NASCAR driver Kyle Larson hopes to make a comeback after being fired for using n-word: “It’s not my word to use”
(CBS News) - Race car driver Kyle Larson says he has “definitely grown” and is working to change after his highly-publicized suspension from NASCAR for using the n-word during a public event.
“I can fully understand why people would label me a racist,” he told CBS News' James Brown in his first TV interview since the incident. “I know deep down I’m not a racist — I said a racist word.”
The 28-year-old was one of the sport’s rising stars until April 2020, when he was heard using the slur while speaking on a headset during a virtual race. The six-time winner was subsequently fired from his racing team.
“I know it’s not my word to use. So, you know, I need to get it out of my vocabulary, and I have,” Larson said.
During the event, Larson had called out to his spotter, “…you can’t hear me at all…?” followed by calling out to his spotter, who is also White, using the n-word.
An unknown racer replied at the time, “…hey Kyle, you’re talking to everyone bud…”
Larson told Brown that he had raced with that friend in Australia, and the circle they were in had “used the word casually as a greeting.”
“I didn’t use it in a way to, you know, degrade or you know, insult anyone,” he said.
Following the virtual race, Larson lost his sponsors and earned an indefinite suspension from NASCAR.
Asked if he understood the meaning of the word and what it meant to him, Larson replied, “I guess I didn’t think of how it… took African Americans, probably in their thoughts, took them back to, you know, slavery and things like that and injustice and stuff that they have had to work, you know, so hard to overcome.”
Amid the backlash against him, two people who chose to stand by Larson were Michelle and Anthony Martin, co-founders of Philadelphia’s Urban Youth Racing School, an organization Larson had been involved in for years. The organization connects young people of color with the racing industry.
“Okay, this is the Kyle that I know. This is the Kyle who said this. Now which one is real?” Michelle Martin asked.
She acknowledged that few in her position would back someone like Larson, but made up her mind when she spoke to him after the incident.
“I had the opportunity to meet with Kyle face to face after it happened, one of the things, and looking in his eyes for the sincerity, was, ‘Are you sorry that you got caught? Or are you really sorry that this happened?’” Martin recalled. “With our very first conversation post-the n-word situation, was the fact that he wanted to learn.”
Jysir Fisher, an 18-year-old Urban Racing School graduate, said he was “emotional” after the incident, saying he had looked up to Larson.
“When it happened, and it just had me thinking, like, as an African American male… a lot of people in America see me as that word,” Fisher said. “And, like, for somebody like him to say that, it was, like, nothing less than heartbreaking.”
Fisher had connected with Larson during his time at the racing school.
The two met face-to-face over the summer to talk about what happened, and Fisher said the conversation gave him “reassurance” he could “still look up to him and trust him.”
While Larson himself works to make a comeback, he said he “would fully understand” if he was “never allowed to race another NASCAR race again.”
“What I said was extremely hurtful,” Larson said. “But I hope, you know, I will get that opportunity to race with them… with that platform I think I could, you know, do some good things.”
© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.