The White Zone: Kyle Larson goes from pariah to champion

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A year and a half ago, Kyle Larson dropped a racial slur in an iRacing event. The next day, NASCAR indefinitely suspended him and his sponsors departed one after another. The day after, Chip Ganassi Racing fired him.

In the span of less than 48 hours, Larson’s NASCAR career slammed head-on into a wall.

“After I said the N-word, anger came at me from all angles,” he said. “Being labeled a racist has hurt the most, but I brought that on myself.”

Larson could’ve ducked out and never looked back. He could’ve pivoted to dirt racing and dominated leagues like World of Outlaws. His tear through the dirt racing world in 2020 showcased that. All he’d leave behind is writers, like myself, asking: “What could’ve been?”

Away from NASCAR, however, Larson did more than just race.

He set out on a journey to learn.

The White Zone: Kyle Larson goes from pariah to champion

The journey

Larson sat in a Philadelphia classroom at the Urban Youth Racing School, which he’s been involved with for years. For several hours, he learned about the journey of Black Americans and the ugly history of racism and racial slurs. After that and several painful conversations, he apologized to those in the classroom for the pain he caused. Those in attendance, some of whom looked up to Larson, who had no obligation to forgive him accepted his apology.

But it didn’t stop there. He volunteered at The Sanneh Foundation, a youth development and empowerment foundation, in Minneapolis and connected with its namesake, Tony Sanneh.

“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.”

He returned to Minneapolis a few weeks later, where Sanneh took him to the site of George Floyd’s death and showed him around parts of the city damaged in protests.

Moreover, he spoke with multiple Black sports figures on his journey: Such as former Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Max Siegel, CEO of USA Track & Field.

Larson did all of this, mind you, before asking for reinstatement, in the fall of 2020. Even though he completed the sensitivity training course required by NASCAR within weeks of his suspension.

“Kyle didn’t ask for reinstatement, early on,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said, “In the fall, he did ask for reinstatement because he felt his journey was complete. And we agreed with him.”

The White Zone: Kyle Larson goes from pariah to champion

The finish line

Fast-forward to Nov. 7, 2021, Larson made good on his journey back into the Cup Series. His crew got him off pit road with the lead, during the final caution of the race, and he held off Martin Truex Jr., whose car was far superior on long runs to win and hoist the Bill France Cup.

It’s the stuff that makes for a good ESPN 30 for 30 special.

TOP IMAGE: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images