Fast & Serious: An Interview with NASCAR Driver Kyle Larson
At an age when many of us are, or were, still trying to figure out what to do with our lives, 26-year-old Kyle Larson has put in some serious work to elevate from “rising star” to “full-on star” status as a racecar driver. One of the most popular NASCAR® drivers in the sport, Kyle honed his driving skills on dirt tracks for many years before ever putting rubber to pavement. Now he can be seen on all of the legendary racetracks—Talladega, Bristol, Daytona—behind the wheel of his #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. And he plans on giving the rest of the sport’s best and brightest a serious run for their money for a 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
We caught up with Kyle during a visit to Chip Ganassi Racing—the team for whom he races—at their headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, during his so-called offseason. As a major sponsor last season and his primary sponsor for the 2019 racing season, Credit One Bank took this opportunity to get to know our driver better with questions about racing, family life—even whether he ever gets road rage.
In typical Kyle Larson fashion, he never pumped the brakes on any of his answers and still managed to work the word “gosh” in completely organically.
“I want to be known as a versatile driver. Somebody who could hop into anything and compete for wins night in and night out.”
What’s your favorite memory from the 2018 season?
Even though we didn’t get a win, we had a lot of close finishes. One that was really exciting was when Kyle Busch and I had that crazy finish at Chicagoland. I had to run him down from a long ways back and then kind of threw a Hail Mary pass at him in Turn Two and was able to get by him, but he retaliated and got me back in (Turns) Three and Four. He went on to win, and I ended up second. That was a race that I’ll probably never forget.
What do you do as a driver in the offseason?
It’s kind of a busy time, really. You’d think the offseason has a lot of downtime to relax, but I stay busy. I go race quite a bit overseas, in New Zealand. I stay busy with my family, and then we have production days for our sponsors, like we’re doing today with Credit One Bank. So it’s a good way to stay busy during the offseason, for sure.
With the start of the 2019 season, what’s your plan for securing a berth in the playoffs?
My main goal, I guess, is to finish all the laps and finish the race. I think the first few years of my career, we’d have some DNFs (did not finish) early in the year, and that really sets you back and sets the tone for your season.
If you can start off the year with some good runs, kind of drama-free races, it helps carry that momentum throughout the rest of the year and makes it somewhat less stressful to make the playoffs. And, obviously, the way the format is, you get a win and that guarantees you a spot in the playoffs. So that’s always a goal, to win. But just trying to log all the laps and stay out of trouble is very important.
Are you excited to have Kurt Busch joining the Chip Ganassi Racing team?
I think it’s going to be fun and exciting to have Kurt Busch come to our race team. He’s got a ton of experience, and I think he’ll bring a totally different dynamic to our race team than what we’ve been used to in the past. It’ll put a lot of pressure on everybody in the race shop—myself and everybody else involved—to be better. So that’s what I’m looking forward to: somebody who’s going to push every single person in the shop to be better.
“My main goal, I guess, is to finish all the laps and finish the race.”
Do you go into each race with a unique race plan, or is it consistent from race to race?
The race plan, or strategy, for each race is pretty similar for most races. The only tracks where maybe you would have a different plan would be your superspeedways—Daytona, Talladega—or your road courses, with Sonoma, Watkins Glenn, and now the “Roval” (Charlotte). I think those are more like survival kind of races.
So that’d be the only kind of different races that you’d have. The other ones, you’re just trying to stay up front—or as close to the front as you can—all race, and lead every lap and win the race. But the tracks that are tougher to get to the end, you’ve got to have more of a plan to stay out of trouble.
How much research do you do before each race?
We only go to a lot of these tracks, at the most, twice a year, so it’s easy to forget stuff you already learned. Or the way the car handled the time before, what lines developed throughout the race. So, for sure, I look at video a lot leading up to the race weekend and study some notes, as far as driver data.
We’re able to look at our throttle data and brake data and steering, stuff like that. And now we’re able to look at other people’s stuff, too. So there’s a lot more preparation, or a lot more information that you can use to prep for the race. I definitely do as much studying as I can to be prepared for the race weekend.
