A year and a half ago, Kyle Larson made probably the worst impulsive decision of his life. The then 27-year old driver had lost the attention of his spotter during a virtual race and chose the worst possible racial slur – “n*****” – to get it back.
Reaction was swift and appropriate; within two days he had lost his sponsorship and his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. After serving a nearly year-long suspension handed out by NASCAR, Larson returned to the Cup series this year and was absolutely dominant.
He closed out a ten win season – the series’ first since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 – with a championship-clinching win on Sunday in Phoenix.
Sports fans are well accustomed to hearing non-apologies of the “if I offended anyone…” nature, and NASCAR isn’t without its arrogant and stubborn personalities (see: Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, every driver through about 1992), but from the very beginning Larson seemed sincere in his remorse and genuinely interested in learning from his mistake.
Larson told the Associated Press that he was “ignorant. And immature… There’s probably a lot of real-life experiences I didn’t get to have and I was just ignorant to how hurtful that word is.”
After the 2014 Rookie of the Year attended a NASCAR-mandated sensitivity class, he knew he had to do more.
Larson immediately apologized to Bubba Wallace and spoke to the series’ only Black driver repeatedly about how he could educate himself.
Wallace, who got his first Cup series win last month in Talladega – where a noose was found in his garage stall last year – said he felt Larson’s apology was sincere.
Larson also contacted former soccer player Tony Sanneh, who provides underserved Minneapolis area youth with meals, academic help, and camps.
Larson went to visit Sanneh and volunteer at the foundation in the weeks before the city — and the nation — were rocked by the May death of George Floyd in police custody.
“I take my work very seriously and made it clear I was not here for any dog and pony show where he shows up and writes a check and we do a photo op,” Sanneh told AP. “But we were taking 20 pallets of food on 100 degree days and sorting them for hours to distribute to a line of 400 cars. He was very much here to listen, to learn and this was about him growing personally.”
In Phoenix, it was a lightning-quick pit stop that vaulted Larson from fourth to first on lap 288, and he immediately directed credit for the championship to his crew.
It seems that every time a public figure has to account for some horrible thing they said or did, we hear nothing but cries of “cancel culture run amok.” From the minute that awful word left his lips, Larson turned inward.
I like to believe in karma, and I think had Larson taken any other path to getting his ride back, it wouldn’t have ended with celebratory donuts in Phoenix. Hopefully his experience will serve as a model for the next public figure who comes down with a spontaneous case of foot in mouth disease.