A Life of Racing: Kyle Larson

by Michael Finley On Fri, Oct. 18, 2013

Photo Credit: Noel Lanier/Speedway Media
“I’d be like, ‘Poor kid, geez. How do you tell him (about reality)?’ But he’s always had that confidence. I don’t think he’s in awe of anything.”- Mike Larson, father of Kyle Larson.
The Coccinellidae, or Ladybug, is well known for bringing luck and love to whomever finds it. It’s a favorite among children, even though in a sense it is incredibly ironic- these same children would probably run screaming from a spider, but a ladybug? No way, silly.
“The kid is just absolutely phenomenal, he’s a kid that I think really has a lot of potential.”- Tony Stewart
Kyle Larson has had a tradition of having a ladybug on every car he’s raced since childhood, a childhood that has led to a life of racing- and, arguably more important, winning. People constantly compare him to men such as Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne, maybe even legends such as AJ Foyt or the Unsers. If Joey Logano was the “Best Thing Since Sliced Bread”, Kyle Larson might be the best thing since the knife to cut it. And it all began in Elk Groove, California, at the age of one week.
“I am blown away by this kid…… I have Kyle’s number, I text him when he wins a race,…… [I told him] “I’m getting tired of texting you every week.”- Jeff Gordon
Larson was born under the hot Northern California sun on July 31st, 1992, to a Japanese-American mother and a Caucasian father. His mother’s side of the family came to California via the Japanese-American Internment Camp, his grandparents among those forcibly sent there during World War II. His father was/is a longtime racing fan, and took him to his very first race when he was a week old.
“[He’s] very quiet, very unassuming. He’s a very level person, he doesn’t get very up or very down.”- Mike Larson
Kyle Larson at age 15. Credit: Sports Illustrated
Like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Joey Logano, Larson started racing almost as soon as he was out of diapers, at the age of 7 in go-karts. As a kid he dominated at Cycleland Speedway, his local track, where he won two straight Box Stock championships in 2001-2002, then won the 2002 and 2004 QRC Outlaw All Star Tour Series championships. He kept busy during the winter months, winning two straight Red Bluff Winter Indoor Series championships. After an insane amount of victories and championships over 2004-2006, Larson moved up to sprint cars/midgets. Four seasons of even more championships and winning later, he moved up to the USAC National series.
“[Kyle’s] a God-given talent, There are certain drivers who come along who are blessed, and that’s all you can say.”- Mike Larson
He quickly dominated, winning 22 races among the 3 divisions (Midgets, Sprint Cars, and Silver Crown), finishing in the top 3 in all point standings, and was voted Motor Sports Press Association Open Wheel/Oval Track Driver of the Year, and was also a nominee for 2011 SPEED Performer of the Year. This led to a lot of wooing from a lot of race teams in both IndyCar and NASCAR.
“I never saw Parnelli Jones or A.J. Foyt in their prime, but by far Kyle Larson is the most talented driver I’ve ever seen…… He’s the most versatile. What he was able to do in a sprint car from early on, it was incredible. It looked like he’d been driving his whole life.”- Brad Dooty, former Sprint Car driver.
After weighing his options, Larson decided to go with an owner who was in both: Chip Ganassi, or to be specific Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Although Larson has never said so, it’s probable he picked EGR so that he could have a window to one day go back to open wheel. Why else would he have gone to a team who did not have any connections (at the time) to any NASCAR Nationwide or NASCAR Camping World Truck teams?

