Life on the Topside

Jubilant is not a strong enough word. The emotions being felt by Kyle Larson, and many in the racing community, were something far greater. Larson had just taken the checkered flag at Michigan International Speedway for his first NASCAR Cup Series win, and a party was about to start.

Kyle Larson

BROOKLYN, MI – AUGUST 28: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 28, 2016 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)

He did a series of smoky donuts in the Michigan infield while holding the steering wheel out the window. He then climbed out of his Chevrolet and stood atop the roof, arms raised in triumph.

Amidst the excitement and the congratulations from competitors, he had to sit down in Victory Lane. First though, he was sure to say he “parked it” for his friend, the late Bryan Clauson, who had lost his life just three weeks earlier.

For many in dirt racing, that late August Sunday was finally a chance to celebrate after nearly a month of mourning.

For Larson, it was also the culmination of a lifelong dream at the age of just 24, and proof to millions of kids that sheer talent and laser-focus can still pay off.

“I always say, ‘just have fun,’” Larson says of the approach he’d pass along to fellow racers.

“I think that’s kind of how my parents raised me while I was growing up racing …. If you’re not having fun and you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t really be doing it, and you’re probably not doing a good job either. So definitely, [my] number one life tip is just to have fun.”

It certainly is fun to be Kyle Larson these days. He’s a newly minted Cup Series winner, a doting father, and he drives stock cars for a living at the highest level of the sport.  As a result, he could be doing nearly anything he wants with his free time. But he chooses to just race more.

“I love racing Sprint Cars, so anytime I can get back into a Sprint Car or Midget, I try to take full advantage of that,” he says. “They’re a lot of fun to drive, the competition’s really tough, and it’s fun to go back and race and do what I’m good at.”

He’s clearly good at driving any type of vehicle he straps into, but open wheel dirt racing is where he cut his teeth, made a name for himself, and built the foundation for the life he currently leads.

His girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet, grew up in a racing family, with her brother Brad a World of Outlaws fixture. Kyle and Katelyn’s two-year-old son, Owen, is in many ways being raised by the entire racing community, including those in both the NASCAR and dirt worlds.

Kyle Larson

Larson with son, Owen.
(Photo by Dave Birro III)

“Racing’s all we know, so most of our vacations are spent at the racetrack,” Larson says. “Owen totally loves racing, which is awesome.  We go to the NASCAR races and all he wants to do is play at the playground or go into the garage area and work on the race car.”

Racing has been good to Larson, which is why he wants to give back to the sport like fellow NASCAR stars and dirt series brethren Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. Currently, he partners with Justin Marks to field a World of Outlaws team known as Larson Marks Racing for driver Shane Stewart, and he hosts the Outlaw Kart Showcase, featuring cars he grew up racing, each fall in northern California. Still, for Larson, nothing is better than driving.

“The NASCAR stuff can get really stressful with not only the racing, but everything else that goes along with it,” he says. “So, when I have an off weekend and can escape and go race the dirt, it’s really kind of relaxing and fun at the same time.”

Larson meteorically rose through the motorsports ranks, beginning as a precocious kart racer around his northern California home of Elk Grove, a city of 140,000 that lies just to the south of Sacramento. A longtime race fan, he has several photos of himself as a kid with racers he now competes against. He loved sporting Jeff Gordon gear in grade school, too. A unique, rare talent, Larson quickly conquered both the local and national karting scene. He then collected Sprint Car wins at tracks around northern California in his teenage years, before bursting on to the national stage in 2011.

That year, he pursued the USAC National Midget title for Keith Kunz/ Curb-Agajanian Motorsports, a team he still drives for in the Midget ranks. During the season, he swept both the Belleville Midget Nationals and the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora, finishing second in national Midget points. The following year, he won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship for Rev Racing as a Drive for Diversity participant. Larson’s mother, Janet, is of Japanese descent; Kyle and Owen’s middle names are the same as her maiden one: Miyata.

