The television cameras were set up on tripods all around a midtown Sacramento restaurant Wednesday. A young man in a blue suit with a pink shirt, accompanied by an attractive blonde woman, was being moved from interview to interview with some of the area’s television reporters.
A brief stop then with KFBK Radio’s Pat Walsh, who wanted to interview, “the Elk Grove boy who’s done good.” Walsh, himself an Elk Grove High School alum, wanted to meet this 21-year-old man who is rapidly becoming a sports celebrity.
|Elk Grove's Kyle Larson|
Finally, Kyle Larson gets a chance to sit down and eat his taco and enchilada lunch. Taking the seat next to him is girlfriend Katelyn Sweet.
The couple isn’t done talking to the media. Through bites of the tasty food come questions from newspaper reporters and columnists, folks that have only heard about this young driver and now get to meet him in person.
Larson has now arrived at the Mt. Everest of the motor sports, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series (NSCS). Go to the NASCAR website and click on “drivers” and there is his photo right alongside some of the big names of the sport – Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon.
“I don’t think that’s really a big deal,” Larson admits. “I will say that it is neat to see yourself on TV, but I don’t go (online) and look at my bio and my stats.”
He’s currently eighth in the overall point standings and is the top rookie in NSCS. Larson has three top-five and six top-ten finishes in 2014. NASCAR fans now know his name.
As he answers questions matter-of-factly, Larson occasionally flashes that engaging smile that has attracted a growing number of fans at the 30-plus race tracks he’s competed at over the past couple years since he began driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.
About 200 of those fans showed up a couple hours later when Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis awarded Larson the key to the city in a ceremony on the steps of City Hall. Many were wearing the red and white colors of the Target #42 Chevrolet race team.
Larson once again spoke warmly about how he was honored – and a bit shocked – that a few months after the Elk Grove City Council voted to begin a “Key To The City” award he would be the first recipient of that honor.
“It is pretty cool,” he said. “I am surprised no one else has gotten (the key) before. I hope (the key) will open up some bars later at night (laughs). I don’t know what the key will open. That is just so cool to be recognized.”
Larson attended Elk Grove Elementary, Edna Batey Elmentary, Kerr and Albiani Middle Schools and then two years of high school at Pleasant Grove. His racing schedule by time he was age 16 was getting so demanding that he finished high school via independent study and earned his diploma in Januaray of 2010.
This week Larson was back in northern California to prepare for Saturday’s K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma Raceway. On Sunday he’ll be back behind the wheel of his Target #42 Chevrolet NCSC stock car for the Toyota/Save Mart 350, also on Sonoma Raceway’s road course.
After 14 years of racing on the dirt ovals around northern California, the weekend races will be Larson’s first at Sonoma, so he won’t have any home court advantage over the rest of the NCSC drivers.
Now more than 200 victories later, no one is more proud of Larson’s accomplishments than his father, Mike. A retired SMUD worker, the elder Larson loves to recall what got him and his son started in racing when Kyle was just seven-years-old.
“We had a neighbor around the corner who was racing go carts and Kyle and I went to see their cart and equipment, we made an offer on it and they accepted and brought it all home,” the elder Larson said. “My wife came out in the garage and asked, “What’s all this?’ … We’ve been racing ever since.”
In those years of driving go-carts and sprint cars competitively at local tracks, primarily the ones in Chico and in Red Bluff, Larson made friends with other drivers, particularly Brad Sweet, who is now one of the “World of Outlaws” sprint car drivers.
But, Larson had his eyes on Sweet’s sister, Katelyn. She loved going with her father and brother to his races while growing up, but never got behind the wheel.
“My dad wouldn’t let me,” she laughed. “I rode horses. I don’t think it was any safer nor any less expensive.”
Katelyn and Kyle are now a couple and have bought a home in Charlotte, N.C., where NASCAR, most of its drivers and their teams are based. The crews weekly pack up cars, tires, parts and equipment and a caravan of semis and RV’s leaves Charlotte headed for the next NASCAR venue on the schedule.
Katelyn is making those trips with Kyle and the Ganassi Racing crew now, but that may not be the case in a few weeks – the couple is expecting their first child in December.
Katelyn, who graduated from Bear River High School in 2009, says Kyle likes to spend evenings at home preparing for the next week’s race.
“I’ll go to bed and he stays up at night watching ‘You Tube’ videos,” she said. “That’s how he learns. He watches (opposing drivers’) lines, their in-car stuff like their steering, their telemetry, how they brake. He watches how they handle each course.”
In Larson’s early days of racing stock cars he would even train in racing simulators.
“But he doesn’t do that any more because of his (racing) schedule.” Katelyn said.
Kyle’s name rushed to the forefront a little more than a year ago in his inaugural race on NASCAR’s “Triple-A” race series, the Nationwide (NNS). His car was involved in a spectacular crash near the start-finish line at Daytona International Speedway.
The car began to disintegrate as Larson hit the railing. The engine ended up in the bleachers where several spectators were injured.
What was left of Larson’s car, with Kyle still inside, ended up in the infield. Larson walked away unhurt.
In talking about the incident, now a year-and-a-half later, Mike’s composure changes a bit.
“I saw it happening right below where we were sitting,” he recalled. “I saw the car fall apart, but knew his cab would be fine and he’d be okay.”
“When I saw him walk away from it, it made me feel a lot better, but I was shook up for quite a while,” Katelyn added. “Kyle didn’t realize he was upside down. He didn’t know what happened, because everything happened so fast.”
Mike also knows crashes come with the territory for any motor sports driver.
“It’s nothing different than, say, a basketball player blowing out their knee,” he said. “But, (the NASCAR driver) can’t let it bother them or they’d never make it in racing.”
Kyle doesn’t dwell on the thoughts of that and other crashes he’s had in the past. He moves on to preparing for what he hopes happens soon – a win on the Sprint Cup Series.
“I want to win a (Sprint Cup) championship, I just want to win as many races as I can,” Larson said.
Ganassi spokesman Davis Shaefer thinks Kyle will soon be taking a checkered flag. He said that his boss, Chip Ganassi, saw something in Larson just a couple years ago that few NASCAR drivers possess. That’s why he supplanted veteran driver Juan Pablo Montoya with Larson in the #42 car this season.
“He’s got instincts on the track and knows what to do,” Shaefer said. “It’s something that’s hard to put your finger on. When you watch him on the track he just doesn’t pick one line. He doesn’t stick to one groove or one game plan.”
Larson is humble enough to know that he is just a part of a racing team and the eventual drive to the winner’s circle will also be because of the efforts of crew chief Chris Heroy and his pit crew.
“I don’t offer them advice on what to change, I just tell them what I am feeling,” Larson said. “I let them do their jobs to try to get the cars to go faster. It’s my job to drive and give feedback. It’s not my job to tell them what to change. You can be the world’s best driver, but you need a great team.”