What’s your pre-race ritual?
Most Sundays before the race are pretty similar. Wake up in the morning and leave myself as little time as I can before my first appearance starts. I’m usually tired. Then have a couple meetings and stuff.
When the driver’s meeting is done, I’ll head back to my motor home and get some lunch. Usually my bus driver will cook chicken and veggies or something. And then have a little bit of time—about an hour—to kind of decompress and get ready for the race. I’ll usually watch the pre-race shows and stuff like that. You know, hear what they’re talking about.
As far as any superstitions or any things like that, I’ve kind of gotten away from that stuff. A lot of this NASCAR stuff is out of your control, so I guess I’m not quite into the “luck” stuff like I used to be, growing up racing.
“I definitely do as much studying as I can to be prepared for the race weekend.”
Do you have a favorite race or track, and why?
My favorite racetrack is Bristol. It’s just really intense; a short track, high banks. It’s 500 laps, and there’s literally not one time to relax during that race. A lot of these other tracks we go to, the straightaways are long, so you can kind of relax. But Bristol, you’re battling somebody or something the whole race. That’s why I enjoy that place. It reminds me kind of like a dirt track, just the style of how it races. So, definitely, Bristol would be, by far, my favorite.
What personal qualities do you think you have that contribute to your success as a driver?
I think, with my background of coming from dirt racing, I’m very good and quick to move around and search for different lines and things like that to try and get the most speed out of my car. A lot of times that can also get me in trouble—when I move up to the top and get into the wall or something like that. But I would say I do a good job of knowing when to move around. And then being aggressive on restarts. I think that’s another trait that comes from dirt racing that really helps me out in NASCAR.
Any rivalries or bad blood with any of the other drivers?
I haven’t had any real run-ins with anybody, so I guess friendly rivalries. Kyle Busch and I always have great, exciting finishes together. (Chuckles) He seems to always come out on top, but it’s fun to race him. He pushes everybody to be better because he’s so good. He’s in great equipment, and he’s probably the most talented driver out there, so I enjoy racing him. And the times I get to beat him, as well.
“Before I had Owen, I would just lock myself in my bus all weekend.”
Are there any drivers with whom you’re fierce competitors on the track but close friends off the track?
One of my best friends is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. We race every Sunday with each other and still go race each other in dirt cars. He’s probably the fiercest competitor that I’m really close with. We also hang out with the Keselowskis quite a bit. I would say Brad and I race really hard with each other on the racetrack, but off the track he’s a great family person. And Owen and Scarlett (Keselowski) love hanging out with each other.
What do you do to get back into the moment during a race when you have a close call or frustration of some kind?
I think, when you have a frustrating moment throughout the race, or the weekend previous, you just have to take a deep breath and get your composure together and try to forget about it. Maybe I just have short-term memory, but I feel like I do a good job of forgetting previous things that happen that could affect you moving forward. Just shrugging whatever might have happened off and just moving on and trying to do the best job you can is important.
“It’s just really intense; a short track, high banks.”
How do you balance your racing career with your family life?
My wife, Katelyn, and our two kids, Owen and Audrey, we take them everywhere. I think that makes it a lot easier to balance this lifestyle, this crazy lifestyle that we have of traveling and racing and all that. I think, if I couldn’t take them to the racetrack with me, it would wear on me a lot. So it’s nice that they get to go.
A lot of the tracks are very accommodating, with playgrounds and motor racing outreach. They have kind of like a daycare center for the kids, and a lot of the other drivers bring their kids, too. So that makes it fun for all of us.
How has having kids changed your life as a driver?
Ever since I became a parent, I think I’m a lot closer to the other drivers who also have kids. Before I had Owen, I would just lock myself in my bus all weekend. I guess I’m a shy guy, so I’m not the type to go hang out with a bunch of people. So, with having kids and them wanting to play all the time, it gets you outside, and it gets you interacting with the other drivers and families. So it has really helped me grow as a person, in communicating with others, and not being a loner.
