• A Weekend with the Champ
  • Parts
  • A Weekend with the Champ

A Weekend with the Champ

Just before 5 p.m. Saturday, Kyle Larson loads into his No. 1K midget car. A track worker had just made a lap of the Placerville Speedway pit area with a bullhorn siren blaring from his four-wheeler, signaling on-track activity was about to begin. Larson’s crew gives the small, scrappy car its customary push back, and he gives the wheel a turn.

The small crowd gathered around the back of the Kyle Larson Racing pit area quickly parts to let the car through, and then another ATV locks in behind him to push him down the hill to the quarter-mile oval. What happens next causes Mike Larson, Kyle’s father, to do a double-take as he stands at the foot of the team hauler’s gangway.

A cheer comes up as Kyle is pushed for the 5 o’clock engine heat session, the most preliminary of all the preliminaries in the third and final night of USAC national midget racing at Placerville. “Go get ’em, champ!” isn’t that common a refrain for the day’s earliest warm-up — well before the heats, the undercard and the 100-lap main event ever get the green light. For comparison’s sake, it’d be like a standing ovation for a pace lap.

Mike has seen and heard plenty as he has nurtured his son’s racing career, but never this. Then the same rinse-and-repeat chain of events unfolds again when Chase Elliott, Kyle’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate in the NASCAR Cup Series, gets his own push-off. It turns out winning the premier NASCAR title makes for one heck of a homecoming.

Just two weeks earlier, Kyle Larson had outrun Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. to win his first Cup Series championship. The days after meant media rounds, photo ops and other promotional appearances. So, Larson could have understandably been excused if he’d taken a breather from the rigors of the NASCAR schedule with some well-deserved time off. Instead, he came home to the communities that have embraced him long before stock-car racing’s spotlight ever did.

Ruby Wallau
Ruby Wallau | For NASCAR Digital Media

“He just hasn’t changed. I mean, he just won a NASCAR championship and then wants to come out here and race a midget,” says Ryan Bernal, a fellow California native who has competed against Larson for much of his dirt-racing career. “I mean, he does not need to do this, but then he’ll stand out there until the last person leaves signing autographs. The guy has not changed throughout the whole process.”

This is what happens when NASCAR’s reigning champ returns to his natural habitat. It’s the community of Elk Grove, California, providing a red-carpet salute in the town his parents still call home. It’s the fans at Placerville — a curious blend of dirt-track natives and NASCAR transplants, all converging on a grassroots level. And it’s also the dirt-racing family, fierce competitors on the track but a closely knit group off it.

Two weeks ago, Larson was covered in champagne and confetti from Phoenix Raceway’s grand stage.

Last weekend, it was clods of Northern California dirt.

THE KEYS TO KYLE’S CITY

The town of Elk Grove rests in the Sacramento Valley, a suburb of California’s capital city. Originally a stagecoach stop founded in 1850, the town’s hub shifted when the railroad came through nearly two decades later, after the initial gold boom that gave the state its original calling card as a land of plenty.

Elk Grove didn’t incorporate until 2000, a move meant to preserve the community’s identity as it grew north and Sacramento’s border rapidly expanded south to meet it. Cityhood meant doing city things — forming a local government, ribbon cuttings, electing a mayor. It also meant honoring its residents with the newfound tradition of giving them the key to the city. On June 18, 2014, Larson became the first recipient.

He just hasn’t changed. … The guy has not changed throughout the whole process.

“Everybody was talking about how this guy is special, this guy’s really talented and he was brand-new with (Chip) Ganassi Racing. And I thought, how many people really are going to show up to this key to the city ceremony?” says John Hull, the sports editor at the weekly Elk Grove Citizen and a resident here the last 22 years. “And my Lord, there was a line of people wanting his autograph that went all the way down the street. I thought, wow, this kid really has a following.”

