NASCAR driver’s racial slur exposes what’s under the fanbase’s hood

FILE - In this Oct. 18, 2019, file photo, Kyle Larson walks to the garage before the final practice for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. Kyle Larson used a racial slur on a live stream Sunday during a virtual race — the second driver in a week to draw scrutiny while using the online racing platform to fill time during the coronavirus pandemic. Associated Press

By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer

It took 36 hours for Kyle Larson’s NASCAR career to crash down around him. During a special event Sunday night on the online racing simulation iRacing, the 27-year-old Cup Series star keyed-up the wrong voice-chat channel and broadcasted “hey, [N-word],” (yes, with the hard-R) to all of his competitors, many of whom were streaming their views from the race at the time.

The story spread like wildfire, and a video apology the next day did little to douse the flames. By Monday morning it had been picked up from ESPN to the New York Times. Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson’s NASCAR Cup Series team, suspended the driver without pay. NASCAR announced Larson was indefinitely suspended soon after, and will require him to attend sensitivity training before being eligible for reinstatement.

Chevrolet, which Larson has exclusively driven for in NASCAR since 2013, suspended its relationship with the driver. Major sponsors Credit One Bank and McDonald’s both terminated their connections with Larson by the afternoon. Even iRacing indefinitely suspended Larson’s account with the service, citing the offensive language as a breach of its sporting code.

By Monday evening the only domino left to fall was Larson’s contract to drive the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, and Tuesday morning that divorce was finalized as well.

Larson immediately made a fan of me during his first Cup Series season in 2014. He’s a fierce competitor and one of NASCAR’s newly-established young talents, but he’s also prone to mistakes. I guess in that way it’s fitting his biggest career setback was also entirely self-inflicted. As a star of the sport, representative of his team and sponsors, role model for young fans and just as a person, this now-former fan expected much better.

Less fitting is that Larson is NASCAR’s first star driver busted using this racial slur. Larson is Japanese-American and a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which aims to bring minority and female drivers up the sport’s ladder. The irony wasn’t lost on Bill Lester, one of the few African American drivers in the sport’s history, who said Larson “should really know better” in a tweet Monday.

Larson’s comment could not have come at a worse time for a sport struggling to fight a ratings slump and shake the public perception of rednecks driving in circles. NASCAR already made national headlines in February for a frightening crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 which put driver Ryan Newman in the hospital. The racing in the following weeks was exceptional, at least until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the motorsports world to a standstill and killed what momentum the sport was building. NASCAR has had success sanctioning esports events on iRacing to fill the gap, but the last thing NASCAR needed while waiting for the world to reopen was controversy.

But what may prove even more damaging to NASCAR’s image is the fanbase’s reaction. For every comment on social media calling the language used by Larson unacceptable and his punishment just, there’s a seemingly-equal number decrying the punishment or even defending the use of the word.

“I’m done with nascar because of their decision nascar is out of bounds on this,” one commenter said on NASCAR’s Facebook post announcing Larson’s suspension. “it’s a word in the American dictionary get a life folks.”

“Yes it is a bad word, yes he should not of said it but really! We as a country have MUCH, MUCH bigger things to worry about,” another commenter said.

“Most of my black friends don’t watch and could careless about nascar,” one Twitter user said. “Who are they [NASCAR] fighting for?”

One claim above all others stuck out among those rushing to Larson’s defense: people make mistakes and this could happen to anyone. Heck no.

What Larson said — it’s not a word that ends up in a person’s vocabulary by mistake. It is not just a racial slur, but the racial slur. Its use is indicative of either a lack of understanding of the word’s history and effects, a shockingly-misguided attempt at edgy humor or actual racial prejudice. Excusing its use at any time under the first two conditions only normalizes more severe racist behavior. Speaking in the wrong in-game voice chat was a simple mistake. Feeling comfortable enough with that word to drop it in a casual conversation was on an entirely different level.

Would it have been worse if Larson had used the word in a malicious context? Exponentially, but using it at all already reaches a baseline level of awful. It’s a word with malice baked-in. While I don’t think Larson is a flagrant racist, his use of the word is indicative of a fault in his character that needs to be addressed, especially if he expects to return to a sport so dependent on sponsorship and public relations.

NASCAR is a sport born and built in the South and is no stranger to the caveats that come with these beginnings. In 1963 Wendell Scott, still the lone African American to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, wasn’t awarded his hard-earned victory in a Jacksonville, Fla. race until hours after the checkered flag waved due to a “scoring error.” Scott believed it was because NASCAR didn’t want a black driver kissing a white trophy girl in the winner’s circle.

To this day NASCAR and its fanbase is still concentrated in the South, right-leaning and overwhelmingly white. NASCAR was met with defiance from fans when it asked them to stop flying the Confederate flag at races in 2015. In 2016 then-CEO Brian France and a quartet of drivers appeared at a Trump rally, though NASCAR as a company never endorsed Trump.

The sanctioning body has made strides to make the sport more inclusive, including the Drive for Diversity program. The Cup series even has its first full time African American driver in decades with Darrell Wallace Jr., who drives Richard Petty Motorsport’s iconic No. 43 car. NASCAR also deserves credit for its swift response to Larson’s inexcusable remarks and its zero-tolerance precedent for such matters. Within the sport, NASCAR is more welcoming to minorities today than at any point in its history.

However, when a driver can say that slur on video and be met with such a fervent defense from the sport’s fans, that may not matter. The NASCAR fanbase is an infuriating one to be associated with because of its knack for reaffirming the stereotypes leveled against it. Just as Larson will have a long road ahead to rehabilitate his career, if NASCAR’s fanbase expects its sport to be around long into the future it’s in dire need of some self-reflection.