Larson competed in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2013 before joining Chip Ganassi Racing full-time in the Cup Series the following year. To date, he has five XFINITY victories and two Camping World Truck Series wins to go along with his Premier Series triumph. He’s also won four World of Outlaws races and has won multiple events in all three USAC series, as well as in other open wheel sanctions around the country.  He even has a Rolex 24 win to his credit, serving as one of Ganassi’s drivers during the 2015 edition of the prestigious 24-hour race at Daytona.

Kyle Larson

At speed during a NASCAR weekend in Martinsville. (Photo by Barry Cantrell/Short Track Spotlight)

Larson is unassuming, loyal, and very polite. They are values he has clearly inherited from his parents, the middle-class couple Mike and Janet. He also has an older sister, Andrea, who works in motorsports public relations.

Larson’s on-camera persona is sometimes seen as reserved; he doesn’t emanate the best-buddy vibe of Carl Edwards, the good-old-boy charm of Clint Bowyer, or the devil-may-care attitude of the Busch brothers.

Behind the scenes, however, he is very funny and well-liked by his peers. He’s also part of the Golf Guys Tour featuring Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and other NASCAR personalities.

On track though, he turns into an entirely different version of Kyle Larson. He’s somewhat diminutive in stature, standing just 5’6” tall and weighing 120 pounds on a good day, yet he becomes one of the most aggressive and hard driving competitors in the sport.

“He’s pretty quick to move around and pretty quick to experiment with things that he can do differently, versus just waiting for you to get the car perfectly right,” says his Cup Series crew chief, Chad Johnston. “He understands there’s a lot that he can do that affects the handling of the car with his hands and his feet that maybe some other guys don’t.”

Larson is usually the first to run the high side, inches from the wall on any given Sunday.  Sometimes he hits it, sometimes it makes him go faster.

“I absolutely enjoy that,” Johnston says. “It’s just a lot more fun to watch him pick up six spots on the restart when he’s on the topside. Or, I go back to second Richmond where he’s four-wide on the top, which is unheard of at Richmond, and [he] ends up finishing second.”

It’s that type of driving which has endeared Larson to not only the NASCAR crowd, but has given diehard dirt fans a reason to follow him. Nowhere is that melding of the two cultures more important than at Eldora Speedway each July for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. Larson won the 2016 edition of the event.

Kyle Larson

ROSSBURG, OH – JULY 20: Kyle Larson, driver of the #24 DC Solar Chevrolet, wins the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series 4th Annual Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby 150, at Eldora Speedway on July 20, 2016 in Rossburg, Ohio. (Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“Eldora is one of the most exciting races of the year that everybody looks forward to, whether you’re a NASCAR or a dirt fan,” Larson says. “So, for the NASCAR fans that don’t really know what dirt racing is or understand it or have ever watched it, it opens their eyes to it. When the race is exciting there, it may get them to get off the couch and go to their local dirt track on the weekend.

“I think it goes both ways,” he continues. “When dirt fans can see myself and Bobby Pierce and Rico (Abreu) and Christopher Bell and Kenny Schrader get back on the dirt, it gets them really excited to watch, and gets them watching NASCAR for at least one night out of the year.”

Larson says that, to him, the race has had a bit more of an asphalt vibe until 2016, when he believes Tony Stewart and promoter Roger Slack prepped the track just right for the Truck Series vehicles. Larson thinks they are comparable to Street Stocks on dirt. Always curious, he’d like to sample a Dirt Late Model at some point, too, and expresses disappointment he never had a chance to run the Prelude to the Dream.

Larson is also part of a dirt brotherhood that prides itself on connecting with fans. That is what he sees as the biggest difference between a dirt race and a NASCAR event, noting the fans’ passion for the on-track product and personalities in each discipline.

“I would say the after-the-race stuff is where it gets different,” Larson explains.  “At the NASCAR races we are all heading out as quick as we can to go home. So, there’s no opportunity for race fans to get our autograph and stuff like that, or our picture after the race.”

