I’m a little late on this, over a week to be exact, but hopefully you’ll forgive me and grant me a second chance.
As Kyle Larson proved, sometimes that’s all you need.
If you missed it a week ago Sunday, Larson polished off one of the best years in NASCAR history with his first Cup Series championship in Phoenix. Along the way he won 10 races and set a record for laps led in a season, joining some elite company with some of his 2021 accomplishments.
Larson became the first driver to win three races in a row twice in the same season since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1987, and he became the first to win double-digit races and win the championship since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
His crowning moment was so much more than a 29-year-old prodigy finally fully realizing his potential, more than overdue crowning of the sport’s next great driver. As much as Larson’s story is one of a dream realized and a rightful place at the top seized, it’s also one of mistakes made and lessons learned.
It’s less a story about a driver and more one about a man — one who committed a stupid, terrible sin and put in the work to bring his career and reputation back from the gutter.
Larson is no victim. His is not a typical tale of overcoming adversity. Those usually involve injuries or circumstances beyond an athlete’s control.
Instead, his troubles were of his own doing. If you don’t know the story, in April of 2020, Larson was heard using a racial slur during a Twitch stream during an iRacing event. He used the n-word when he didn’t think all of the other drivers could hear him. Almost immediately, via social media and news reports, the entire world was hearing him.
The ramifications were swift and warranted. Larson lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, was dropped by his sponsors and was suspended indefinitely before eventually being reinstated on Jan. 1, 2021, after completing sensitivity training.
Maybe that’s where the story ends for you. Hey, that’s your call. It was a despicable and inexcusable incident, one that nobody in their right mind could defend, including Larson.
“Last night, I made a mistake and said a word that should never, ever be said and there’s no excuse for that,” Larson tweeted shortly after the incident. “I wasn’t raised that way. It’s just an awful thing to say and I feel very sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community and especially the African American community. I understand the damage is probably unrepairable and I own up to that.”
It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to do it. And with nothing else to do, Larson started doing.
He hired a diversity coach. He worked with the Sanneh Foundation, a charity established by former soccer player Tony Sanneh founded to help the healing in Minnesota after the killing of George Floyd.
Larson still works with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia, speaking and learning from founder Anthony Martin and his wife, Michelle. He has reached out and remained in contact with Black race-car drivers and worked with three-time Olympic gold-medal-winning track and field athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
None of that counts working through his strained relationship with his own mother, Janet, a woman of Japanese descent.
All the while, Larson raced. Albeit far away from the Cup Series, under the lights of local dirt tracks in front of small-town crowds, but he did what he’d always done, he won races — 46 in 96 starts to be exact. And he won back fans, one by one.
Off the track, Larson had a lot to prove. On it, not so much. At Ganassi, Larson was the guy with twice the talent and half the car of some of the sport’s elite. But when legendary car owner Rick Hendrick gave Larson a second shot to start this year, that was no longer the case, and when an elite driver sat in the cockpit of a top-tier ride, it spelled the end for the competition.
Yet, it’s likely that Larson is just getting started, both as a driver and a human. More wins will certainly follow. So too likely will be more titles. And to hear him tell it, so will continued efforts to learn and educate both himself and others about racism and discrimination.
Are Larson’s efforts and his comeback enough to win over the court of public opinion? At least in the racing community, it seems so. But his story and his arrival at the top of the sport thrusts an important question in front of the general sports fan and American: Are second chances still available in our society, or are there actions and words beyond forgiveness?
It’s a tough thing to know. Even writing this was difficult, trying to walk the line between understanding and insensitivity. I’m not a Black man. I don’t know first-hand the emotions evoked by the word Larson so carelessly muttered.
I’m certainly not trying to paint Larson as a hero, because he’s not. He’s a human, one who just happens to be one of the most talented humans on the planet behind the wheel of a fast car. And while the mistakes I’ve made may not be the same ones Larson has, I’d hate to be judged on mine either. Would any of us?
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess approval is to. So, pictures of Larson hoisting the world’s best — and maybe biggest — trophy may make you feel warm and fuzzy, or they may just make you hot under the collar.
But no matter how you view him and no matter how fast Larson drives, he is here to stay.