Kyle Larson: My Lessons Learned
By Kyle Larson
Oct. 4, 2020
Back in June, two days before the NASCAR doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway, I found myself less than 100 miles away in a classroom in Philadelphia. Although the track was a short drive north up I-476, I wouldn’t be going in that direction. It might as well have been on the moon.
Ten weeks earlier, I had said the N-word on a public channel before an esports race. In an instant, my career was shattered. I was rightly suspended by NASCAR and fired from my job with a top-tier team. I jeopardized the livelihoods of the crew members who had poured their careers into building me fast racecars. My fans were upset. In an instant, I turned a lot of lives upside down and destroyed my own reputation.
Anyone who has massively let people down knows what the worst part of all this is. As I sat in that classroom, less than two hours from my previous, comfortable life, I looked across at a group of people who had once supported me and were now completely and totally disappointed.
I was at the Urban Youth Racing School, which exposes kids – many of whom are Black – to opportunities in motorsports. I had visited the school a few times in the past, spoken with students, hosted them at the track and attended a few of their end-of-year awards ceremonies. I loved their work and stayed in contact. I was running a sprint car – the only type of racing I’ve been able to do – down the road in Harrisburg, so I made the three-hour drive to Philly to reconnect with the owners, Anthony and Michelle Martin, and one of their students, Jysir.
Last October, Jysir celebrated with me and my team in victory lane when I won the NASCAR race at Dover. He was one of the many people I’d hurt, and he wanted to know why this happened. So did his mom. And they didn’t just want to hear it from me over the phone or on a Zoom call. It needed to be face-to-face. I was honest with them. We talked about difficult subjects for more than two hours, and I spent a lot of time listening. Michelle educated me on the journey of Black people in America and the ugly history of racism and derogatory slurs. I offered my apologies to Jysir, his mom and the Martins for the pain I caused. Instead of the anger I expected, what I got in return was empathy.
I’ll tell you what I told them.
On the night of Sunday, April 12, 2020, when the sports world was stopped because of the pandemic, I said the N-word over a microphone before an online race. Did I know the whole world could hear me in that moment? No, I did not – I thought it was a private channel. So when I tell people that I wasn’t in the habit of saying the word and they roll their eyes in response, I don’t blame them. I get it.
Auto racing is my passion. During the NASCAR off-season, I’ve sometimes competed overseas. On one of these trips, I was around a group that used the N-word casually, almost like a greeting. Of course, it doesn’t matter where this happened, how the word was used or what the people around me did. The fact is that the word was said in my presence and I allowed it to happen unchecked. I was ignorant enough to think it was OK, and on the night of the esports event, I used the word similarly to how I’d heard it. As I write this, I realize how ridiculous, horrible and insensitive it all sounds.
And what makes it even worse is that I truly do know better.
I’m half Japanese. My parents are an interracial couple who have gotten disapproving stares and been made to feel uncomfortable just for being together. And all of a sudden, they were being asked why their 27-year-old Asian-American son said something racist. My maternal grandparents were held in an internment camp during World War II. There’s absolutely no excuse for my ignorance.
My mom and dad’s disappointment really affected me. Trust me when I say that they did not raise my sister and I this way. But even though I let them down in a particularly hurtful manner, they still supported me when I most needed them. I was, and will always be, grateful for how they’ve helped me navigate the last five months of my life.
But as much as my parents have always believed in me, there’s no one who holds me to a higher standard than I do. And I had failed. I wanted to hide. I shut down my social media accounts. In the time of COVID-19, wearing a mask in public actually made me feel more comfortable. It wasn’t healthy at all. I needed to take back control.
Since April, I’ve done a lot of reflecting. I realized how little I really knew about the African-American experience in this country and racism in general. Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago, because it would’ve made me a better person – the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. The kind who makes an effort to understand the hate and oppression it symbolizes and the depth of pain it has caused Black people throughout history and still to this day. It was past time for me to shut up, listen and learn.
The first lesson: The N-word is not mine to use. It cannot be part of my vocabulary. The history of the word is connected to slavery, injustice and trauma that is deep and has gone on for far too long. I truly didn’t say the word with the intention of degrading or demeaning another person, but my ignorance ended up insulting an entire community of people who, in the year 2020, still have to fight for justice and equality. When I look back at these last few months and see all the protests and unrest in our country, and the pain Black people are going through, it hurts to know that what I said contributed to that pain.
NASCAR has a zero-tolerance policy on this type of behavior. When they suspended me, I received a plan that started with mandatory sensitivity training and went from there. I’m in regular contact with them, and I’ve learned and grown as I’ve gone through the program. I hope to race in NASCAR again.
But I also needed to do some work on my own, so I hired a diversity coach, Doug Harris of The Kaleidoscope Group. There’s no B.S. with Doug. He gives it to you straight, even if it’s uncomfortable. He is a Black man with seven kids, and the conversations he has to have with them about things like driving around town and interacting with police when they’re pulled over – not if they’re pulled over, but when – gave me a level of awareness I hadn’t had before, but it also made me realize the kind of privilege I’ve taken for granted. I mean, my livelihood is literally driving. Everyone should have someone in their life who will talk to them like Doug talks to me.
In early May, I traveled to Minnesota and volunteered in a food drive organized by Tony Sanneh, a retired pro soccer player who has his own charitable foundation. After the death of George Floyd, I went back to Minneapolis and joined Tony and his leadership team at the memorial that had been set up. We went around to areas of the community that had been affected. I asked them why people would destroy their own neighborhoods. Their response was eye-opening: “When people haven’t been accepted by their community, they don’t have any attachment to it.”
I spoke with Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee and toured her community center in St. Louis. I’ve had conversations with Black athletes like Harold Varner III, racecar drivers like Bubba Wallace, J.R. Todd and Willy T. Ribbs, and corporate executives like Kevin Liles (formerly of Def Jam) and Perry Stuckey (of Eastman). We didn’t just talk about the Black experience – we discussed the importance of having empathy and considering the struggles of people who don’t look like me.
In all these experiences and conversations, there’s been a common and unexpected response. Everyone I’ve talked to was fully aware of the mistake I made and they still chose to invest their time and energy into my growth as a person. Don’t get me wrong, these have not been easy conversations. One of the toughest I had was with Mike Metcalf, an African-American crew member who was on my NASCAR team for many years. I’ve worked with Mike since I started in NASCAR, and disappointing him was the same as letting down family.
I’ve received a lot of straight talk from Mike and others since April. But what gives me hope and humbles me is how so many people have opened their doors to lift up someone who probably doesn’t deserve it and to share perspectives I should’ve sought on my own a long time ago.
After I said the N-word, anger came at me from all angles. Being labeled a racist has hurt the most, but I brought that on myself. What I didn’t expect, though, were all the people who, despite their disappointment in what I did, made the choice to not give up on me. It motivates me to repay their faith by working harder, not giving up on myself, and making sure something positive comes from the harm I caused.
For far too long, I was a part of a problem that’s much larger than me. I fully admit that losing my job and being publicly humiliated was how I came to understand this. But in the aftermath, I realized that my young kids will one day be old enough to learn about what their daddy said. I can’t go back and change it, but I can control what happens from here on out.
I want them to know that words do matter. Apologizing for your mistakes matters. Accountability matters. Forgiveness matters. Treating others with respect matters. I will not stop listening and learning, but for me now, it’s about action – doing the right things, being a part of the solution and writing a new chapter that my children will be proud to read.
People have taught me a lot over the last five months. The next time I’m in a classroom, I hope I can repay their kindness by sharing my story so others can learn from my mistakes. Making it a story I’m proud to tell is completely up to me.