Kyle Larson’s dominant return to NASCAR and its opportunity to promote social justice

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Anthony Martin didn’t deny the fact that this has not been a good week when asked how he was doing. He shared that he’s “hanging in there” after a former student at the after-school nonprofit program he founded was killed Monday.

Dwan Jenkins-Stanton was shot at a corner store in North Philadelphia, according to multiple news reports. Martin and his wife, Michelle Martin, along with others involved with his Urban Youth Racing School in the city, remain devastated by the death of their former student.

“He was like a nephew to me, like a family member,” Martin said. “He was very, very close to us, so this one hit home pretty strong.”

Despite the circumstances, Martin answered a call from The Observer this week to discuss a subject unrelated to Jenkins-Stanton, and Michelle joined the conversation. They were ready to talk.

The couple has worked with NASCAR driver Kyle Larson since 2017, and in an especially close capacity over the past year after Larson used a racial slur during an April 2020 iRacing event broadcast live on Twitch. The incident led to his suspension from NASCAR through the remainder of last season, and cost him major sponsors and his job driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.

The Martins, both of whom are Black, confirmed Larson’s continuous close involvement with their program, which is designed to elevate underrepresented youth in motorsports, as well as the well-documented reparations Larson made to their organizations and others in the Black community. Additionally, they shared their thoughts on how conversations around Larson’s mistake should continue as the driver tears through the Cup Series with three wins in 16 races, and seeks sponsors that have shied from affiliation since his use of a slur.

Michelle said she has no rear-view mirror when it comes to harping on the incident, and she’s long forgiven the driver through sincere conversations that occurred last year. But she said she also sees the trajectory of Larson’s story — his fall from grace, genuine effort to educate himself out of the spotlight and ultimately triumphant return to the series with Hendrick Motorsports this year — as an opportunity for current and future sponsors to highlight diversity and inclusion efforts and “the wrong and the right way that it can be done.”

“Kyle started off one way, but he ended up here,” Martin said. “And I think Kyle can teach a lot of people about being more tolerant, forgivable and what that looks like.”

Repercussions and reparations

When Larson uttered the N-word during a live-streamed iRacing event last spring, major sponsors, including McDonald’s, Credit One Bank, AdventHealth and Chevrolet quickly separated their companies from the driver. CGR released Larson, and he was indefinitely suspended by NASCAR. He stepped out of the public eye, deactivated his Twitter account and organized meetings with leaders in the Black community, such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Tony Sanneh and the Martin family, to apologize and educate himself about the history of racism in the United States.

Michelle said that Larson met with her in person to apologize to her and others in the program, such as student Jysir Fisher, who accompanied Larson to Victory Lane after a 2019 race he won at Dover. Michelle said that she needed to see in Larson’s eyes that he was genuinely sorry (not just sorry that he got caught), and believes he’s “earned his way back.”

“Kyle was sorry that it ever happened, so I felt that he deserved a second chance,” she said.

“My wife gave him a 400-year history lesson on African Americans in two hours and he stayed there at the racing school for three to four hours that day,” Anthony said. “He really wanted to understand the plight of African Americans and how hurtful the word was that he actually used. He did that.”

Since Larson has been reinstated by NASCAR and picked up by Hendrick Motorsports, he has maintained his ties to the program, launching a charitable initiative called Drive for 5 through the Kyle Larson Foundation in which he’s committed to contributing $5 for each lap he races and $5,000 for each top-five finish he earns during the 2021 season.

The proceeds will be used to fund five scholarships per year for students at the Urban Youth Racing School, provide meals for at least five families per day through The Sanneh Foundation and support at least five communities per year through school grants provided by Hendrick Cares. Through the No. 5 team’s performance so far this year, Larson has pledged to contribute $65,480 and said his goal is to reach $500,000 through additional donations.

“It’s been cool to raise that money this year and we’re still not even halfway through the season yet,” Larson told the Observer. “And hopefully we’ll have a lot more top-fives and laps completed, and hopefully get some fans and others to donate as well.”

He said he wants to see support for the organizations continue to grow.

Expanding new partnerships

That is where sponsors can make a major difference. Valvoline, for example, announced it expanded its partnership with Hendrick Motorsports this past April to sponsor Larson’s car for three upcoming races this year — at Nashville, Daytona and Bristol — in addition to its sponsorship of No. 24 driver William Byron for two races. The company agreed to match Larson’s donation of $5 for each lap completed and $5,000 for a top-five finish at Nashville. Additionally, Valvoline said its opted to utilize part of its real estate on the back of the No. 5 to promote Larson’s Drive for 5 program at the track. Discussions around sponsoring Larson started long before he was winning this year, according to the company.

“What really got us excited about Kyle was that James Brown interview on CBS,” Valvoline associate brand manager Patrick Daugherty told The Observer. “When (the interview) talked about Kyle’s journey, the massive mistake that he made and how he’s righting his wrongs in a sense. … That made us comfortable to work with him.”

Daugherty said that Valvoline would not have considered partnering with Larson had he not been sincere in his efforts to atone for the slur. Chevrolet, as well, resumed its relationship with the driver after he was reinstated by NASCAR. Other former sponsors, such as McDonald’s, have not renewed their relationship with the driver. McDonald’s declined to comment when contacted for this story.

Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick continues to promote his Hendrick Cars company on the No. 5 as the primary sponsor for races not sold to sponsors NationsGuard, Freightliner, Cincinnati and MetroTech so far this year.

“Selfishly, I like having Hendrick Cars on it because I like (it) for our business all of the hits we have on the internet (from) all the fans,” Hendrick said after Larson swept all four stages of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. “We’re selling cars and we’re having a lot of fun with it.”

“We’ve talked to a lot of people,” Hendrick added. “There’s not going to be any problem getting a sponsor for Kyle.”

Larson said that racing and competing is a greater priority for him than tracking down more sponsors, but he expressed confidence in the process.

“I think if we can go out there and run up front and continue to win races and continue to do good things off the racetrack as well, sponsors will come,” Larson said.

Supporting Larson ‘150 percent’

The Martin family helped coordinate the CBS interview that sparked Valvoline’s interest through a connection to Brown. They were actually featured in the video.

The couple said they continue to support Larson “150 percent” since he has made amends and continues to be a present figure in their community. While they expect the money he earns through Drive for 5 to come at the end of the season, they said that he’s already donated two simulator rigs and has been quick to answer the phone or do a Zoom call to give driving lessons to students this season.

“That’s almost like a kid who loves basketball is practicing a jump shot, and he picks up the phone and calls LeBron James,” Anthony said. “That’s what it’s like in the racing realm.”

NASCAR driver Kyle Larson, left and team owner Rick Hendrick, right, celebrate winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, NC on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

And that’s what they hope to see continue, Michelle added, and for sponsorship to elevate Larson’s story about righting wrongs while drawing attention to opportunities for groups who are underrepresented in motorsports and beyond.

“We feel like we’re bridging the gap, so it’s really not about just Kyle,” Michelle said. “It’s about bringing exposure and exposing these children to the possibilities that life has to offer, and motorsports is just one of the huge ones.”

“Anthony started the conversation that one of our students was pretty much assassinated,” she continued. “We just want to be able to show these kids that there are different things you can do in life, and this is just one of them. Gravitate towards something. Don’t pick up a gun. Just do something that’s constructive.”

Although she said she’s ready to look past his use of the N-word, she doesn’t think the lesson should be lost.

“I think sponsorship for Kyle is an opportunity for a company to come together and say, ‘Listen, let’s learn from Kyle,’ ” Michelle said. “There’s a lot to be learned from what Kyle did.”

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