One of the great challenges of covering motorsports has always been coercing a current racer into talking about the greatness of a fellow current racer. I’ve never blamed those whom I have asked to do so for politely dodging and pivoting their way out of “What is it that makes so-and-so so fast?” Answering those kinds of questions runs counter to their DNA. No true competitor wants to tell you that a rival is as good or one day might perhaps even be — gulp! — better than they are.
They don’t usually steer down that road because, you see, racers, they aren’t built like the rest of us.
That’s why, in all my years of going to racetracks, one day — Aug. 1, 2014 — has always stuck with me. On an otherwise forgettable rainy Friday morning at Pocono Raceway, two living NASCAR legends went out of their way during their routine weekly media Q&A’s to talk about a new kid among them, and spoke of him if he were already a legend himself.
A while later, Tony Stewart, not knowing what Gordon had already said, got in on the gushing. “There aren’t many other guys I would ever sit here and say that I would trade what I have now for the future they are going to have, but Kyle Larson is that guy. It’s going to be good to be him, trust me.” And this was only a few weeks removed from Stewart having given the rookie an in-race scolding via a single finger.
“Yeah, I heard those things that day, too,” Larson recalled nearly three years later. He did so during a series of interviews we conducted for an E:60 profile feature that that aired Sunday morning on ESPN. “At the time, especially being a rookie, you try to play it cool. But you have to understand, I grew up wearing Jeff Gordon T-shirts and playing with Tony Stewart die-cast cars. So, on the outside you play it cool, but inside it’s kind of like, ‘Wow, man. No pressure, right?’ It’s amazing.”
What Larson says reads as very emotional, right? It is. It should be. His heroes were singing his gospel to us all, before he’d won a NASCAR Cup Series race. But when you see it and hear it, the tone would barely bump the line on an EKG machine.
Why? How? Because, you see, racers, they aren’t built like the rest of us. Larson is a racer in the truest sense of the term. That’s why the title of our E:60 story is “The Racer.” That term “racer” has long been reserved for only a certain, small group. The wheelmen who can jump from machine to machine on a near-nightly basis and never slow down.
Larson is one of those few, anointed with motor oil and mud, like Mario and A.J. and Parnelli before him. He’s already won on the dirt tracks where they won, and he’d won at most of them before he could buy a beer. He’s a throwback. That’s why he was an American motorsports folk hero before he’d even been offered a NASCAR ride. Heck, before he’d even driven as much as one lap in a stock car. As a teenager he had already power-slid his way up the dirt track ladder, culminating in his three-event sweep of the Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway in September 2011.
That’s why Gordon and Stewart love him so much. Because he reminds them of those legends and he reminds them of, well, them.
“There are a million race car drivers out there, but there are only a few real, old-school racers,” Stewart told us in May. “These are the guys who would just [as soon] race seven nights a week if they could do it. And they don’t care what kind of race car they’re driving or what type of racetrack it is or how much money they’re making. And there are plenty of guys who want to do that and try to do that, but only a small handful have ever pulled it off. Kyle Larson is one of those guys.”
As Stewart talked, he sat in the basement/party room of his massive home in southern Indiana. He sat in front of a custom-built wall displaying his legendary helmet collection. There are plenty of helmets there that were worn by motorsports stars that mainstream “stick-and-ball” sports fans know of, from Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty to A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. There’s also an entire cabinet full of much dirtier helmets, worn by red clay sprint car racers that only true race fans know and adore. Guys like Brad Doty, “Wild Child” Jac Haudenschild, Danny “The Dude” Lasoski and Steve Kinser. With all due respect to Richard Petty, to racers like Stewart and Larson, it’s Kinser — a 20-time World of Outlaws champion — who is known as “The King.”
“I would say he was brainwashed,” confesses Janet Larson, Kyle’s mother. From the day her son was born on July 31, 1991, she and husband Mike have whispered to him about racing, taken him to races and nearly bankrupted themselves to get him into racing machines. Kyle himself estimates that his childhood years were spent attending 60-70 races a year, before he started racing sometime around the first grade.
We know all of this is true because every step and every lap of his life has been logged in a diary and recorded on video by Janet. By her estimation, there are “about 470” tapes in their Northern California home. Even now, every Cup Series race he runs and even every kart event he might sneak into midweek, she tries to be there, rolling tape.
“She’s always had a video camera in one hand and her picture camera in the other hand,” Larson says, laughing as he tried to frame his mother’s paparazzi act as what all parents do, then admitting that it might be a little more than most. Then the racer admits something else. That the tapes aren’t merely for memory recall. They are for racing recall.
“I still watch a lot of sprint car races. It’s fun just to relive those memories.” Then he starts talking about certain races, some from a decade ago when he was a 14-year old throwing around 700 horsepower sprint cars through the dirt, leaning against the roll cages of men two, three, even four times his age. He starts talking about individual moves on specific laps, and what he could have — should have — done differently. If he had, he could have won another race.
That victory wouldn’t have meant much at all to NASCAR fans. It certainly wouldn’t have meant as much or paid as much as it did when he won the Cup race last week at Michigan, which was his third in a row there, a win that further solidifies his move from a potential star to a legit Cup title favorite.
But that no-name race would have meant just as much to Larson. Every race means just as much to Larson. Racers, you see, aren’t built like the rest of us. And when one real racer recognizes another, they can’t help but violate their own unspoken rule and start bragging about someone they compete with.
“Kyle Larson was born to race,” Gordon says. “And I love what Kyle Larson represents. He didn’t get there because he had money. He did it on pure talent.”
He did it because he’s a racer.