Kyle Larson Wins Races of All Kinds, and He Might Just Save NASCAR
One of my week’s highlights comes each Wednesday (Postal Service permitting) when the mail brings my copy of Area Auto Racing News, second-generation publisher Lenny Sammons’ informative and resilient Trenton-based local racing newspaper. For the week of July 10, this issue was filled with news of Pennsylvania Sprint Speedweek and especially of the three races won by invading NASCAR Cupper Kyle Larson.
Outsiders don’t usually win Speedweek races in Pennsylvania, but here was Larson in victory lane three times, a week after winning two Ohio Sprint Speedweek races, with a World of Outlaws sprint win just before that.
Oh, and he happened to win at Michigan in his primary world of NASCAR.
The gist of the discussion:
- Larson drives sprint cars like few racers anybody’s ever seen.
- He treats the other drivers like he’s just one of the guys.
- He treats the fans like they’re the reason he’s there, sticking around until the last autograph or photo request has been fulfilled.
- Propelled mainly by social media, the tracks where he raced had by far their largest crowds of the year (largest “ever” was the characterization for one place).
A couple of notes:
- He’s driving for a respected but not “biggest/best ever” car owner; this isn’t a Cup-funded operation.
- He stuck around for the fans despite having no merch to sell them after the first night, when all $13,000 worth was bought.
- He apparently received no appearance money.
Here’s the car Larson drove in Pennsylvania, but this earlier photo doesn’t show his Speedweek wing sponsor Priority Aviation, which should get credit for helping to make Kyle’s racing happen in Pa.
He was joined by Kasey Kahne and Rico Abreu in running some Speedweek races, but his performance was the talk of the show (although Abreu also won a feature).
So why am I telling you all this? Because Kyle Larson (and Erik Jones for those who love local late model racing, plus maybe Christopher Bell in a couple more years) could be what saves NASCAR. Here’s a guy the fans go wild over, and while the local short track operators hope those new fans who showed up to see Larson come back for a regular sprint racing show, NASCAR tracks might just hope that his popularity fills more and more seats at their level, as his success arc continues upward.
Larson after his Ohio Sprint Speedweek win at Attica Raceway
Maybe International Speedway Corporation was right when it blamed the Gordon and Stewart retirements (with Earnhardt coming next) for declining attendance. I’ve been beating this drum as hard and often as possible, saying that you need racers who have an established fan base when they ARRIVE at the Monster/Cup level to keep the fans coming, and in Larson and Jones (plus maybe Bell), you’ve got them. William Byron may be able to drive the heck out of a race car, but to most fans, he’s just a kid with family money who got the chance their favorite short track star would have gotten if his teeth had been straighter, his accent less jarring, and his wallet full. Byron’s path is not how you develop a fan base. It’s how you become another Joey Logano.
We’ve all got “fix it” ideas for NASCAR, but of this I’m pretty certain; if the drivers are popular and their fans can’t stay away from the tracks, the format for the racing just doesn’t matter that much. We can argue until Doomsday about the point system, the playoffs, charters, rules, and what the cars look like, but if nobody gives a crap about the guys who are racing, you’ll be playing to empty stands, and if the drivers all have huge fan clubs and can’t sell their merchandise fast enough, you’ll have crowds for the races.
Brian France, Steve O’Donnell and all the others can micromanage this sport into an early grave by playing with all that other nonsense, and they’ll continue to miss the point. Old “Big Bill” France (of whom I was not a great fan) knew that, when crowds were down, he brought in a driver people would show up to see. He knew that changing the rules or tinkering with the cars every week wouldn’t do it - only the driver made the difference.
I think Larson, Jones and a few others like them might do that for NASCAR today, and that possibility brings me as close to being optimistic as anything. The charter system is the only thing that might kill off that trend, but if the owners realize that driver popularity also brings sponsorships, maybe even that obstacle will go away.
For all our sake, I hope so. Go Kyle!
In all fairness, let me add to the comment about Kyle Larson and the fans that these sprint car races have far fewer fans in attendance and therefore the crowds are more manageable for the drivers. You can’t do that with a crowd of 100,000 (or even a third that many). NASCAR needs to be more creative in finding ways to address this - not just providing more access to those who spend (lots) more money.
Speaking of drivers getting my “Go!” backslap, you need to know that “Cowboy” Jim Kennedy gets one for having recently finished fourth in a feature at Clinton County Speedway and sixth at Dog Hollow Speedway (that’s the track’s name, folks) in Racesaver 305 Sprints. That means there’s still hope for me, because Kennedy turns 83 years old in August.
This is Cowboy Jim Kennedy racing a few years ago, on his 75th birthday. He last won a feature - as far as I know - about a month before he turned 80.
I want him to win another race, because instead of doing a backflip or climbing the fence to celebrate, he yodels.
And a third “Go!” recognition to Phil Scott, who recently won a 50-lap late model feature at the legendary Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Vermont. Scott races when he’s not busy being Vermont’s GOVERNOR! Anybody else think Vermont might be the coolest state in the nation to live in right now, if you’re into racing and don’t want your sport crapped on by the politicians? Go Phil!
Here’s one last photo for this week, for no particular reason: