The Kid: Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson is a racing machine. NASCAR's latest wunderkind climbs into his firesuit for hot laps at Williams Grove Speedway, a historic Pennsylvania oval that's been a fixture on the dirt-track circuit since 1939. Four hours earlier, Larson had been nearly 150 miles southeast, pounding around the high banks of the Monster Mile, a.k.a. Dover International Speedway in Delaware, during practice for the Nationwide stock-car race. Tomorrow, he'll be back at Dover, qualifying for and then racing in the 5-Hour Energy 200. But his Friday-night schedule was empty, so he thought nothing of braving three hours of rush-hour traffic to make the sprint-car show at Williams Grove.
Last year, Larson ran no fewer than 121 races -- that's not a typo -- in midgets, winged sprint cars, nonwing sprinters, Silver Crown cars, dirt go-karts, late models, stock cars, and the Camping World Truck Series, which is the third tier in the NASCAR hierarchy. After winning the K&N Pro Series East stock-car championship and leading the most laps in the truck finale, he graduated to the Nationwide Series -- second only to Sprint Cup on the NASCAR ladder -- for 2013.
With thirty-three races on the schedule, the Nationwide Series is considered by most participants to be a hellish grind. But at twenty years of age, Larson is still young enough to consider any day without racing an opportunity wasted. "I never get tired of it," he says. Especially when he gets a chance to escape from the 3450-pound stock-car leviathans and return to his roots -- running sprint cars on dirt ovals. "It's more exciting," he says. "It's more difficult. The racing is better. There's more passing. You can start last and win a race in thirty laps. The tracks change a lot more during the race. You feel like you're going a lot faster. It's a lot of fun."
With 900 horsepower in a relatively crude, 1400-pound package, sprint cars just might be the most intimidating and viscerally thrilling racing cars on earth, and Larson looks spectacular as he bucks and bounces around Williams Grove. Historically, he's had trouble on the peculiar dirt of the Pennsylvania tracks, and tonight, his car is obviously a handful. The front wheels are flopping back and forth like a freshly landed fish, and his massive right rear tire repeatedly comes within a baby's breath of the wall before hooking up and spitting out a rooster tail of orange Pennsylvania clay.
Because of his dirt-track expertise and NASCAR prospects, Larson is often described as "the next Tony Stewart." Stewart himself says: "You can bet the farm on [Larson succeeding]. I guarantee it. If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident." Longtime midget-car owner Keith Kunz, whose impressive résumé of drivers includes Stewart, is even more bullish. "He's the best driver I've ever seen," Kunz says flatly. "There is nothing he can't do in a race car. I honestly believe he's going to win multiple NASCAR championships."
After hot laps, a push truck sponsored by a local tattoo parlor nudges Larson's car back into the small plot of dirt behind the team hauler in the infield that serves as the pit and paddock at Williams Grove. Larson is so slight -- five-foot six, 130 pounds -- that he's barely visible in the cockpit. When he pulls off his helmet, he reveals handsome features that are the product of a Caucasian father and a Japanese American mother whose parents spent time in an internment camp during World War II. If he were wearing a baby-blue tux instead of a firesuit, he could pass for a high-school student picking up his date for the senior prom.
Of course, Larson has never looked old enough to do what he's doing. He started driving karts when he was four, began racing when he was seven, earned national sponsorship when he was twelve, moved up to hairy-chested sprint cars when he was fourteen, won his first sprint-car race four days after turning fifteen, and was a national phenom before he was old enough to vote. After a remarkable 2011 season during which he notched two dozen feature wins, he was signed to a driver-development contract by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "To tell you the truth," Chip Ganassi says, "I was surprised somebody else hadn't signed him already."
Larson has taken to stock cars as though he's been driving them his entire life. But he's having a miserable night here at Williams Grove. Although he easily wins a heat race, he's mired midpack in the so-called A Main -- the feature event -- and finds it difficult to move up on a track with only one jealously guarded line. He and another driver collide in turn 3. (The other guy ends up in the fence.) Later, while rim-riding in a desperate attempt to find some speed, Larson goes around about as far as he can without spinning. "He's so good in the car," crew chief Steve Suchy says as he watches from atop the team hauler. "He's got excellent car control, and he adapts real quick."
Despite running flat out for twenty-five laps, Larson is still twelfth at the finish, and he looks disgusted as he strips off his firesuit. How, he's asked, was the car? "Shitty," he says, without rancor. And how was the driver? "Shitty," he says. It's after 10 p.m. by the time he and his girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet, the sister of fellow sprint-car/
NASCAR driver Brad Sweet, head back to Dover, and it's after 1 a.m. when he reaches the hotel, his ears still ringing from the roar of the 410-cubic-inch V-8.
Kyle's father was just about the last person to believe in the legend of Kyle Larson.
Mike Larson, who worked for many years for the electric company in a small town in Northern California, is what his son jokingly calls "a professional racing fan." Kyle likes to say that he attended his first race when he was one week old, and while Mike can't confirm this, he admits that it's not unlikely. He and his wife, Janet, attended ninety races last year, and their eldest child, Andrea, was a huge NASCAR fan even before Kyle started racing stock cars.
When Kyle was four, his father built him a 3-hp "fun" kart. Friends -- racing professionals among them -- claimed that they were amazed by how the kid slid the kart around a dirt track, but Mike figured they were just being polite. When he turned seven, Kyle started racing so-called outlaw karts, winged dirt-track machines that resemble World of Outlaws sprint cars. Before too long, he was winning championships left and right, but Mike still didn't see a future as a professional race-car driver.
