INDIANAPOLIS – What do you do when the entire world believes you are a racist? When your career has collapsed because you uttered the N-word while playing a late night video game?
Kyle Larson packed his things and left North Carolina, returning to his native California too embarrassed to show his face in public.
The facts were plain and he doesn't deny them: He was iRacing late Easter Sunday, couldn't hear his spotter on his headset and used the N-word to get his colleagues' attention. His downfall was swift: The 28-year-old Larson lost his sponsors, his job and any shot at a multimillion-dollar contract in NASCAR’s upcoming free agency.
Depressed and devastated, Larson began a journey to understand both why he had said the word and how to grow from the experience. What he discovered was that he'd been living in a bubble most of his life in which winning races was the only thing that mattered. Anything that happened in the real world was simply not on his radar.
“I was just ignorant. And immature. I didn't understand the negativity and hurt that comes with that word,” Larson told The Associated Press. “That's not a word that I had ever used. I grew up in Northern California, all I ever did was race and that's all I was focused on. 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.”
Larson sat down with the AP at an Indianapolis hotel Wednesday for his first interview since he was fired April 15 by Chip Ganassi Racing after every sponsor cut ties. He had also been suspended by NASCAR and needed to complete a sensitivity training course for reinstatement.
Larson immediately took the course. Then he decided he needed to do more.
He connected with retired soccer star Tony Sanneh, whose foundation works on youth development and empowerment in the Minneapolis area. 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.”
Floyd died a few weeks after that first visit and Larson again returned to Minneapolis. Sanneh took him to the site where Floyd died and they toured parts of the city heavily damaged in protests over racial injustice.
This was new ground for Larson. His family — father Mike and mother Janet, both devout in raising their son to make proper life decisions, be a good person and treat people equally — made racing a hobby, and when Larson began go-karting at 7 they used all discretionary income on furthering his racing career.
“I never really realized how privileged I was in the way I grew up,” Larson said. “I never had to really worry about anything and I guess I was naive. I didn't have a full understanding that there are people struggling with different things on a daily basis. It was very impactful, very moving."
Sanneh connected Larson with former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Larson visited her foundation in East St. Louis. He got on the phone with Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track & Field who also runs a NASCAR-sanctioned team that is part of the stock car series' diversity program. Larson, who is half Japanese, came through that very program on his way to NASCAR.
Larson also continued work he'd already been doing with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia. The nonprofit helps minorities advance in motorsports and Jysir Fisher, one of its students, had celebrated with Larson in victory lane following a win in Delaware last October.
Fisher was deeply disappointed by Larson's use of the N-word and discussed it with founder Anthony Martin. When Larson said he wanted to visit the school, a meeting was scheduled with Fisher.
“Kyle made it his business to come here to this school and apologize. He didn’t want to do it by telephone. He wanted to do it face-to-face,” Martin told AP. “That had a strong effect on Jysir. His favorite driver is still Kyle Larson.”
While at the school, Martin said his wife gave Larson a history lesson spanning 400 years on racial inequality. “He sat up and listened to every bit of it. He’s been listening and learning. He’s been sincere about putting the work in.”
Larson has also hired a personal diversity coach, Doug Harris, CEO of The Kaleidoscope Group that specializes in diversity and inclusion consulting.
Martin understands celebrities often go through the motions to repair their image after a fall.
He insists that's not what Larson has been doing the past four months. He noted that Larson has not advertised any of his behind-the-scenes work and remains in frequent contact with the school about projects he can assist.
“Kids make mistakes,” Martin said. “Do I think that Kyle was ever a racist? Absolutely not.”
Only Larson is not a kid. He's the married father of two young children and his mistake came in his seventh year racing at NASCAR's top level. He accepts that he should have known better.
He said he isn't doing what he's doing in a desperate attempt to get his job back. Larson, whose maternal grandparents spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, is adamant he wants to educate himself.
“I just felt like there was more that I needed to do — and I wanted to show through actions that I am a better person than I was before,” Larson said. “The sensitivity training was great but I felt like it was just a starting point to what else I needed to do.”
Larson has spent his time in NASCAR exile back at the starting point of his career, racing sprint cars across the country. He has piled up 31 wins from coast to coast; this weekend, he will be at the Indy Mile Race at the Fairgrounds at nearly the same time the Indianapolis 500 is running across town.
He is back to his roots and, arguably, the type of racing closest to his heart, going from dirt track to dirt track with all the racers he has grown up with.
He still hopes to get back to NASCAR. Fellow Cup Series drivers who are among his close circle of friends have remained loyal and said he'd be welcomed back.
“He’s got a love for dirt, there’s no question about it. He also really likes Cup racing," said three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, a golfing buddy. "He’s been doing all the right things. Obviously he put himself in a really bad spot saying something that was totally inappropriate.
“But, you know, people make mistakes. A lot of people make mistakes.”
Larson doesn’t know if a team or sponsors will be willing to give him a second chance. He returned to his home in North Carolina and has met NASCAR's requirements for reinstatement. He said Wednesday he has not yet requested reinstatement.
“I made a mistake and I'm paying for it and I accept that,” Larson said. “NASCAR is where I always wanted to be and I do believe I proved I can compete at the Cup level. I'd like to get back there and we'll see if there's a way. All I can do is continue to improve myself and let my actions show who I truly am.”