Kyle Larson on running a series and his biggest racing challenge: 12 Questions

Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, who is currently seeking his second career NASCAR Cup Series championship. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, but the full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.

1. You must pick one chore or obligation to do every day for a year. But if you make it the entire year doing this, you never have to do it again for the rest of your life. What would you like to knock out forever?

Laundry. Not that I do much laundry. I’m pretty fortunate; (wife) Katelyn or our nanny, who comes in and helps quite a bit, they do the most laundry. But the times I have to do laundry on the road or something, I let it build up too much.

2. Can you describe how you are as a passenger in a street car?

I’m not the passenger too often, but with Katelyn, when I’m the passenger, I’m really bad. When I’m with J.P. (manager Josh Peterman), I’m not too bad. With Katelyn it’s like, “You’re clear, get over” or “Pass these cars.” I’m definitely driving from the passenger seat, but she rarely drives.

3. What’s an app on your phone you love using and think more people should know about?

Let’s see. (Opens phone to look.)

I see you’re a folder guy. I’m impressed.

I keep it pretty organized. But then it’s hard to find what you’re looking for.

I like MyRacePass (dirt racing app featuring live timing and scoring) because you can get the heat race lineups and all the lineups throughout the night. Race Monitor (similar app) is a little simpler to use.

4. What do you do to make yourself feel better when you’re having a crappy day?

Honestly, just alone time. I’m really just kind of quiet. I also like hanging out with the family. I don’t golf much anymore, but that helps get your mind off of whatever might be bugging you.

Why don’t you play as much golf now?

I don’t have as much time and golf takes a lot of time. And it also takes a lot of time if you want to be better — and I want to be better, but I don’t really want to commit the time, so I just haven’t played that much. … I just really don’t have time with all the racing I do and (son) Owen’s racing and we’ve got a baby at home and going to the shop and all that.

5. This next one is a “Dear Abby”-style question where I’ve asked readers to submit various life problem questions …

So I read all your 12 Questions, and this is one I dread because I’m very bad (at advice). I read all the questions before I read the answer to them, and I’m like, “I don’t know how I would answer that.”

Well, this one fortunately is more of a racing question than most of them. This person says: “As a grassroots sprint car racer, I struggle to decide whether I should run weekly at a track and race for wins or get out and travel with a regional touring series or the Outlaws or USAC when they’re close by — but running at the back or mid-pack when they come. Is it better to win in front of a small crowd at the same track every week or run worse at new places with bigger crowds?”

Well, thank you for picking that question. (Laughs) I would not have been able to answer any of the other ones you’ve done.

It depends how much time you’ve put in to that point. You definitely need to spend two or three years on a more regional level or grassroots level. But then even if you aren’t dominating at that level, it’s good to venture out.

Look at Shark Racing on the Outlaw tour. The first two or three years of their career on the Outlaw tour, everybody was just waiting for them to give up and go back because they weren’t having success. But I don’t think a lot of people saw them building their program behind the scenes. Logan (Schuchart) was always pretty good, but even Jacob (Allen), for him to come from where he was to where he is now is incredible.

It shows that when you venture out to race new tracks and race against extremely tough competition, you have to raise your level of ability behind the wheel. Yes, you might get your teeth kicked in for a little bit and you might not get the results you want, but you’re always gonna come out a better driver from it. And racing in front of a lot more fans gets you recognized more and helps get sponsors.

6. This next one is a life debate question. Let’s just say you’re out at a restaurant with your kids and they’re being a little bit loud or wild. People are starting to look your way, but it’s also a noisy restaurant and there are other families there. So how do you play this? Do you let your kids have fun and do what they want and be a little wild? Or are you like, “All right, maybe I have to calm them down a little bit and step in here?”

Well, we eat out all the time, so we’ve definitely dealt with all that. It depends on the restaurant and the atmosphere. Mexican restaurants are great for kids because there’s usually other kids in there and it’s kind of a louder environment. We just don’t like when our kids are getting up out of their seat and walking around the table or getting a little out of control. I don’t mind if they’re getting a little bit loud, as long as they’re not crying or screaming or being rude to each other at the table. I don’t mind if they’re having fun sitting there and laughing and being loud.

When it’s your kids maybe being a little bit louder, you think everybody is looking at you and everybody is judging you. But honestly, for the most part, nobody cares. Like I don’t care when other kids are having a good time. So even when I see the parents trying to corral them and get them calmed down, I don’t care.

7. This is a wild-card question. You’re a month away from wrapping up the first full season of the High Limit sprint car series you co-founded. What is one of the most surprising or biggest lessons you’ve learned this year about running a racing series?

That’d be a great question for Brad (Sweet, his brother-in-law and fellow racer) because he’s actually the one more running it (on a nightly basis) where I’m still doing my my normal thing and just racing. But the promotion side, trying to find new ways to get fans to buy tickets and come to the race — when you’re just racing, you don’t really care about that. You just see a race on the schedule and you’re gonna go. But trying to attract the fans has been fun to see.

Just really everything you don’t pay attention to when you’re just the driver. Even at Silver Dollar (a track in Northern California where Larson and Sweet are the promoters), seeing how the beer sales went and how the concession stand did compared to other nights is interesting to hear. We’ll have a Monster Truck event and we’ll hear how that crowd is more into drinking than a sprint car fan is.

The High Limit stuff has gone better than we thought it would. Obviously, we’ve had some hiccups along the way, as any new series would. But I feel like it’s gone really well and I think next year will be a little bit better.

8. In your career, what is the deal that came closest to happening but ended up not working out?

I knew this question was coming and I couldn’t really think of anything, so I had to ask my dad (Mike) because he remembers everything, and he told me to read this text to you.

