Kyle Larson is in the fast lane to success


During World War II, the late Manjo and Betty Miyata were among the thousands of Japanese Americans sent to an internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif.

Seventy years later, their grandson, Kyle Larson, is one of the hottest prospects in American motor racing with an eye toward joining NASCAR’s best.

Larson is a 20-year-old driver from Elk Grove, Calif., whose winning record in racing’s minor leagues is turning heads throughout the sport.


And as the slight, 5-foot-6 Larson keeps climbing each rung of his racing’s career ladder, he’s inviting comparisons to the early achievements of such star drivers as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

Other young racers have drawn similar plaudits in the past, but in Larson’s case, it’s Stewart and Gordon themselves who are among those offering praise.

“I am blown away by this kid,” Gordon, a four-time champion in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series, said in a television interview last fall. “I have Kyle’s number, I text him when he wins a race,” Gordon said, adding that he’s told Larson, “I’m getting tired of texting you every week.”

Larson, who is a developmental driver for veteran team owner Chip Ganassi, so far mostly has raced a variety of midget cars, sprints and other open-wheel cars on both dirt and paved tracks.

In 2011, he won races in the World of Outlaws sprint-car series, in all three U.S. Auto Club national divisions and in the American Sprint Car Series.

Last year he tried stock cars for the first time and promptly won the title in the K&N; Pro Series East series, NASCAR’s equivalent of double-A baseball.

That also was the first championship for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, of which Larson was a member. Larson’s mother, Janet, whose parents were at the Tule Lake camp, is Japanese American and his father, Mike, is white.

Kyle Larson also drove four races in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, with his highest finish a second at Phoenix in early November.

He returned to midget cars on Thanksgiving Day to win the venerable “Turkey Night Grand Prix” at Perris Auto Speedway in Riverside County. Next, Larson became the first driver to sweep the four races of the International Midget Series event in New Zealand.

Then, at the Chili Bowl Nationals midget-car races this month in Tulsa, Okla., Larson beat Stewart and others in a qualifying race, although Larson failed to win the main event after spinning out.

“The kid is just absolutely phenomenal,” Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion who also came up through the open-wheel ranks, said last year. “He’s a kid that I think really has a lot of potential.”

Larson himself tries to tune out the comments and the pressure that keeps ratcheting up each time he reaches a higher level.

“I don’t worry about who I’m racing against or the level of competition,” he said. “I try not to let things get to my head.”

Mike Larson said his son is “very quiet, very unassuming. He’s a very level person, he doesn’t get very up or very down.”

Kyle Larson hopes Ganassi can secure him a ride this year in NASCAR’s second-level Nationwide Series or its truck series, and ultimately “my goal is definitely trying to get into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.”

Like so many drivers, Larson started racing go-karts as a kid and he spent countless hours playing racing video games. But in the end, his success is “a God-given talent,” Mike Larson said. “There are certain drivers who come along who are blessed, and that’s all you can say.”

Kyle Larson’s challenge now is learning how to manage stock cars and trucks, their tires and the temptation of becoming overly excited during NASCAR’s long races. In midget cars and sprints, “the races are only 25 to 50 laps,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about saving your tires a whole lot.”

In the meantime, Larson has celebrated his recent wins by spinning his car in tight circles while popping off his detachable steering wheel and holding it out the window, like a cowboy riding a bucking bronco with one arm in the air.

It’s likely that he’ll be showing off the trick again soon. As Larson said after winning the Chili Bowl heat: “I’ll try and make it my trademark from now on.”