2021 Nov22 Kyle Larson Main Image
Zack Albert | NASCAR Digital Media

Elk Grove recognized Larson again this week, hosting a hometown parade Monday to toast his Cup Series championship. The route snaked through the Old Town district and wound up in the central plaza just across the street from the Happy Garden Chinese restaurant, a childhood favorite where Larson regularly downed plates of pan-fried noodles.

Old Town remains a blue-collar backdrop for where Larson grew up, even as the landscape around it evolved. Elk Grove was tabbed as the fastest-growing city in the U.S. from 2005-06 by the national census bureau — a timeframe that synced with Larson’s rise through the dirt-racing ranks.

As a teenager, he attended Pleasant Grove High School, just a short hop from Old Town, but his class schedule shifted as his racing demands accelerated. Larson transitioned into independent studies, a sort of homeschool hybrid instead of classroom-based learning, according to school principal Taigan Keplinger. “But we still love to claim him,” she says.

Nikki Castañeda didn’t know who the Larsons were when she moved across the street from them. That changed shortly after Kyle’s major crash in a 2013 Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway. That event prompted a local news crew to start knocking on neighborhood doors, including hers.

From the awkward introduction that came later sprang a still-thriving friendship. Castañeda would collect the Larsons’ mail when they traveled with Kyle on trips, and their family — which grew up with soccer and baseball as their primary sports focus — added auto racing to their fandom. The Larsons invited them to races at Sonoma Raceway on the NASCAR side and Calistoga Speedway’s half-mile on the dirt.

Castañeda was born in south Sacramento but first moved to Elk Grove before her grade-school years. “So, I’ve seen Elk Grove transform tremendously, and I still like to say we’re a small town because a lot of people who have grown up here haven’t left here very much,” she says. “They pretty much stay around. But I feel like we do take pride in that this is our hometown, and we honor and respect and hold up people who come from here and have made differences.”

Larson Mics
Zack Albert | NASCAR Digital Media

Though Kyle Larson’s rise to NASCAR has taken him to a level of the sport with big footprints in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Daytona Beach, Florida, he has continued to make that difference back home. Castañeda is in her 21st year with the Jessie Baker School, including the last 10 as a special-needs teacher. She says Larson and his family have been regular contributors to a non-profit called DonorsChoose, which helps fund projects and fulfill supply needs that fall outside of teachers’ budgets.

Those donations have gone directly to Jessie Baker, founded as the first public school for children with severe disabilities in the state. Larson has visited the classroom for appearances in recent years, seeing in person what his contributions have helped support. Those trips included scooter races with some of Castañeda’s students. A grandparent of one of her students was who initially contacted the Elk Grove mayor to suggest this week’s champion’s parade.

Fast-growing or not, it’s a snippet from Elk Grove’s small-town feel Castañeda holds dear.

“I just think we do a really good job,” she says, “of promoting and sharing about hometown kids that follow their dream and have made their dream come true.”

RELATED: Photos from Kyle Larson’s Elk Grove celebration

ELK GROVE PROUD

T-shirts, hats and die-cast cars were the most common items folks brought to the Placerville pits for Larson and Elliott to sign. If there was a prize given for the largest piece of memorabilia, Dylan Westrick and his girlfriend, Teresa Padilla, would have won the A-Main.

“We left at 4 in the morning,” Westrick says, describing the 10-hour drive from his home in Warren, Oregon, just north of Portland. What he brought with him was the back-bumper cover from Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet that raced in the Daytona 500. That piece became race-team scrap after a last-lap knock of the Turn 3 wall, but it’s now Westrick’s treasure — a memento from Larson’s first start in a Hendrick Motorsports car and the first race of his championship season, Westrick proudly points out.

Westrick and Padilla are near the front when two long lines begin to form for Saturday’s autograph session at 3 p.m. Not far behind them is Kathy Wainscott, a 71-year-old grandmother from Sacramento who shouts, “There he is, there’s the man!” as she nears the autograph table behind the main grandstand. With her is longtime family friend Keri Kendall, who takes Wainscott’s phone from her trembling hands to get her photo.

“It means a lot, because he’s a Sacramento boy,” Wainscott says, exhaling after her turn through the line. “He’s Elk Grove. He’s done so well.”

