Kyle Larson is a rising star in NASCAR. The 21-year-old completed his first full season in the Nationwide Series this weekend, racking up four second-place finishes, nine top-five finishes, and 17 top-10 finishes — which was good enough to earn Larson the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year award. He's the first Japanese-American to be named Rookie of the Year, as well as the first member of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Program to win the honor.
Larson has had the attention of the racing world for a few years. He has been compared to racing icons Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and has been called NASCAR's next great driver. Gordon himself has said he's "blown away" by Larson's talent behind the wheel. "He makes me look like nothing," Gordon said earlier this year. "The kid is really spectacular. I think he's the rawest, most talented race car driver that I know of."
Next season, racing fans will see how good Larson really is. He makes the jump to the Sprint Cup, driving the No. 42 Chevy SS for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. (He's currently a development driver on the team.) And for a sport that has struggled to attract young people, Larson could be the boost NASCAR needs to turn into its next great era.
Sports Illustrated Kids spoke to Larson on November 8, a day after he helped unveil a newly renovated library at Palm Lane Elementary School in Phoenix. He talked about the event, his career in racing, and his excitement for climbing into the No. 42 car next season.
How did the event go at the library yesterday?
It was a lot of fun, actually. It was cool to see all the kids. They were really excited.
Were they excited for you or the new library or both?
A little bit of both, but probably more so the library, which was really cool, I thought. The before and after pictures of that place was pretty neat. Before it was pretty blah, and now they’ve got all new paint and carpet and shelving and 2000 new books and upgraded technology in there. So, yeah, they were all really pumped up about that.
That’s cool. Did they know ahead of time that you were going to be there?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I read for a group of first graders, there were probably 15 of them, and they seemed pretty excited when they announced I was there.
Why is community service like that important, not only generally but for you personally?
It’s cool to be a small part — a really small part — of that whole remodeling of the library and hopefully get the kids excited about reading and bettering their futures. Education is really important, as everybody knows, to make your life better. And a lot of those families don’t have books in their homes. So they got to take seven books home, and hopefully they’ll read them with their parents. And their siblings got books, also. So hopefully it gets them excited about education and reading and learning.
In terms of you as a driver, what’s life like for a 21-year-old NASCAR star on the rise?
It’s nice. Busy a lot of the time, but not too bad. It’s fun to travel the world, or the United States, and visit different places every week. And the driving part’s a lot of fun, too, You get to meet new people every week and interact with fans and stuff, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been having a blast with it all year, and hope to have even more fun next year.
You're of Japanese decent — what's the racing culture like in Japan?
I don’t know. I don’t think NASCAR is too big in Japan. But hopefully with me being half Japanese that will make some of those people excited and get into it a little more. I don’t even know if a lot of them know that there’s a Japanese-American in NASCAR, but I’m sure if they found out it would get a little excited and get them to pay attention to NASCAR a little more.
People have called you NASCAR’s Next One and the next big thing in racing — what’s your reaction when you hear things like that?
Well, I know it helps a lot for my career and it helps a lot to get me where I’m at today. And I think it’s a neat thing to have guys that I've looked up to for a while pay attention to me and have good things to say about me. I try not to pay too much attention to it, really, because I don’t want it to get to my head or anything like that. I don’t want it to add pressure to me or anything like that, either. So obviously I think it’s really cool. It means a lot to me, but I try to keep that in the back of my mind a little bit.
Guys like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are some of those drivers who have had good things to say about you. Do you ever talk to them or do they ever talk to you about what to expect as a driver on the rise?
I don’t talk to them, really, about anything like that, as far as pointers on driving and stuff like that in the stock cars. I don’t know if you know Shane Hmiel, but he’s been a pretty big help to me. He texts me every week and talks to me about the track I’m going to and the things I need to feel in the car and maybe how the track changes during a race and things like that. But anything else, I try to learn on my own, I guess.
You're taking over as driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy SS in 2014. What's it like to be in the situation of taking over for another driver, getting in a new car, and changing your role on a team?
It’s exciting. Being a part of Chip Gannasi’s Sprint Cup program and being sponsored by Target is really cool. Everybody knows that logo, the bullseye, and when they see it on a bright red car on the hood they know what it means. And to be a part of that brand is pretty cool. It’s going to establish, hopefully, my brand, and I think their cars are really good now and they run toward the front a lot of times. So it’s going to be a blast next year.
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team has some serious history in racing. Do you feel any kind of pressure or sense of expectation being a bigger part of it?
No, not at all. I’m not one to ever really feel any pressure, I guess. I just go out there and race and try the best I can. So I don’t pay attention to all that other stuff that goes along on the outside of driving. But I know that Chip has had an awesome career. He’s won multiple Indy 500s, Daytona 500, Brickyard, won lots of races in the Grand Am Series. If I can win him a championship in the Sprint Cup series someday, that would be really cool to add that to his resume.
How have you improved over the course of this season?
In the beginning of the year, I think I tried to drive too hard to impress people. And after I settled down, I stopped crashing as much and finishing better and being more consistent. But I’d just say the consistency part is what I’m a little bit better at than at the beginning of the year. Maybe in finishes and stuff it hasn’t shown lately because we’ve had a lot of bad luck, but I feel like we’ve been right up front most of the year. And I think my feedback on how the car’s handling has gotten a little bit better. I still need to work on that quite a bit I think.
What advice would you give to kids who might want to be a race car driver when they grow up?
Well, you got to talk your parents into it first, and after you do that, if you’re racing go karts or anything like that, just make sure you’re having fun with it. Don’t add too much pressure to yourself. Just try to make it a fun sport. Know you have to run good and stuff, but having fun is the most important part, I think.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Photos: Action Sports Photography, Inc., Erin Hampton, Justin Edmonds/Getty Images