Pit Pass: Kyle Larson

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The NASCAR and dirt racing ace on being back at Placerville

Text + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey

Spotlight | It’s a clear Wednesday evening in September and Kyle Larson is at Placerville Speedway for the second time in less than a month. This time he’s here to compete with the World of Outlaws driving his usual dirt ride, the Sylva Motorsports/Finley Farms 410 winged sprint car in the Gold Rush Classic, the Brad Sweet-promoted event that was postposed in the spring due to rain. 

• Related: Pit Pass: Carson Macedo

In his day job, Larson is a star on the NASCAR Cup series driving for Ganassi Racing and is in contention for the coveted title as that elite series rolls into it’s final races of the season. But tonight Larson is here, doing what he loves, getting back to his dirt racing roots. Placerville is his home track, of sorts, on the West Coast. It’s just a few miles from Elk Grove, where he grew up and where his mom and dad still call home. It’s also the place where Larson won his first main event in a sprint car just a few days after his 15th birthday. That was in 2006 and it was just the beginning of Larson’s rise in the racing world.

Larson races the new midget at Placerville.

Larson races the new midget at Placerville.

“It’s still one of my favorite memories,” says Mike Larson, watching his son get ready for practice at Placerville. “I still smile every time I see the picture of him jumping in my arms after the race.”

Dirt racing is Kyle’s first love and he’s one of the best in the business. He stays as active on short tracks around the country as his schedule allows. This year he’s won nearly half of the races he’s entered. He also owns a top-tier sprint car team, fielding cars for Carson Macedo on the Outlaw tour.

Besides driving a sprint car tonight, Larson has brought his own midget. It’s the second time out for the new Toyota-powered machine that Larson is looking forward to competing with at winter/off season races, including the Chili Bowl in January at Tulsa. The famous multi-day showdown is an event the driver has always wanted to win. 

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Tonight is the second night out for your midget? 
Larson:
Yeah. I’ve always run for Keith [Kunz], so, it’s kinda cool to have my own car. I keep it at Paul Sylva’s shop. Right now we’re just going to run it in off-season stuff. We’ll run it at Chili Bowl. But as far as summer Midwest stuff, I don’t think we can make it work.

You were just at Indianapolis last weekend, what’s it like to go from there to a little track like Placerville?
Larson:
I don’t know. I do it all of the time. I don’t really think about it. I just get in the car and go. Maybe in the beginning I would have to think about what I was doing and what track and what car I was in, but now I don’t really have to think about it. 

Is it kind of a trip down memory lane when you come here?
Larson:
Yeah, it brings back memories. That was a long time ago, for sure. Anywhere you get your first win, it’s special. 

Talking race set up with Paul Sylva.

Talking race set up with Paul Sylva.

I always look forward coming out West and racing and getting back to the tracks that I ran at every week. Placerville is also a really fun track, too. It’s fun to come back here anytime.

I feel like it used to have more banking. But it’s still Placerville, it still builds a big cushion around the top. You know, it’s changed but at the same time, it hasn’t really changed.

I also like to help out Brad and hopefully draw some more fans and help with his promotion. And, it’s another chance to run a dirt car. It worked out good with my schedule this year.

We came here a couple weeks ago and won a King of the West race. We ran the midget also that night and won a BCRA race. It was cool. 

Larson makes a qualifying run in the Sylva sprint car.

Larson makes a qualifying run in the Sylva sprint car.

I know you’re not nostalgic but what do you remember about that night when you got your first win at 15 years old?
Larson:
I just remember running second behind my good buddy, Mason Moore. We were both battling for our first win in a sprint car. I think I fell back to third at some point and got back to second and then to the lead in just a few laps at the very end of the race. I was able to drive around Mason and run a couple good laps around the bottom in three and four and get the win. To beat a friend was special. It was a friendly competition. 

I also remember I was too young to have a California driver’s license, so my parents had to drive me to the track.

Did you ever imagine yourself coming back to Placerville as a racing hero?
Larson:
Yeah, I guess, sure. I always had hoped to make it to NASCAR but I also wanted to stay involved in sprint cars, which I am. I never thought that I wouldn’t, I guess. 

You’ve been adding more sprint car races to your schedule over the last couple of years. Has it been difficult to get the go ahead from Chip?
Larson:
Nah. Each year, Chip and them have gotten a little bit better with allowing me to race, kinda whenever I want. So, I do it whenever I can. Any midweek show I can get to, I try and do. 

As a dirt racer do you approach the NASCAR tracks differently than someone who’s raced asphalt most of their career?
Larson:
Yeah, I definitely think coming from dirt allows me to search around a little bit more and not get so committed to one lane. I think there are areas where dirt racing helps and there are probably some areas where if I’d stuck strictly to pavement racing growing up I’d probably have a little different approach, I guess. I don’t know, I don’t really think about it. I just go out there and try to go fast.

Main event action: Larson battles for position with Donny Schatz.

Main event action: Larson battles for position with Donny Schatz.

Are there tracks on the Cup circuit that remind you of dirt tracks you’ve run in California?
Larson:
All of the California tracks are pretty small. I would say Eldora [Ohio] reminds me of how you would run Homestead [Florida]. But no tracks out here in California really have any similarities to how you would drive a stock car. 

Any further developments on running Indy?
Larson:
No, I haven’t really thought about it in a while. I haven’t talked to anybody, or anything like that. So, no, it’s not in my plans, at least in the next year.

How are you feeling about the upcoming races over the last part of the Cup season?
Larson:
Yeah, there are good tracks for us. We’ve been running really well lately, too. I think we’re really close to winning a race. We just gotta get it done.