In a statement to the Associated Press, Larson said: “The work I’ve done over the last six months has had a major impact on me. I will make the most of this opportunity and look forward to the future.”
With NASCAR, as well as much of the sports world, on hiatus in April amid the coronavirus pandemic, Larson was competing in an iRacing event that was live-streamed when he said the n-word. The reaction was swift: Larson was suspended the next day and released a day later by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Larson, who is half-Japanese and had his racing career furthered by NASCAR’s diversity program, issued an apology at the time, then set about reckoning with his new reality. He went back to sprint-car racing and also returned, with an eye toward making amends, to Philadelphia’s Urban Youth Racing School, which helps expose opportunities in motorsports to Black and other minority communities. Through previous visits to the school, Larson had connected with a Black student, Jysir Fisher, and even invited Fisher to a NASCAR race last year that Larson ended up winning.
In an essay Larson published this month on his website, he said he “talked about difficult subjects for more than two hours” with Fisher and the student’s mother, and he offered in-person apologies to that duo and the founders of the racing school, who are Black.
“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,” Larson wrote in his essay. “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.”
In a segment aired this week by “CBS This Morning,” Fisher said: “As an African American male, a lot of people see me as that word, and for somebody like him to say that, it was nothing less than heartbreaking. And for him to speak to me, it gave me more reassurance that I can still look up to him, and trust him.”
Larson’s other efforts included hiring a personal diversity coach and reaching out to a pair of retired African American athletes, former Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and former soccer player Tony Sanneh, who run foundations dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk youth in urban areas.
“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 the Associated Press in August. “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.”
Larson went to Sanneh’s Minneapolis-area foundation before the killing of George Floyd in May sparked a massive national reaction, and he returned to visit the site of Floyd’s death with the former World Cup competitor and two-time MLS Cup winner with D.C. United.
NASCAR had returned to action by that point, and after its only Black full-time Cup Series driver, Bubba Wallace, began speaking out on issues of race, NASCAR banned all displays of the Confederate battle flag at its events and properties. Wallace, who wrote in April that Larson’s use of the n-word made him feel “attacked and hurt” as well as “confused and angry,” is set to race next year for a team co-founded by NBA icon Michael Jordan.
Larson reportedly has been connected to Hendrick Motorsports. One potential issue is that the team has ties to Chevrolet, which dropped Larson in April, but the company signaled a possible willingness to renew its relationship by saying in a statement Monday: “Chevrolet fully supports NASCAR’s efforts to provide an inclusive environment for all race fans. Since Kyle Larson has met the criteria set forth for his return to the series, we support NASCAR’s decision.”
A six-time Cup Series race winner, Larson was viewed by many as a rising star on the circuit before his suspension. Per NASCAR, the terms for his reinstatement include sensitivity training and speaking engagements through 2023, plus continued work with the Urban Youth Racing School and other initiatives that promote diversity.