Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

TORRES: Let Versatile Racers Like Larson Pursue Their Passions

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Back at Sonoma Raceway two years ago, at the first-ever race I was credentialed to cover a NASCAR Cup Series race for this website I still proudly write for, Kyle Larson was the focal point of unnecessary controversy.

Why? It’s because Larson’s passion for dirt racing (sprint and midgets), like wanting to run for the World of Outlaws championship in the future, was more apparent than his main driving profession which is stock car racing.

Larson said some aren’t as open minded of versatile racers and since mentioned it’s never about the money to him, he simply wants to race.

Sounds fair and admirable right? Larson’s passion is racing and guys like him are the reason why versatility in motorsports is slowly coming back into the mainstream.

Fernando Alonso has competed at the Indianapolis 500, won multiple endurance sports car races and even tried this year’s Dakar Rally.

Virgin Mobile Australia Supercars superstar Scott McLaughlin has run a Team Penske Cup car at Surfers Paradise and is interested of challenging himself by running in the NTT IndyCar Series someday. According to Motorsport.com’s David Malsher-Lopez, it could be as soon as this year after testing a Chevrolet at Sebring this month.

https://twitter.com/Team_Penske/status/1216868324128317441

Those guys are getting rave reviews for trying something different. Even well-established guys such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart are revered for trying multiple racing disciplines in their legendary careers at a time when this practice was hard to come by.

It’s always been that way.

Fans praise those racers who step outside of their comfort zones thanks to those who’ve paved the way for this practice (Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, etc.).

Now, it’s deemed a sin to try different things if you’re a NASCAR driver like Larson. Even James Davison, who for the past month-and-a-half said he’ll try all types of disciplines including both the Daytona and Indy 500, is deemed by fans as unready or even questioned his legitimacy of doing “The 500 Mile Double” that guys like John Andretti and Robby Gordon have done before.

Their defense is Davison has only ran on Xfinity Series road courses and done alright at best at Indy with the exception of 2017 where he was less than 20 laps away from a possible top-five finish for Dale Coyne Racing as a substitute driver after Sebastien Bourdais was injured in a horrific qualifying crash the week before.

I get their points, but requirements of running a superspeedway have at times bucked the accustomed system to give those guys who at least tried INDYCAR oval racing a shot in stock cars. It’s ultimately up to NASCAR as far as whether or not they’ll allow Davison run the 500.

As for Larson, he’s been unfairly chastised by fans more than he ever did in 2018. Case in point, after his violent crash in New Zealand that resulted in a bloodshot left eye, similar to Davey Allison after his crash at The Winston in 1992, fans want him out of that dirt racing environment.

Oh sure, Christopher Bell, Larson’s biggest racing rival, can have a tumble and nobody bats an eye but when Larson crashes, it’s sacrilegious of him to do something he was known for before trying NASCAR.

Fast forward to last Saturday, Larson’s comments after finally capturing that elusive Chili Bowl win became the latest topic because he said in victory lane that winning Tulsa is the biggest win of his motorsports career.

Even bigger than winning a Daytona 500 where in 2017, he was less than a lap away from winning it all, and apologized to both NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway before saying his now “infamous” comments.

There’s two sides I’ve seen on social media: Those who applaud the six-time Cup winner for finally winning one of the most prestigious races in the world and not needing to apologize for his comments whatsoever, which I agree wholeheartedly.

The other being, he doesn’t care about NASCAR again like he really should. How dare he say the Chili Bowl is bigger than Daytona 500!

People don’t understand why a Chili Bowl win means a lot to him and that’s because he was one corner away from winning it last year, but Bell ended up victorious for a third consecutive year. It was heartbreaking for him to come that close of winning, like any racer would feel in that situation.

Aside from the Rolex 24, what other race can bring so many drivers like Larson, Bell and Justin Allgaier from NASCAR, INDYCAR’s Conor Daly and Santino Ferrucci, and dirt greats like Rico Abreu and Sammy Swindell, at a single venue?

The Chili Bowl does and I’d imagine we’ll see more giving it a go someday.

Even from afar (like myself) and the fortunate who’ve either attend, competed and covered the Chili Bowl festivities, recognize how big of a deal this race is to the over 300 competitors who are trying to make the 24-car main event.

In Larson’s case, it’s been a race he’s been trying to win since he was 15 in 2008 and now that he’s finally done it, can you blame his comments?

Absolutely not, and in my eye, that win should be viewed as the monumental moment of Larson’s racing career where people finally respect him as a versatile competitor. Much like Andretti, Foyt and Gurney have deserved throughout racing history.

But in the world of social media, it’s not the case where some people are arguing about Larson never winning Daytona which is beyond factually incorrect. Larson has a Rolex watch for proof when he was part of the overall winning class in the 2015 Rolex 24 with INDYCAR champions Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, and 2010 Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray.

Does that mean guys like Scott Pruett never won Daytona because he’s never won the 500? Absolutely not.

If you win Daytona, no matter the level (ex. ARCA and the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge) or discipline (stock cars, sports cars or motorbikes), it’s a big deal to those racers.

Drivers have their vision of which race is bigger: For open wheel racers, it ranges from Indy, Monaco, Tulsa and Knoxville. Stock car drivers is Daytona, Charlotte or even Darlington. Sports car competitors is Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans.

So what if Larson’s biggest win is the Chili Bowl, it’s his Super Bowl! Let him be and recognize his motives because some races are bigger than others to certain drivers.

Let’s applaud Larson’s accolades that we know will continue to grow for many years to come. Enough of burying his passion because at this rate, only he or team owner Chip Ganassi can really stop him from doing what he wants.

Those guys who try other disciplines know what they’ve signed up for and understand the risks. Even Formula One’s Valtteri Bottas, who runs for the best team in the paddock which is Mercedes, runs rallying in the off-season and finished ninth in the Artic Lapland Rally.

https://twitter.com/ValtteriBottas/status/1218834667123757058

Now if their contracts restrict them from trying other things, fine.

It doesn’t make them any less valuable than those who run multiple things. Let me make that clear, those who are strictly running one discipline that made them legends like Lewis Hamilton (F1), Jimmie Johnson (NASCAR) and Valentino Rossi (Moto GP), have poured their full dedication into their respective sanctioning bodies. There’s absolute no shame with that.

However, this solo sanctioning practice became more common after the death of rising F1 star Stefan Bellof at the 24 Hours of Spa in 1985 because owners and team principles want to protect their stars as best as possible. No matter how safe it can be, there’s always that danger in motorsports.

Even Larson has had to convince Ganassi to let him run the Knoxville Nationals, the other major dirt race he’s yet to win, as it took place the same weekend NASCAR are at Michigan International Speedway. So there are restrictions, no matter how gifted a racer is.

Come Daytona 500 Media Day three weeks from now, I’m sure it’s going to be among the topics being brought up to Larson. It makes for captivating stories, but whether it’s Sonoma when I wrote a piece on Larson’s WoO aspirations two years ago or the biggest win of his racing career this past Saturday night in Tulsa, Larson is a versatile racer.

That’ll never change. In fact, he’s even racing in winged cars in Australia just days after lifting the “Golden Driller” for the first time.

The world of motorsports thrives on versatility sometimes, so the next time someone wants to try a different type of racing machine or even claim this race is bigger than others, respect them for it. Cut the backlash and if the motives are right, condone them for winning or aspiring to become stronger racers.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. He's also covered Idaho Athletics and high school football as both a writer and videographer. Additionally, he spent 2017 writing several racing columns as an independent journalist. Luis does video and photography, and is a fan of Seattle sports, a music critic and a motivator who wants to impact people's lives.