrested, he didn’t have his property confiscated, and he hasn’t even lost the opportunity to perform his craft in the long run. Failure to correct is permission to continue, and for this Larson is on the road to correct himself. His seemingly heartfelt apology was the proper start, and I’m looking forward to where he’s going to go from here to repair himself and my favorite sport. I mention the sport, as the damage done to racing can already be measured.
Writing the last paragraph only seems necessary because of how awful the reactions have been in a large swath of the racing community. American auto racing has had the persona of being the “good ole’ boys” for its entire existence, and after Larson make his public mistake, this thinking has become weaponized. While it hurts to see people unfamiliar with auto racing sarcastically remark that it’s “not surprising a NASCAR driver” would have said something like this, it hurts further still to see people not understand why he’s being punished in the first place. Larson is becoming a martyr on publicly available corners of the internet. To some, blame is being fired around on everyone besides the person that used the word. NASCAR and the sponsors are being blamed for “over reacting” while some are even taking the far stupider claim that the iRacing service is somehow complicit in giving Larson an avenue to make this mistake. If you don’t like these particular decisions of multinational billion dollar companies like NASCAR and the race team’s corporate sponsors, fine…that’s nothing new (you’re wrong, but it’s nothing new). What takes the piss here though is the notion that Kyle Larson is just so fucking consumed by his NEED to use inappropriate words that by giving him an open mic it’s some sort of ENTRAPMENT to get him in trouble by saying a racial slur. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: microphones and internet servers don’t make slurs…the people behind them make slurs. The calls for a boycott of the iRacing service and the pleading to professional drivers to pull out of future invitational races can only be described as a public display of ignorance, as if dropping N-Bombs with impunity is some sort of fucking birthright. And still, even with those moronic opinions flying around, what are the rest of the drivers in the NASCAR community doing? In short, pretty much nothing.
To date, no driver has publicly condemned Larson’s actions, and that frankly speaks volumes. (Joey Logano has at least made comments regarding public image, but only really in the scope of financial sponsorship). In the moments following the incident during the race, the calls between drivers weren’t for recognizing Larson’s stupidity, but rather for silence. After IndyCar driver Connor Daly made a half-assed vocal “yikes,” (which is incredible considering his father’s incident with this very same word) the call on the radio was to simply “not talk about it,” and this has continued to social media and everything else in the days that have followed. No, it wouldn’t be a good choice to pile on Larson in some sort of virtue signaling orgy of phony statements, but carrying on like nothing happened is just as bad. No sponsor is going to punish a driver for taking a stand against racial slurs, and candid remarks are something that NASCAR drivers do best. Dale Earnhardt Jr, a hero to millions and no doubt worshipped by many of the fan base making these awful reactions, has been fairly distant on social media regarding the incident, sticking only to his podcast to speak anything about the issue. While not an active driver, Dale Jr IS a current member of the media, and while I appreciate other semi-retired drivers like Reagan Smith participating in the public reaction process, Earnhardt Jr is the one that can change the narrative here. Making a “controversial” opinion isn’t barred from his vocabulary either. Dale Jr has publicly stated that Confederate Flags, still a staple of many fan’s at-track camping gear, belong in history books and museums, not at speedways. Why then, would this situation be a further leap to make? Dale Earnhardt Jr, and many other auto racing juggernauts have a responsibility to their sport to tell the rest of the public in every avenue available that this is something that can change. If we want a future for Kyle Larson so bad, how about we create a better environment for him while we’re at it?
Kyle Larson’s life is not over. His life as a race car driver is not over. The dirt racing series in which Kyle Larson’s loyal fanbase is mostly derived is still very much open to him. For a driver like Larson, there will always be a sponsor available for him to go racing. Some companies won’t need to worry about their bottom line for a Larson endorsement, and hell, I’m sure there’s even a few that’ll benefit from the controversy. Not a fan of Kyle Larson anymore? No reasonable person would fight you for that. But by the same token, wanting to see Kyle Larson back in NASCAR isn’t a sin either. It’s something great to hope for once he and all involved have taken the appropriate measures. A few years ago Jeremy Clements made a remark that contained a similar slur, and was punished by NASCAR much in the same way as Larson, returning to NASCAR after completing his sensitivity training. The “Facebook Comment Club” is already calling for Tony Stewart to be some sort of messiah to save Kyle Larson and get him back in top-drawer NASCAR equipment, but that’s not what’s going to happen, at least not yet. After reinstatement (which is going to happen, relax), Larson’s new path to the top is going to involve some creative thinking. If you’re a NASCAR fan, think of those xFinity series teams looking for a way into the Cup series. This is just my speculation, but teams like Kaulig, GMS, and maybe even a crazy wildcard hybrid like Halmar-Friesen could use something like this to reach the next level. It’s going to take some time, and that’s probably in the term of years rather than months, but Larson will have an opportunity to get back and thrive as a NASCAR driver before we close the book on him. But when Kyle Larson is ready, and all the variables have worked themselves out, will there still be a NASCAR waiting for him in the way we understand it today? Every time I write about NASCAR, I always close with a thought about how the cars, teams, drivers, business model etc need to change to meet the needs of fans. This time though, the fans are going to need to do their part too. If there’s a NASCAR worth saving, we’re all going to have to take a good hard look at ourselves, and try to figure out what’s really important to us. What are we going to hold our allegiance to: the bullshit right to say an incorrect word with impunity, or to making the racing world a better place for everyone? If we can’t stick together now, someday they’ll be nothing left for us…and I’m not ready for NASCAR to go extinct.
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