I discovered NASCAR as a black teen in Bed-Stuy in 2001. Needless to say, this was a solo interest for the rest of my high school experience. But I never wavered. In fact, my fandom only grew. I wore the number 24 on my high school football team for my favorite driver, and was thrilled to attend a college just a short walk away from Daytona International Speedway.
Being a black NASCAR fan is a lot like being Sasquatch on his first day in the big city. You either shock people with your existence, or are mocked and disbelieved. Either way, you have to get used to it.
I’ve had a great NASCAR life. My favorite team won over 100 races and eight championships. I attended races, and had unique experiences in my life. Nearby fans were either friendly, or ignored my existence. Either way, I never felt unwelcome in the community, even if I was at the edge of it.
Things began to change in 2016. It began with NASCAR’s public endorsement of then-candidate Donald Trump at a rally in February, explained away as a personal endorsement by its Chairman, a Hall of Famer, and its next big star. My unease grew when arguably NASCAR’s greatest champion denounced a protest of Colin Kaepernick’s police brutality protest that summer.
I’ve never been under any impression that NASCAR was made up of fans, drivers or teams that leaned left. I did come to believe they were inclusive, as time and time again, that’s shown to be best for business. After all, it the same Chairman who endorsed Trump had decreed that the Confederate flag not be flown at events in 2015. And NASCAR was the organization that prided itself on its Drive for Diversity Program, whose stated aim was to push women and minority groups to the top three national series. That program’s greatest success was Kyle Larson.
To me, Larson equaled progress. Another California kid (the closest you get to calling someone a hippie in the series) to root for. Driving for Team Chevy, with an aggressive style, rewarded with a win or punished with a wreck, he was fun to watch and easy to like. His success made me believe that Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suárez weren’t aberrations, but signs of drivers to come.
With that mentality, my reaction to this past Sunday night’s news of Larson’s use of the N-Word (hard -er, and yes it matters) wasn’t anger, but more despair. “Come on Kyle”, what were you thinking? Making it much worse was listening to the audio. It was so casual, so commonplace for him. With the -er?
He was going to lose his job either way. It was inevitable. The -er accelerated that. You can’t defend it with the usual “rappers use it” or “I hear it on the bus”. You didn’t hear the -er. What I question, however, is whether I would have run away from him if I were the sponsor. See, that black NASCAR fan from Brooklyn grew up to be a brand strategist. And NASCAR is the thunderdome of brands.
McDonald’s, a no-brainer. They rely on urban markets to survive. They have their own racism crisis to deal with in China, a looming recession, and cutting Larson gave them one less headache and the moral high ground. Credit One Bank? The same. Larson isn’t much of a useful spokesperson now, as their target audience of lower credit score holders includes the historically disenfranchised, and they have their obligations under the Community Reinvestment Act.
Team Chevy, however, would have presented an opportunity to me. Chevy’s brand messaging in the past has been about the strength and power of America. In a deeply divided country, I would have perhaps taken on the challenge of driving home the importance of every member of our society. I would have introduced Larson to the people who were the target of hateful language pre-dating the Civil Rights movement, and to the people who continue to be abused online and in person today.
Would that be politically correct? No. Would it be social justice? Also no. It would be a huge risk. One that could drastically implode, but one that could be the greatest brand message of our crazy time.
Why? Because, if sincere, he could be the model. He could be the one to push back on those commenting and tweeting that “it’s just one word” or that this was an “overreaction”. In an election year, Larson could have shined a light on those not afforded the opportunities he has been. Imagine with me for a second if Kyle were able to equate the hateful words his Japanese grandparents heard while being confined to an American concentration camp during the Second World War with the words that he has uttered in his life.
Is Kyle’s career over? That’s still in the air. Was Riley Cooper’s? No. But Cooper wore the logo of Jeffrey Lurie’s Eagles, not a Fortune 100 brand, plastered across his chest. It’s ultimately not for me to decide. If I were a Chief Brand Officer, and a team owner came to me to propose bringing Larson on, I’d need yes answers to these three questions:
1. Has Kyle sincerely demonstrated his remorse outside of a monotone statement?
2. Does our target audience consist of a cross-section of NASCAR fans and non-NASCAR fans who are willing to have a tough conversation that raises our brand awareness?
3. Is our brand voice human, and if so can Kyle aid our efforts to drive that grittiness?
There are only so many brands out there that can hit a yes to Questions 2 and 3, so Larson should ensure he checks off Question 1 consistently until those options present themselves.
The worst thing a brand and team could do is wait until the news cycle is onto the next scandal, and pick Larson up. The typical “everyone deserves a second chance” notion won’t really work here, as that dark cloud will follow Larson the remainder of his career unless he makes a drastic effort to change the weather.
Unlike some, I don’t wish ill on Kyle. I actually am rooting for him again, albeit in a very different race. If he can push himself and dedicate himself to others, this definitely doesn’t have to be the checkered flag for his NASCAR career.