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Flat Spot On – Larson’s Mistake Another Opportunity for Diversity

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 16 2020

Kyle Larson’s insensitive remarks have cost him a job at Chip Ganassi Racing.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Now that the hyper-sensitivity on the Internet and newsroom envy by sportswriters has peaked, I believe it’s important to point out three elements about Kyle Larson’s use of a racial slur and his subsequent consequences.

Sad as it was, it’s not a major setback for NASCAR’s ongoing efforts with diversity. Larson’s mistake may have revealed an unacceptable, ongoing attitude still held by some in the NASCAR garage, infield and grandstands. The fact he was quickly called out by his team, sponsors and NASCAR confirms the ongoing commitment to make the sport accessible to all in the garage, infield and grandstands.

Maybe we learned, one more time, that mainstream media are biased against racing for a variety of reasons and find it easy to pick on the sport at every opportunity. In this case, that meant the usual “tut-tut” – as if racial issues aren’t dividing the NFL as a result of Colin Kaepernick’s protests over police violence against African-Americans.

 

Larson lost his job due to his current circumstances as much as for an unacceptable verbal mistake. The driver was already on the rocks with Chip Ganassi Racing, each side being disappointed in the other. That’s why there was widespread belief he was going to become NASCAR’s hottest free agent at the end of the 2020 season when his contract expired.

Larson got tossed because CGR is ready to move on with a new driver while retaining its sponsors. It’s likely Larson’s contract with the team and sponsors called for him to publicly represent both without casting disrepute upon them. That made it legally possible for the Ganassi team and its sponsors to move on to preparing for 2021 immediately. Had there been another year remaining on his contract through 2021 and had the team and its driver been seeing eye-to-eye, CGR more likely would have supported Larson while he pursued reinstatement by NASCAR. He is, after all, a phenomenal talent.

Has Larson lost his career? In the broadest sense, as a race car driver he has a multitude of choices remaining – especially if he does the sensitivity training work to get his license reinstated by NASCAR. As far as Cup racing is concerned, Kurt Busch has survived some dire circumstances to come back and win the Daytona 500, as well as other races. Busch is a changed and better man after all he’s been through with evidence that NASCAR’s intervention has made some difference. Maybe in that light, all of us can undergo some soul searching along with Larson about how we want to go racing in the broader sense of leading our lives. 

The issue of racial slurs being unacceptable, especially among participants in the garage, should not be a problem for fans any longer after the effort NASCAR has made on diversity within its ranks and more recently in trying to quell the display of Confederate flags. A privately held business, NASCAR is fighting to maintain its major league status and cannot afford to be perceived as a home to bigotry. Those who don’t agree with this approach have long been on notice that they may want to find another sport to follow or place to work if they can’t make the transition.

 I have an inside perspective on this issue as a result of recently co-writing a book with Bill Lester. The book is a motivational memoir about Lester overcoming hurdles of age, background and racial difference to live his dream of becoming a professional race car driver. Directed toward readers interested in learning about how to overcome obstacles, the book underscores the values Bill sustained while working as the only African-American driver to race with any regularity in NASCAR’s three major traveling series from 1999 through 2007.

Bill Lester meets the fans at Lime Rock on a GT race weekend.

A black engineer who chose to work for Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley so he could finance his road racing, Bill opened doors due to his diligence, personality and skill behind the wheel. He quit his high-paying job and successful career path to pursue racing full-time. Had he not done so, he could not have benefitted from the effort by manufacturers to help racing diversify, landing a job driving a factory Dodge in NASCAR’s Truck Series.

Without giving away the story, Bill faced some stunning racial prejudice. On the other hand, there were also those trying to hustle him and take advantage of his position as an African-American driver capable of changing the perception of the sport. Within the sport, he found some interesting allies, including longtime NASCAR administrator Mike Helton as well as team owners such as retired McDonald’s executive Ed Rensi, Bill Davis and Billy Ballew.

Lester became the first black driver in the Cup Series in 20 years when he qualified and raced at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2006. His continued presence in NASCAR’s traveling series, and later the NASCAR-owned Grand-Am Series, helped sustain NASCAR’s efforts to establish a bona fide diversity program. After starting NASCAR racing full-time in his early forties, Bill retired from Grand-Am a race winner and came within an eyelash of winning a GT championship with co-driver Jordan Taylor.

From this perspective, I choose to see the recent Larson affair as another hurdle along the way toward diversity in America’s biggest racing series. The response by Chip Ganassi Racing may have been situational and self-interested, but NASCAR acted swiftly in a way that’s consistent with past driver suspensions. The push for diversity will continue, as will, one hopes, Larson.

While NASCAR can conduct its private business according to its own business model, it cannot change the environment of the country in which it operates. Yet, as Bill has recently stated in some online comments, an opportunity for change remains. If NASCAR, for decades recognized as a den of racial intolerance, can sustain itself as a place where people are judged by their work and contributions and not their gender, race or religious background, that’s a big step forward. 

I hope NASCAR fans in general, Kyle Larson’s fans and the driver himself recognize that it’s worthwhile to maintain an atmosphere of diversity at NASCAR races. If it can happen in the NASCAR community, then there’s hope for all of us in the future when it comes to bringing out the best in America and Americans. What counts is being tilted into the wind instead of just giving up.

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering motor racing. He is the author of six books. His current release is “CRASH! How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing.” Visit www.jingrambooks.com for more information and book excerpts.ote:)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 16 2020
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  • Bill’s timing in racing is unbelievable. The next weekend after his first career start in NASCAR, a Busch Grand National Division at Watkins Glen, where he had a respectable racing, we all met in Washington,DC for a Operation PUSH Black Racer Summit. We celebrated Bill’s Coming, we knew he was special. We both shared in our love to race and NASCAR.