Both jumped at the chance to come see Cup Series stars racing on home-grown dirt. After Larson and Elliott confirmed their Placerville entries, Wainscott says she bought nine tickets. Kendall bought 22.

“We needed this,” Kendall says. “It was such a little cowtown and we’ve had a lot of NFL players, but we’ve never had major racers like this. And so, it just brings it to Northern California. They know we’re out here. I mean, it’s a different kind of race car, but they don’t realize how good these people are out here. It’s brought more people focusing on what we have out here.”

Larson gear was everywhere for all three days of the Hangtown 100, with fans sporting a fairly even mix of his NASCAR apparel and his dirt-track merch. Those needing more of the latter waited in line at his own souvenir hauler parked outside the pit gate, where Larson’s wife, Katelyn, waited on customers herself.

“They’re really hardcore, dedicated race fans to me, especially,” Larson says. “It’s been really cool to come here and hear everybody saying, ‘Elk Grove Proud’ and telling me good job and way to represent. It’s been neat to get back and race in front of a lot of fans that I used to race in front of all the time and now just do a few times a year.”

With Larson paring down his extracurricular races, those chances to see him in his old stomping grounds have also become more limited. Tickets to Placerville’s Saturday night main event sold out well before cars started packing the hillside lots shortly after lunch.

Scott Russell, rounding out his sixth season owning the Placerville track, marveled not only at the gate but also Larson’s versatility. Russell raced against Larson when he was still a young up-and-comer, running a sprint-car team for 16 years before selling off his inventory after the 2015 season to focus on track operations.

“This is my hometown,” he says. “Lived my whole life here.”

Taking a short break from afternoon track prep — “it’s not science, it’s feel,” he explains — Russell recounts some of the speedway’s challenges the last two seasons. Placerville ran a limited schedule last year during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Russell relying on sponsors to pay purse money with no fans in the stands. Bonus money from Larson himself gave a regional sprint-car series a boost of support.

No matter what he climbs in, you just don’t see anything like that. … The guy’s winning at every level in the same year. It’s just unheard of.

This year, Russell had to cancel several race meets because of neighboring wildfires, which he says closed in to about 20 miles away from town. The track was used as a base and staging area for first responders and fire crews.

This Saturday afternoon, however, just before the culmination of three big nights of racing, reserved grandstand seating is full and so is Russell’s heart. It’s the chance to catch a comet, and the fans are here for it.

“It’s neat that he comes back home every so often to give all of us here the treat of being able to see him again, even though he’s moved on to bigger and better things in my opinion as far as running on a NASCAR level,” Russell says. “Obviously, dirt is his passion, like where he came from and his love, but I’ve just never seen anything like it. No matter what he climbs in, you just don’t see anything like that. You get somebody in a late model or a midget or a sprint car or NASCAR, the guy’s winning at every level in the same year. It’s just unheard of.”

Larson Selfie
Ruby Wallau | For NASCAR Digital Media

ONE BIG FAMILY IN THE PITS

Mike and Janet Larson stand outside the USAC Racing officials’ hauler as the nighttime chill starts to set in, and the scene is reminiscent of a similar one from two weeks ago. Back then, the Larsons celebrated their son’s Cup Series coronation after a momentous 10-win season, basking in the Phoenix sun as one by one, well-wishers came by to congratulate them. On Thursday’s opening night at Placerville, the crowd was miniscule by comparison, but the welcomes were just as warm.

Hearing “Congrats, champ,” was a regular occurrence as fans and fellow competitors traded fist bumps and pats on the back with Larson’s parents. Colby Copeland, a fellow racer and the best man in Larson’s wedding, whizzed by on his purple mountain bike to offer his greetings. Bernal pops over. His racing hauler sits adjacent to Larson’s for the weekend, and he offers his own attaboy to the popular mom and dad.

Larson Driver Meeting
Ruby Wallau | For NASCAR Digital Media

Larson has kept close connections with the area and his fans, but the bond he shares with his family — both his own and the dirt-racing community in general — might have the tightest grip.