"When he was nine or ten, Kyle told me, 'Dad, I'm going to make it,' " Mike recalls. "I was like, OK, whatever. There are a thousand other kids with the same desire. I told him, 'Nowadays, it takes money -- either family money or sponsor money -- and you don't have either one.' Poor kid, I thought, he's got a dream that's impossible to achieve."
But Larson's exploits caught the attention of local sprint-car owners Dave and Debbie Vertullo. And when Kyle turned fourteen, they gave him the opportunity to become the youngest driver ever to race a sprint car in California. He wrecked his first time out but notched his first sprint-car victory the next year. The year after that, he won more A Mains and performed admirably in the Chili Bowl, the biggest midget race in the country.
"You've got people in your ear saying, 'He's as good as anybody I've ever seen,' " Mike says. "But come on! He hadn't done anything on the national level. He was a local kid, and he wasn't even the best 410-sprint-car driver in Northern California."
Still, Larson was impressive enough to land a paying ride with Keith Kunz, who runs one of the premier midget programs in the country. Racing on both dirt and pavement, Larson rocked during the summer of 2011. He popped up on national radar screens after winning the historic Belleville Nationals -- at nineteen, the same age another NorCal refugee by the name of Jeff Gordon had been when he won the race. Larson won the World of Outlaws Gold Cup -- the biggest winged-sprint-car race on the West Coast -- as well as the best-paying nonwing sprint-car race, in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Then, during his first visit to the high banks of Eldora Speedway, he wowed track owner Tony Stewart by becoming the first driver in thirteen years to sweep all three nonwing open-wheel races in the 4-Crown Nationals. (The sprint-car victory came on the last lap.)
"I've been around for a long time," Mike says. "I've seen [sprint-car legends] Jan Opperman, Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser. To hear your kid lumped in with guys like that is hard to fathom. But by that point, I couldn't deny it anymore. I mean, damn, he's good! He might be one of the best of all time."
Ganassi agreed. At the end of the year, he signed Larson to the driver-development contract and farmed him out for the early-season late-model series at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida. In his first race in a fendered car, Larson won with a last-lap pass. His second race? He won that one, too. In midseason, he made his Camping World Truck debut, finishing tenth in his first outing, sixth in his second, second in his third, and leading the most laps in the fourth. He also did a full season in NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East, winning twice and improbably clinching the championship on the last lap of the last race of the season.
"Hollywood wouldn't have scripted that," Mike says. "It was too ridiculous."
Just another magical day at the office for NASCAR's hardest-working driver.
The Monster Mile at Dover is a nasty, stupendously loud one-mile bowl with daunting high banks and a concrete surface that's rougher and slicker than asphalt. Making matters even worse, it's brutally hot and humid, and Sprint Cup is racing here along with Nationwide, so several drivers in the top-tier series are moonlighting in the preliminary race on Saturday. Larson qualified a disappointing fifteenth in his Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. But during the lull before the race, Stewart Cooper, the team's director of competition, is wearing the contented smile of a man holding a winning lottery ticket.
"Kyle is a special driver who's got the opportunity to be whatever he wants to be," Cooper says. "He's still learning. Every new place we go, halfway through the race, it's like a light switch goes off and he starts moving forward. I can't wait until the second half of the season. I wouldn't put anything past him right now."
Larson's 2013 season had begun with a bang -- literally. In the season-opening Nationwide race, while running fifth during the last lap at Daytona, he got caught up in somebody else's wreck. His car flew into the catch-fencing, and pieces that sheared off of his Chevy injured more than two dozen spectators. But he finished second at Bristol the next month and has posted several other top tens since then. (He also beat Cup regular Joey Logano to win at Rockingham in a one-off truck drive.) So he's not too concerned about his starting position at Dover.
"Being a rookie at all these races, I don't really learn the racing line until I'm out there around other cars," he says. "Once the race starts, I can see how people are changing their lines and what I have to do to make the car better. I just learn a ton during the race."
Out of the car, Larson is poised and self-possessed, calm and serious beyond his years but prone to break into a boyish smile when something strikes him as funny. Despite being a bona fide star for more than half his life, he's remained strikingly humble and low-maintenance. But when he climbs into the cockpit, he becomes a bulldog who'll fight just as hard over twentieth as the lead. And even when things go wrong, nothing seems to faze him.
"The car feels pretty good in 1 and 2, but it's a little tight through 3 and 4," he radios crew chief Trent Owens during the first caution at Dover. Based on Larson's feedback, Owens improves the handling. Still, passing here is a bitch, and Larson runs high and low searching for opportunities. "He's got a great ability to pass," Ganassi says. "One of the things I like about him is that he's always looking, always trying different lines."
Grinding like a veteran, Larson makes up several spots on the track, but the crew keeps losing them during pit stops. Two-thirds of the way through the race, he's back where he started. As the laps wind down, he claws his way up to tenth with several gritty passes. All but one of the drivers who finish ahead of him are past or current Cup regulars.
Larson looks frustrated and exhausted when he climbs out of his car, but Owens is sanguine about his performance. "Kyle's future with Chip is already planned," he says. "We're just here to give him the education to get to the next level."
Ganassi says he expects to see Larson in Cup "a lot sooner than people think." And after he gets there, he expects him to win not only races but also championships, plural. Ganassi's not the only one. "People keep calling him the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart," Cooper says. Then he smiles and adds, "But what I'm waiting for is the next Jimmie Johnson."