Words Mean Things -- a NASCAR Fan's Take

Kyle Larson at Texas Motor Speedway, November 2019
credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs  
by Lisa Janine Cloud

Assuming that most of you who are reading this are NASCAR fans, by now you’ve almost certainly heard how Kyle Larson, a fan favorite in two disciplines of racing, discovered how transient success really is, and how quickly a lapse in judgment can wreak havoc in one’s life.

I’ll spare you a recap of the events and the timeline. If you’ve been social media disconnecting rather than social distancing and missed it, there are plenty of sources for blow-by-blow accounts.

Larson could not have chosen a worse time to make such a grave error in judgment. The world is effectively on pause, so a controversial occurrence like this drew a feeding frenzy online like chum scattered over shark-filled waters. People who would not typically pay attention to anything about NASCAR or motorsports in general have weighed in, and opinions vary from the MLB player who wants to MMA fight Larson to those who accuse the media of creating a firestorm in some twisted conspiracy to ruin the young driver’s life.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course, but there is only one set of facts.

Fact: Kyle Larson used a racial slur in what would typically be considered a normal situation while sim racing.

Fact: Using racial slurs at any time when you have a contract job that almost certainly includes a morals clause of some sort, in an industry that has a zero tolerance policy for racist language sets you up for potentially disastrous consequences should you lose situational awareness and said slur slips out at an inopportune time. And by inopportune, I mean one where cameras or microphones are in range, which is pretty much anytime.

Fact: NASCAR has a zero tolerance policy for racist language and racial slurs.

Fact: Most major companies (i.e. sponsors) have zero tolerance policies for racist language and racial slurs, at least those with money to invest in motorsports.

Fact: Public apologies may be a requirement in damage control, but issuing that apology does not insulate you from the consequences of your actions.

2019 All Star Race, Charlotte Motor Speedway
credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs

When a professional athlete of Larson’s caliber uses this particular demeaning, offensive word in such a casual manner, one that in his own statement he admitted “should never be said,” anyone would be excused for wondering how often he’s said it and not gotten caught, or for thinking that he must use it regularly for him to be so cavalier about it until after the fact.

Certainly his employer, sponsors, and the sanctioning bodies of the series in which he participates should be expected to react with alacrity in the manner they did. Guilt by association is real, and those entities do not want to tacitly condone such language by failing to take appropriate action immediately.

Drivers may be independent contractors rather than direct employees of NASCAR, but the sport’s sanctioning body is charged with protecting the reputation of the sport and the value of the brand, so their reach is necessarily longer than most companies would have with contractors.

It is NASCAR’s job to make the sport as marketable as possible, and language such as Larson used -- even though it was on his own time and not in at a NASCAR-sanctioned event -- makes that job more difficult.

While drivers are not direct employees of sponsors, those companies cannot treat what amounts to a paid public representative any differently than they would a direct employee, because again, guilt by association is real, especially in today’s social-media driven world.

All parties, from NASCAR and iRacing to Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi Racing, did what they had to do. If any quarter is given, it will be later, when the dust has settled. Not now while the world is still watching.

The bottom line is that words mean things. Words in context can be quite revealing.

Larson didn’t misspeak. He didn’t mean to say one thing and accidentally say another. While he may not have had any malicious intent, his casual disregard for the nature of that specific word makes me sad and puzzled. As a white fan, that’s really about the only lane I think I have open in this situation.

I don’t pretend to know Kyle Larson personally. I’ve seen him at the track, spoken to him in the media center, and he seems like a low-key, respectful young man with a lovely wife and charming children, one who simply loves to race. But I don’t know what he’s like away from the track or behind closed doors, and I refuse to draw any broad conclusions about his character based only on what I’ve seen and heard, just as I refuse to draw any broad conclusions about the iRacing culture because I know nothing about it, either.

What I do know is that the NASCAR fan base loves a redemption story. Just ask AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, and  Jeremy Clements.

What happens next for Larson depends a great deal on how he handles himself over the next few weeks and months. It’s not for me to suggest any “road to recovery” because I wasn't damaged or hurt in the situation other than as a long-time fan who would prefer not to have this kind of attention drawn to my favorite sport.

Larson will likely complete sensitivity training for NASCAR and World of Outlaws.

Hopefully the training will impress upon him that it's much easier to not say the wrong word if he keeps that word out of his vocabulary and out of his mind.

Hopefully other drivers who might be tempted to allow this toxic term to remain in their lexicons will look at Larson’s self-induced misfortune as a cautionary tale.

Hopefully fans will also realize that words really do mean things, and that we should choose them wisely.

Words Mean Things -- a NASCAR Fan's Take Words Mean Things -- a NASCAR Fan's Take Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Thursday, April 16, 2020 Rating: 5

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