Column: Kyle Larson – the most important figure in American racing

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By Jeremiah Davis

Kyle Larson is the most important person in American motorsports today.

I’ll take a minute here to let you crinkle your eyebrow or wonder just how a guy with hot takes gets to write them down, but once that minute is up, let me explain.

Kyle Larson is the most important person we have in racing. I’m repeating that because it bears repeating. The California native and Japanese-American is one of the best pure drivers alive, but if we’re being honest here, that’s a fair sight down the list of reasons why he’s so important to this sport we love, and all the forms it takes.

It’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, being the most important or most vital – just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr., who didn’t always carry himself like the polished TV man we see today, yet still held NASCAR on his back for the better part of 20 years. 

I don’t want to unfairly hoist expectations on Larson, to put a number of wins or championships out there to qualify him as living up to the bill. I don’t want to pigeonhole him as the savior of a dying discipline.

But what I will do is point out he’s capable of being that guy based on what we’ve seen so far.

Back in August I had the fortune of covering the Knoxville Nationals, the biggest dirt race in the world, and a Crown Jewel of racing, period. Earlier this summer, I got to cover the race at Chicagoland Speedway in which Larson’s dramatic last-lap attempted pass of Kyle Busch gave us the best race-ending of the season and a highlight reel that will run for decades. I’m writing this in January, a day after the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla., the biggest Midget race there is, and itself one of racing’s Crown Jewels. 

Kyle Larson competes in his Chili Bowl qualifier at the Tulsa Expo Center on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Tyler Rinken Photography)

At all three events, Larson was the fulcrum. Nearly every discussion and every debate from those events involved him – and he didn’t win any of them. He made some noise while his brother-in-law Brad Sweet won in Knoxville, he tipped his cap to Busch on a hard-fought finish and lost in heartbreaking, brutal fashion in Tulsa as Christopher Bell won on a last-lap pass. 

His finishing results were irrelevant to the impact he had. People in and around every corner of the industry – pavement, dirt, road, oval, on and on – pay attention when he shows up because in so many cases, he is the show. 

Raw talent comes along all the time. Go to your local track when the season starts up and you’ll see raw talent. Transcendent talent does not. Larson is the latter, and that’s exactly why people gravitate to what he’s done and will do.

When I was in Knoxville in August, I asked a handful of pretty important people in racing about Larson. Kasey Kahne, winning car-owner this year and Donny Schatz, the greatest to ever sit behind the wheel of a Sprint Car (not now, Steve Kinser fans) were among them. These are his peers and competitors, and two people who have lofty resumes of their own. 

Larson Knoxville
Kyle Larson competes in the championship main event at the Knoxville Nationals in August 2018. (Tyler Rinken Photography)

I asked Kahne specifically if Larson was the most important person in American motorsports today. 

“I feel like it wouldn’t matter what type of series he drove in,” Kahne said that night in August. “He would be talked about and he would be battling for wins. It’s just what he does. It’s unreal to be a part of, to watch and to see and to race against him in all those things. His love is winged Sprint Car racing, he loves NASCAR, he loves the Chili Bowl and Midget racing when he does that. If he did other cars as well, he would be just as good. It’s something else.”

Schatz put it in a different perspective. He’s won 10 of the last 13 Knoxville Nationals. It’s a feat almost assuredly will never be matched. Those unhappy with his success use it as a crutch, saying it’s bad for the sport.

He pointed out the Larson effect using that argument as an example.

“Obviously (Larson is) a phenomenal racer, and when he comes here, people come to watch him, and that’s what it’s all about,” Schatz said. “It was a stout crowd at the Nationals this year, and all I’ve heard for the last several years is when the same guy wins it the crowds get smaller. But clearly that’s not the case. We’re happy to have him here. Everything about it is a positive.

“It’s a no-brainer. He can drive anything and that makes him big in American motorsports, whatever he drives. He’s an icon in the sport.”

I’ve written before that racing has divided itself, and that remains true. It seems as though those of us who spend our time at dirt tracks following Modifieds, Late Models, Sprint Cars and Midgets have become disillusioned with the so-called big leagues. NASCAR and IndyCar have lost a great deal of fans for a number of reasons, but that’s a different column for a different day.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton's 400
JOLIET, IL – JULY 01: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, races during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 1, 2018 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

The point here is Larson bridges the gap between those places. Dirt fans tune back into NASCAR when he’s running well because he sells out on the track – that Chicagoland finish being Example A. He’s engaging, he has a beautiful family and he oozes a love for being behind the wheel. That kind of thing cannot be manufactured or taught in PR training that so many drivers go through now in an effort to maximize their “brand.” 

And, no, it doesn’t hurt that he looks different from the majority of racing fans.

Larson’s heritage gives people who wouldn’t normally be interested in racing someone who looks like them to root for. It’s obviously not the only reason someone should be or is important, but combining a successful talent with diversity means growth potential the likes of which I don’t think we’ve ever seen.

Getting people of all cultures and all types to the racetrack is a great thing – because it means more butts in the seats. I don’t care what a person looks like or sounds like, if they’re at the races, that’s a win for the sport. It’s not the mantle Larson carries outwardly, but if he does have that effect, it’s a fantastic byproduct.

His talent, his affability, his versatility and his potential are why he’s the most important person in American motorsports today. Winning matters, sure, but not as much right now as being there.

The beauty is, I have a better chance of becoming President of the United States than he does of flopping as a racecar driver. All the better for us – on both accounts.

The sport needs him. He’s the tide that raises all boats. 

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