“I think, with my background of coming from dirt racing, I’m very good and quick to move around and search for different lines and things like that to try and get the most speed out of my car.”
Would you ever want Owen or Audrey to go into racing?
Yeah, I think it would be fun, especially to have Owen race. And, if Audrey wants to try it someday, she can definitely do it. Lately Owen has turned some laps in a little fun cart, and it’s pretty cool to see how well he kind of adapted to it as a four-year-old. For him to understand it and to set up cones and know to drive around them and stuff like that is pretty fun. I can definitely see myself buying a legit go-kart for him in the near future for him to race in a few years.
Tell us about the charity work you do with Meeting Street Academy.
I’ve been at Meeting Street Academy, I think, the past two years, and it’s been a lot of fun to be a part of. It absolutely blows my mind how well behaved all those kids are. It’s fun—and to see what Credit One Bank does for that school. We’re currently raising money to get them a school bus, which is really neat to be a part of.
You also do work with veterans. Why is it important to you to support veterans?
Gosh, they’re so important to everybody in the United States. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we do and have the freedom we do without them. So, for me to just give back the little bit that I do, means a lot to me.
And NASCAR, there’s definitely not another sport out there that takes care of the military quite like they do and shows their support and respect to them like NASCAR and all the other teams and drivers and sponsors do. It’s fun to be a part of a sport that’s that giving, and it makes us all proud to get to do what we do because of the freedom that they allow us to do what we can.
“I feel like driving is scarier on the interstate than it is on the racetrack just because you don’t know if the person next to you is drunk or high or whatever.”
What kind of passenger are you in a car?
I guess it depends on who’s driving. When Katelyn’s driving I’m, I guess, a little annoying.
When Davis, my PR guy’s driving, I guess sometimes I am a little more relaxed. But if it’s leaving the racetrack, he’s a maniac, just like the rest of them, and they all think they’re racecar drivers, and they’re probably all going to get us killed driving to the airport. So I’m a little more nervous as a passenger with him or anyone else leaving the racetrack.
Is it hard for you to drive the speed limit when you’re not racing?
That’s a question we get asked a lot. We go 200 miles on the racetrack, and then you’ve got a speed limit when you get in the street car. It’s got to be tough to go that slow, right? But, honestly, on the racetrack, the tracks are so big you don’t really feel like you’re going 200 miles per hour, if that makes sense.
I feel like driving is scarier on the interstate than it is on the racetrack just because you don’t know if the person next to you is drunk or high or whatever. And you don’t have any clue who they are. At least you have a lot of trust in your racecar and you’re wearing all the safety gear. So it’s not hard to go the speed limit in a street car.
Do you ever get road rage when driving off the track?
I think we all get a little bit of road rage, but I’m not the type that’s going to point and flip people off and cause any drama, just because I don’t know who’s in that car and if they’ve got a gun or whatever. And I’m not very big, so I don’t need to be getting into any fights or anything like that.
When your career is all said and done, how will you define success?
I race a lot of other stuff besides NASCAR, so I want to be considered one of the best all-around drivers of all time. Up there with drivers like Andretti and Foyt and Tony Stewart and Parnelli Jones. Guys like that, who could jump into any type of racecar and compete and win races.
That’s my goal, to win races in all types of vehicles and big races and championships and things like that. I want to be known as a versatile driver. Somebody who could hop into anything and compete for wins night in and night out.
What do you see yourself doing after your racing career is over?
I definitely don’t see myself being on the ownership side of NASCAR racing, but currently I do own my own sprint car team that travels with the World of Outlaws. The money it takes to do that is way less and way less stressful than it would be to own any car in a NASCAR series, so I’ll venture away from that. But I enjoy owning my sprint car team, for sure.
What is your favorite thing about being a racecar driver?
Getting to eat at great restaurants around the country—but then also getting to golf at the best golf courses in the world. Definitely the golf thing is probably my favorite. But eating great food is also a good one.