Brad Sweet counts himself in both groups. He has won the World of Outlaws sprint car series title the last three years, and he’s also Larson’s brother-in-law. Sweet has a distinct perspective on how the dirt world compares to stock cars, as a veteran of 54 NASCAR national series starts in addition to his more extensive background at the grassroots level.

“This is different. Everybody’s having fun and it’s a lot more of a together group,” Sweet says. “There’s people here that maybe don’t love each other, like each other, but there’s a lot of respect. I think, when I was in NASCAR it seemed like there’s just maybe a different attitude that comes from the top of each team. It’s just something that’s happened over the years, where it’s almost voodoo to talk to the other team. Here, it’s like, you know, we’re going against each other and we’re all gonna have a beer afterwards and have fun and talk about it.

“There’s a lot of respect. This racing is dangerous, right? So, it’s one of those things where we’re all doing it together and we all try to help each other. Whether its cars are broken, or a driver gets hurt, I’ve seen a lot of great things in this dirt community. So that’s neat when people come over and they get to see our world. It’s been like this for a long time, and I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of growth on our side.”

Sure enough, shortly after his Saturday arrival, Sweet is walking through the pit gate carrying a seat for a fellow competitor. Before Friday night’s feature, a Kyle Larson Racing crew member sprints over to Bernal’s pit with the right tool in hand for a last-minute adjustment.

2021nov20 Elliott Larson
Ruby Wallau | For NASCAR Digital Media

“When someone has a problem, just watch tonight — if someone gets a flat tire, it could be some guy that you don’t even know and there’s 10 guys out there, picking up the car putting a new tire on,” says Copeland, who also served as an auxiliary spotter for Larson this year on Cup Series road-course events. “I mean, everybody when they put the helmet on and get on out there, they all want to beat each other. There’s no buddies or anything like that. But when it’s not time to go racing, it’s kind of a big family here in the pits. Everybody talks to everybody.”

Bernal has seen this all along. The 28-year-old driver came up through the quarter-midget circuit, while Larson got his start in outlaw go-karts. As they progressed, they grew closer.

“The big thing with Kyle, when he was moving through the ranks, he was helping,” Bernal says. “You know, we’re competitors and we’re racing together. At the same time, he pretty much pulled me behind them, I felt, and helped further my career. With Mike and Janet, they were always … Mike always had the contacts and he’s been around racing forever. But Kyle definitely helped me and tried to progress my career with this. I mean, what individual does that? He’s trying to make it into NASCAR, and the guy is just selfless. So, he’s been like that his whole career. He helps out just about every race and in every series. It’s just the kind of guy he is.”

As for the extra focus that Larson’s return brings, Bernal says it works the other way, too.

“He brought his roots back into NASCAR,” he says, “I mean, we heard Dale Jr. say ‘slide job’ in a NASCAR race. That’s where he’s bringing what he’s done here, and what he’s learned here to NASCAR.”

DON’T GIVE UP ON ‘THE TERMITE’

Kyle Larson’s nickname just hits differently over a short-track public-address system. All three nights, the row-by-row lineup was announced with a drawn-out “Yuuunnnnnnngg Money” before Larson’s name.

The crowd roars each time, but not everyone is in love with the nickname. Janet Larson, Kyle’s mom, might be the only one raising her hand.

For one, it muddles her Japanese heritage with a more commonly used Chinese surname. For another, she explains her son won’t be young forever — he’ll turn 30 next season. Still, several baseball players went by “The Kid” well into their veteran years.

So, “Old Money” then? Janet has an alternative, borrowing a suggestion made by a family friend: “Termite.” No, not for the reputation of being a household pest, but for the way her son chips and chews away at any deficits as he makes his way up through the field.

Janet faithfully shoots video of all her son’s races, and both parents have become unofficial historians, statisticians and archivists. The racing career that was a source of friction when it started has become a unifying passion. Janet was initially resistant when Mike brought home the go-kart for 7-year-old Kyle, but she has documented everything — spanning the eras from video cassettes, CD-ROMs to memory cards.