 “He’s going to go far in his racing career, and even to remotely be some part of that is really cool.”- Jimmy Elledge, #51 Sprint Cup Crew Chief
Chip, however, had an ace in the hole. While Larson was busy dominating the K&N Pro East series along with still running USAC, Ganassi came to an agreement that led to Larson running a few truck races with Turner Motorsports while eventually EGR as a whole moved into the “Hendrick Family”, a top tier of NASCAR teams that have some sort of relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, after two seasons of mediocre support from Richard Childress Racing.
 “[Our 2011 season was] pathetic….. We need to see improvement by the end of the year.”- Chip Ganassi, 2012
2013 has been a roller coaster season for the young Drive for Diversity driver. Larson signed on to Turner to run a full Nationwide season for them, the first race of which ended in Larson going into the fence at Daytona. Larson won his first NASCAR National Touring Series race, where the future of the sport won in a Turner Truck at a site of the sport’s past: Rockingham Speedway. He was probably the last to as well, as the track has cancelled all 2013 dates and seems to be closing down once again.
Credit: NASCAR
“I think he’s obviously ready. He certainly represents all those dirt track racers. He’s kind of a poster child for those guys. He did it on talent, he didn’t do it by buying his way up. I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”- Chip Ganassi
Larson has been hampered all season by Cup drivers. He has finished second twice to Cup drivers, and in particular was agonizingly close at Bristol in March, coming within feet of beating Kyle Busch. He has also had wrecks aplenty, DNFing due to crashes in 10% of his races. But Larson has fought on.
 “When I finish in the top 10 or eight or whatever, I’m really happy with that. The few top-fives that I’ve had, they feel like wins almost. The couple of second places are really good, too. I’ve been pretty happy with how the season has gone….. I have not been disappointed at all by not winning [in Nationwide]. … I feel like we’ve been competitive all year. I’m happy with that.” – Kyle Larson
Many expected Larson to have another couple of seasons in Nationwide before making his Cup debut, maybe in a 3rd EGR car. Nobody expected either EGR driver, Juan Pablo Montoya or Jamie McMurray to go anytime soon- McMurray won Ganassi a Daytona 500 and Chip has said before he’d never let McMurray go again. Montoya has been the “Franchise” for Chip in America- when he hasn’t been busy in Formula 1 he’s been racing for Chip his entire American career, and also has a very long term relationship with Target, Ganassi’s largest and most important sponsor.
 “Are we where we want to be performance-wise? No. Are we happy with the people we have and direction we’re going? Yes.”- Chip Ganassi, 2012
While the 2013 season has gone on, some have noted Target’s presence on the 32 car to have grown more and more as the season went on. Things came to a head in August, when it was confirmed by EGR co-owner Felix Sabates that Montoya was out of EGR- a shocker out of nowhere, especially for Montoya fans, as Montoya has had one of his best seasons with two almost woulda coulda shoulda oval victories (Richmond and Dover). But those woulda coulda shoulda’s weren’t, and EGR might of been frustrated at Montoya’s overall lack of progress in 6 seasons of Cup racing (Even though EGR as a whole has been more or less mediocre in all of those years but 2010).
 “I’ve made risky decisions before, I don’t think this is one of them.”- Chip Ganassi
Many still didn’t believe the 21 year old would get the ride. Many names were thrown around by many people. Ryan Newman? Jeff Burton? Kurt Busch? After weeks of rumor and speculation, EGR announced Larson as the driver of the 42 starting in 2014 on August 30th. Many still think it’s too soon for Kyle Larson to compete.
“When you look at Kyle’s background (Sprint Cars), he’s driving cars with far more power than grip…… I think the Cup car will suit his style far better than a Nationwide car. But you do need that foundation of knowing these tracks, because when we show up, our fastest lap we’ll run all weekend will probably be our first lap right now.  And if Kyle Larson wants to go to Cup next year, that’s tough to do. He’s going to need the whole session to get where he needs to, and then you’re five or six adjustments behind the fast guys.”- Jimmie Johnson
Kyle Larson, first Cup race.
 Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
The “experts” cite Casey Atwood and Joey Logano as examples of drivers with little NASCAR experience doing mediocre in Sprint Cup, that for every Kurt Busch there’s 42 Atwoods. To the people that matter, however, Larson is very ready- Ganassi wouldn’t of put him in the car if he wasn’t ready, Target loves him, and Larson himself believes he can handle the pressure that comes with a move to the Cup level.
“I don’t worry about who I’m racing against or the level of competition, I try not to let things get to my head.”- Kyle Larson
It all comes full circle in 2014, when the boy with the ladybug goes to drive a car as red as said ladybug. Some might say it was pure talent, how Larson flew up the ranks within 3 years. Some might say luck. It might of been a mix of both. Regardless of what you believe, it’s an act of love- Larson would be the first to tell you that he’ll race anything, anytime.
“He’s somebody who doesn’t get very up or very down about much of anything, he’s just not the type of person who is going to walk up to somebody and say, ‘Man, I’m excited I’m going into Cup!’ That’s not Kyle. He kind of shrugs his shoulders like he expects to be there.”- Mike Larson
In his life of racing, much of it has been unwritten. This is only the prologue  of it- whether it’s a drama, a comedy, a mystery, a thriller, or, Heaven forbid, a tragedy, is yet to be decided. No matter what it is, don’t close the book just yet- it’s far from over.
Sources
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