A rising tide lifts all boats.
Some in racing believe that to be true; others apparently don’t. At least that’s how it seems to Kyle Larson, who told members of the media last weekend at Michigan International Speedway that he feels he has to avoid talking about his love for Sprint Car racing.
Larson said in an Autoweek article that, "I feel like I need to avoid this question before I make everybody at NASCAR mad or some of my fans mad. I’ll just avoid answering that,” when asked if people were starting to better understand his affection for dirt racing.
We’ll take that as a no.
You see, Larson found himself taking some heat from his fans, other NASCAR fans, and apparently even some NASCAR executives, when he said that he’d like to be competing full-time with the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series before he’s 40 years old, and of course when he said that the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals were bigger to him than the Daytona 500.
Maybe that last one could have been worded a little bit better. But at the same time, so what? So what if he thinks the Chili Bowl is bigger than Daytona? So what if he wants to be a full-time World of Outlaws driver at 40 years old? That doesn't take anything away from the fact that he remains thankful for his current NASCAR opportunities with Chip Ganassi Racing. And it doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy racing full-time on the Cup circuit.
Larson was 22 years old when he made his Cup Series debut. If you do the math, you'll figure out that he would still have a solid 18-year career in Cup by the time he's 40 years old. Even still, people have career goals, and competing full-time with "The Greatest Show on Dirt" is one of them for Larson.
But let’s put that aside for a second. Let’s consider the fact that there’s currently a deep divide in American motorsports. Or as MRN Radio’s Pete Pistone calls it, “racing territorialism.”
There are people who consider themselves to be NASCAR fans. They’ll watch the Camping World Trucks Series, they’ll watch the Xfinity Series, and of course they’ll watch Cup on Sundays.
Then there are those who consider themselves to be “race fans.” They’ll watch pretty much anything, but only on rare occasions will they watch the "top three" levels of NASCAR. They also tend to look down upon the NASCAR-only fans.
You can see this at any short track across America. You’ll see plenty of racing shirts, but hardly any shirts of current NASCAR drivers, with the exception of guys like Larson and Kyle Busch, a pair of drivers that frequently return to their short track roots.
Many of these drivers stand outside of their haulers at the short tracks and sign autographs. I’ve seen Kyle Busch do it at Thunder Road in Vermont. I’ve seen Tony Stewart do it at Orange County Fair Speedway in New York. I've seen Kyle Larson do it at Millbridge Speedway in North Carolina. That creates fans. That makes NASCAR fans more likely to return to a short track, and it also makes short track fans more likely to visit their closest Cup track so they can watch their new favorite driver race in person.
It's a win-win scenario. Because of that, Kyle Larson should not be censored; he should be celebrated.
Larson’s comments last weekend served as a wake-up call to tone-deafness. When the talk all season long has been about supporting local short tracks, and when the slogan for NASCAR Hometracks has been “The soul of NASCAR” for a long time, hearing a driver say that he has to censor himself in fear of pissing off fans and NASCAR execs is troubling.
If we lose the short tracks, we’ll lose NASCAR. If we lose NASCAR, we’ll eventually lose the short tracks too. If both are lost, everybody loses.
Let your racers be themselves. Let your racers race. Give them the permission to speak more freely. It will help a lot more than it will hurt.
End the territorialism. End the debate of “my style of racing is better than your style" and support it all. Racing as a whole needs it.
A rising tide lifts all boats. That needs to be remembered.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Associate Editor - Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo credit: David Becker / Getty Images for NASCAR