So this would have been like 2010 or 2011. He said I had driven for Glenn Crossno and Bryan Sundby at the Oval Nationals (in Perris, Calif.). At the same time, I was driving winged cars for Brent Kaeding and Rich Stadelhofer. They wanted to put together an ASCS national team with Rich Stadelhofer sponsoring, but I said no, because I didn’t want to run 360s full time (360 sprint cars are a less-powered version of a 410 winged sprint car).

So they pivoted to asking Sammy Swindell, who was in the Big Game (Motorsports) car and a very good friend of Glenn and Bryan. He asked if they could run a second team with Stadelhofer sponsoring that would be based out of his shop in Tennessee. Crossno even flew to Northern California to meet Rich and discuss. There were discussions of how to put it all together, but something fell through.

That was going on when Pete Willoughby (of Keith Kunz Motorsports) called to see if I would want to run the midget for them and (Mike) told them to give me a week to decide because (Mike) was hoping to race with Sammy in the winged sprint car. Pete said that was the only time a driver asked for more time to decide. They agreed to wait.

So I kind of came close to a deal with Sammy and Big Game and Stadelhofer, but ended up with KKM, and the rest is history. I forgot about that. I remember there kind of being like a winged sprint car opportunity at the same time as Keith, but I didn’t remember what exactly it was.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson with son Owen at last week’s Kansas race. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

9. Who is a person you would be starstruck by when meeting them?

Honestly, I don’t like meeting celebrities, so nobody. “Starstruck” to me is like a big moment, but I would just be more shy. I wouldn’t want to talk. I don’t like talking about myself, so I don’t really like meeting celebrities because I don’t think they’re that interested in what we do.

Sure, I’d love to meet Justin Timberlake. I’m a big fan of his. He’s super talented and all that. But I wouldn’t be starstruck, I just would probably not even say much around him. I’m perfectly fine to never meet another celebrity in my life.

10. What is the single most important skill a race car driver can possess?

The cliche answer is speed and talent and all that, but there’s a lot more that goes into it. What makes any athlete really good at what they do is whatever it is about their mind. You’re never going to fully understand the mind, either, so I don’t know if you can 100 percent answer the question. But it’s something within the mind; the mind is so in-depth. You’re dealing with adversity or reaction time, all of that.

11. What life lessons from a young age stick with you and affect your daily decisions as an adult?

Enjoying everything I do — or trying to, anyway. My life always revolved around racing, but I did do other stuff, and I remember my parents would always just make sure I was having fun with whatever I was doing. So I try to do the same thing now; I try to make sure my kids are having fun with whatever they’re doing. Just enjoying every day.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next person. Last week was Chris Buescher, and he actually asked three questions. He says: “How would you compare dirt late models to the open wheel stuff? And do you have any preference to late models at certain racetracks, because it feels like they get to beat and bang a little bit more similar to our Cup races?” Then he says, “How in the world do you make a lap in a sprint car when everything moves so quickly?” And then he says, “Thirdly, when you retire from sprint car racing, sprint car drivers are in the perfect seating position to be a bus driver. Would that be a good plug-and-play right from sprint cars into a bus driver?”

Everything I race is pretty relative to each other — except for the late model. Late models are very different. They’re really difficult to drive because there are a lot of mechanics that go on underneath the car and being in the right attitude (of the car). In the sprint car, you sit on the left rear tire where in late models, you’re on the right front and you want to stay somewhere in that posture.

I still suck in a late model, but I’ve had to adjust my driving style in that quite a bit to not be so erratic with my feet and my brake pedal especially. Because when you get on the brakes (in a late model), it squats the left side of the car down, and then you kind of shear and slide. I’m trying to just be smoother with my feet to keep it up in the attitude.

Whenever I watched late models before, they look like they’re going around there pretty straight, right? You would think you’re not turning your back steering that much. But in the late model, I’m fully crossed up all the time, so there’s a lot more moving your hands around and the steering is a lot heavier. The racing is really competitive; I can go win a late model race and then get lapped the next night.

It’s much tougher to race and pass in a late model because they’re so big and they take up so much space, but then you have to open up your entry everywhere you run. Sprint cars are lighter and more nimble — you can enter a lot lower, you can exit lower and find the traction so you can pass on the straightaways. In late models, you can’t really pass on the straightaways as easy because everybody swings out — so you have to wait until you get to the corner and then try and gas up to get around them and beat them before you get to the exit. Runs happen slower and the cars are heavier.

Sprint cars are more similar to Cup racing at Kansas; the aero behind it is all similar. In a sprint car and a Cup car, you’re always trying to peek out a little left to get clean air, where in the late model when they’re sideways, they punch such a big hole that even when you enter below somebody, you’re in their wake, and then your car just takes off sliding.

So trying to learn all that is difficult, but I enjoy that challenge. That’s why I do the late model, and I’m happy I’ve gotten to race with Kevin Rumley, because it’s extremely challenging for me. I’ve had good moments, but I’m also not happy with how I run in it, either.

And then the bus driver stuff — I like driving my bus. So maybe I could be a school bus driver someday — retire, move to Florida or something. That’s what (former motorcycle racing champion) Randy Goss did, so maybe that would work out for me.

The next interview is with Kevin Harvick. Do you have a question I can ask him?

Kevin does a super good job as a dad, managing Keelan’s life but his racing career as well (Harvick had Keelan race karts in Europe). Maybe ask him what makes the drivers in Europe so much better than the American kart racers? Is it the style of tracks? Is it just the competition? Is it the different cultures? And how much longer do you plan on taking Keelan to Europe?



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(Photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

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