“Like any parent, they’ve been extremely supportive of my racing throughout my childhood,” Kyle says. “I mean, my mom says that she didn’t want me racing, but I think my dad and I both knew she wasn’t going to win that battle. She loves it more than anybody, so it’s neat to have the archives of all my old races. When I go to their house sometimes, we’ll plug in not only old races but like home videos — my kids like watching that.

Larson Racing
Ruby Wallau | For NASCAR Digital Media

“So, I’m sure I was at some point annoyed of it, having a camera in my face growing up, but I’m really appreciative that she did that for me and all the hard work that my dad put in with writing press releases every week, working on my go-karts after he’d worked all day at SMUD (the Sacramento Municipal Utility District). Just doing everything they could to help me achieve the dream of being a professional race car driver.”

There might be something to the Termite nickname, based on Kyle Larson’s Placerville performances through the weekend. He makes up six positions to finish sixth in Thursday night’s main event, a caution-free 30-lap affair that wraps up in a tidy six minutes and change. Friday night, he roars from the seventh starting spot to make the winning pass with nine laps left, delighting the hometown crowd. Elliott comes down to offer his own fist bump in Victory Lane, his feet sticking in the tacky frontstretch mud along with everyone else’s.

The buzz around the track intensified for Saturday, which brought the best weather of the three-day event. The 100-lap A-Main paid $20,000 to win, and Larson had accumulated the most points in the standings that helped to set the starting lineup for the final.

The pit-area atmosphere, though, is a little different, if only slightly more crowded. Mike Larson is still holding court at the back of the KLR hauler. As he reaches to show someone a photo on his phone, he drops it and the screen shatters as it clangs against a midget car’s wheel rim. “That’s never happened before,” he says, and a crew member can’t resist the dig after seeing the spider-webbed display: “Should’ve kept the flip phone.”

Kyle Larson starts 12th in the Hangtown 100 main event after all the points are tabulated and the field has a 12-spot invert. He struggles to find the initial grip, and a Lap 11 tangle slows any progress. After his team changes a flat tire in the trackside work area, Larson is back out there at the tail of the 26-car field.

Larson’s car doesn’t come to life until after a halfway refueling break, and in termite-like fashion, he gnaws away at gaining six spots in just six laps. Then a lazy Lap 67 flip over the Turn 1 bank halts his momentum again; he’s OK, but his No. 1K racer ends up on the wrecker’s hook. Janet Larson stops filming and a handful of other family members start to gather their things to walk back to the pit, but to cheers, Kyle Larson’s car comes roaring back down the Turn 4 on-ramp.

Dumbfounded, Janet Larson stands back up on the top-bleacher perch to resume her video work. Instead of another mammoth rally, however, she only manages to capture his Lap 87 spin that thwarts any slim hopes of a winning cap to the weekend.

Wasn’t his night, Mike Larson says. He’s then reminded of the pre-race omen. Should’ve kept the flip phone.

RELATED: Photos from Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott’s dirt-track action

At the end of the night, the crowd thins but a loyal group sticks around the KLR pit hoping for one last interaction. Kyle Larson signs autographs and poses for photos while his crew breaks down and loads his equipment. Larson’s 6-year-old son, Owen, has long since fallen asleep. He’s passed from one relative’s shoulder to another, worn out from a day of playing with friends, running foot races with his dirt-racing buddies on a makeshift oval in the grassy area beside the hauler.

Larson races in front of throngs of tens of thousands in the stands and millions more on national TV broadcasts on any given weekend on the Cup Series schedule. Without seeing the other side of his racing career first-hand, it’s natural to wonder why he would want to spend one of his few free weekends in front of a crowd a fraction of the size, all crammed into a bandbox dirt track. With all the connections to the communities that have shaped him, why wouldn’t he?

The last few fans shake hands and trade smiles. Family members say their goodbyes and other drivers give heartfelt farewells. Maybe it was his night after all.