He doesn’t get to go to the other side of the grandstands very often during NASCAR weekends, a result of the breakneck scheduling of on-track activity, sponsor appearances, and quick flight turnarounds. Fans have to catch their favorite driver at a scheduled appearance or in their brief moments of free time. At many dirt races on the other hand, the fans and drivers have the opportunity to intermingle and spend time one-on-one after events.

Larson embraces the time spent with others who share his love for the sport, whether they are behind the wheel, turning wrenches, or watching as spectators.

“I try to stay as heavily involved as I can because I love dirt track racing, and I want to do what I can to help grow it,” he says.

Kyle Larson

Larson and family celebrate with Shane Stewart and Larson Marks Racing during opening night of the 2016 Knoxville Nationals. (Photo courtesy of World Racing Group)

Larson and Justin Marks’ Sprint Car driver, Shane Stewart, says the team tries to keep the car out after the race and greet fans in the pits, acknowledging their importance to the general health of the sport.

“I think the difference between what we do and the NASCAR scene is that those guys are so much more popular than we are as athletes, it’s really hard for the fans to get that close to them like it is at a dirt racetrack,” he says.

“That’s what’s really cool about when Kyle and Tony Stewart and those guys come over and race Sprint Cars, is that the fans can get a little bit closer to them.”

Stewart drives for the team thanks to a years-old conversation between himself and Larson. The young driver specifically said he wanted Stewart behind the wheel of his car should he form his own team someday, and then followed up when the idea became reality.

“They called me and I think it’s just a true testament to who Kyle is as a person,” Stewart says.

He has found driving for racers like Larson and Justin Marks invaluable, as they speak a common language and understand the sport’s nuances.

“The good thing about Kyle is when he does come to the racetrack and watches us, he’s really good about watching the race car, and I’m able to learn from him; what he sees on the racetrack I can translate into what I’m doing in the race car,” he says. “He knows because he’s driven them, and he’s a good driver, so that part of it’s been really cool.”

Regardless of their career trajectory and success, open wheel drivers tend to share a bond and friendship that could easily be seen as a byproduct of the sport’s inherent danger and the constant, grueling travel involved. Larson points to another reason. It has to do with trade secrets, or the lack thereof, in the open wheel world.

“Sprint Cars are just really simple race cars, and the competition is heavy, but at least the competition between equipment and stuff isn’t that big of a deal,” he says.

Kyle Larson

Larson (57) behind the wheel alongside Brad Sweet during the 2016 Knoxville Nationals. (Photo courtesy of World Racing Group).

“There’s only four bars, four shocks, stagger, and wheel spacing really that separate you. So, I think that might also be why we kind of all get along. It’s fun to go to big events and race and have a good time. Even though you might race hard with each other, you all share a beer afterwards.”

Those big events Larson speaks of crisscross the country and the world. He’s allowed 25 races by Ganassi and primary sponsor Target, which this past year allowed him to compete in, among other events, the Chili Bowl, some events during Indiana Midget Week, the majority of Ohio Sprint Week, the Knoxville Nationals, and the Turkey Night Grand Prix on Thanksgiving night, which he won for the second time in his career.

After just a few weeks of respite, he heads to Australia over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to compete in the Ultimate Sprintcar Championship events at Valvoline Raceway in Sydney. He’ll be back stateside for the Chili Bowl before returning to Australia for the Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic at Premier Speedway in Victoria.

He speaks glowingly of the fans on the other side of the world, talking about the energy and passion pulsing throughout the sold-out grandstands. He’s planning to document the trip using the hashtag #DirtDownUnder.

It’s a demanding, year-round schedule, but Larson and his young family seemingly wouldn’t have it any other way.

The reason?

It’s really fun to be Kyle Larson.

 

(Main image of Kyle Larson, Katelyn Sweet, and Owen Larson by Brian Lawdermilk (NASCAR via Getty Images)

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