Kyle Larson: Nascar’s reluctant Asian American pioneer races toward the title

first_img Facebook Motor sport Read more Share on LinkedIn features Kyle Larson is the rare Nascar driver who makes himself easy enough to spot in a crowd. More often than not he’s the guy riding the top line on one-and-a-half-mile length oval circuits, within a whisker of the outer barrier. Or at least he was before a wave of repaving projects pushed him out of his groove. “To me it’s easier to run a few inches off the wall, just because I have more grip and can use the aerodynamics to pack air and get even more grip,” Larson explains. “Basically, Homestead is the only place left where I can still do that.”By Homestead of course Larson means Homestead-Miami Speedway, the intermediate track that will once again decide this year’s Cup championship. The race to the finish started in earnest with Sunday’s playoff-opening South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – one of five intermediate tracks on the Cup series’ 10-week playoff. The schedule is an unforgiving steeplechase complete with elimination rounds designed to pare a field of 16 title contenders down to four come Homestead; the championship will go to whoever finishes highest in that race. Kyle Larson (32) goes airborne before catching the fencing in a wreck during the 2013 Daytona 500. Photograph: John Moore/AP Topics Pinterest Share via Email … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. 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Support The Guardian Share on WhatsAppcenter_img Since you’re here… Nascar Share on Messenger Twitter Share on Twitter Share on Facebook So far Larson has 18 total victories and two rookie of the year honors to show for his time racing in Cup, Nationwide and trucks series. Interestingly, those results don’t just mark him as a true phenom; they make him Nascar’s most successful minority driver already. You see Larson, in addition to being ridiculously talented, also happens to be Japanese-American. For a sport that had little to no diversity to speak of until about 10 years ago, this is the happiest of coincidences.Larson’s Japanese roots trace to his mother, Janet. During World War II her parents were interned at a camp in Tule Lake, Calif. Larson doesn’t talk about this much, mostly because he doesn’t feel like he can. He can’t speak a lick of Japanese and doesn’t mess with Asian food. His formative experiences, he’s told me on more than one occasion, were pretty white bread. Really, he just sees himself as a racer. Nascar, however, sees something more: a chance to hook more fans like Ryan Iwasaka.A Los Angeles-based corporate attorney and president of the Japanese American Bar Association (Jaba), Iwasaka had no choice but to become a Nascar fan after his 8-year-old son became obsessed with the Cars movie franchise. (Many of the characters are voiced by former and current drivers.) Steadily, father and son progressed from watching races on YouTube to watching them live on TV. This was around the same time Larson began asserting himself on the track. “The first time we saw him take off his helmet,” Iwasaka says, “we realized, hey, this guy could be a part of the community.”Another coincidence: there were only a few degrees of separation between the driver and the lawyer. One of his Jaba colleagues, it turns out, was a childhood friend of Larson’s mom. The more Iwasaka learned about Larson, the more he thought the driver would make an ideal candidate for Jaba’s annual trailblazer award. Iwasaka expected to have a harder time selling the pick to Jaba officeholders. (Historically, this has been an award for judges, politicians and the like.) But they came around quickly. “I think everyone was in agreement that Kyle taking this trailblazing path into Nascar – whether, you know, he knew it or not – was actually exactly what we honor and celebrate,” Iwasaka says.And yet: there was still one more person who Iwasaka needed to convince – Larson, who shrinks from even the slightest effort to uplift him as some kind of Asian exemplar. But, this – a trailblazer award from a prominent bar association? This was different. This was an affirming moment for Janet Larson, who could not have been more thrilled for her son. Before long Larson found himself humbled by the distinction, too.Doubtless Iwasaka would have preferred if Larson had accepted his trailblazer award in person. But he had to work; Nascar was racing in Fontana on the mid-March weekend the award ceremony was held in Los Angeles. So on Saturday, Iwasaka dispatched a film crew to shoot Larson accepting the award. On Sunday, Iwasaka went to see Larson himself with his 8-year-old son and his lawyer colleague (and Larson family friend) in tow. It was a visit full of reminiscences about Larson’s grandfather and the lessons he passed on about discipline, hard work and integrity – the same lessons that were drilled into his visitors once upon a time, too. “I don’t know if he knew it himself,” Iwasaka says, “but as he was talking you could see that the Japanese American side of him is so much a core part of him.”It’s just not all of him. And, well, that’s as it should be. “I wouldn’t say I’m any more engaged or think about it anymore,” Larson says of his interactions in the Asian American community. “But I do feel like I’m making some sort of an impact. I’ve noticed more Asians at the racetracks these days than when I started.” Hopefully, he can give them a reason to keeping cheering him on through the playoffs and beyond. A sixth-year Cup veteran, Larson rates among the more viable underdog picks in the field. Last Sunday’s race marked Larson’s third straight playoff appearance. This comes after he made his deepest run into the bracket in 2017, enduring through the second round – or long enough to seal an eighth-place points finish at year’s end. It was a career campaign built on the strength of four regular-season victories, another Larson personal best.This season, though, Larson has been a stranger to Victory Lane – although that’s not for lack of trying. In addition to scoring pole positions three times (at Dover in May, Sonoma in June and Bristol last month), Larson finished fifth or higher eight times while leading more laps than all but three other drivers. If anything, he was yet another unfortunate victim of the season-long monopoly Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr held over the field; between those three vets – who, incidentally have traded turns wearing the championship crown over the past four seasons – were a staggering 17 victories in 2018.What’s more, at least two of those wins came at Larson’s direct expense – both times courtesy of Busch, who bulled Larson out of the way at in the April Bristol race and in Chicago in July en route to the checkered flag. “That’s gotta be one of the best Nascar finishes of all time,” Larson told NBC Sports shortly after Busch shoved him out of the lead and down the track’s apron on the final lap. “I’m on the short end of the stick again, but it was fun.”The laid-back reaction is typical Larson, and a major reason why the 26-year-old Elk Grove, California, native has become a fan favorite in his relatively short Nascar career. Along with his everyman bona fides – the genuine humility, the crippling golf addiction, the wife and two kids under the age of 4 – Larson is a competition addict in the mold of three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. Which is to say he’ll race anyone, anytime, anyplace. “I feel like I’m one of the few people that is still living through that generation,” Larson says. When he isn’t behind the wheel of Ganassi Racing’s No 42 Chevrolet machine, he’s slumming it quite a few rungs down from the Cup level, on the dirt track racing scene.This, despite a sudden climb up the development ladder that saw Larson go from turning laps in karts as a 7-year-old for fun to turning laps in sprint cars as an 18-year-old for money – and all without visiting financial ruin upon his working-class parents, an all-too-familiar fate in racing families. He had an eager benefactor in Toyota, the Nascar manufacturer that has cornered the driver development market over the past decade. The company had everything to offer Larson but a Cup seat, which is ultimately how he wound up racing Chevys on the weekends instead. Is Nascar’s next Danica Patrick coming down the track? | Andrew Lawrence Reuse this content Share on Pinterestlast_img

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