Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Larson is NASCAR’s next big thing

The life of an emerging NASCAR superstar isn’t all bells and whistles. Sometimes it requires wearing suits and ties. Other times it means bumping into friends and relatives in the most improbable of places.

So it was that Kyle Larson – nattily attired in a dark blue suit, pink dress shirt and striped tie, and accompanied by his girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet – happened upon one of his aunts Wednesday as he strolled into a midtown restaurant for lunch.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, grinning.

“What do you think I’m doing here?” Diane Miyata replied. “I wanted to surprise you.”

Later, while her nephew chatted with reporters and nibbled at his food in a private dining area, Miyata dined near the front of the restaurant and gushed about the family’s famous, globe-trotting member. Two hours later Kyle was given a key to his hometown by Elk Grove mayor Gary Davis. The rest of the week is congested with additional media sessions, sleepovers at his girlfriend’s home in Grass Valley, an introduction to Sonoma Raceway in Saturday’s K&N Pro Series 200, with the week’s frenetic schedule capped off by his debut Sunday in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

“We just don’t see much of Kyle anymore,” lamented Miyata, who works nearby for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s true. And it can happen at high speeds. Larson’s life is imitating a never-ending sprint. The Pleasant Grove High graduate is the leading candidate for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, ranks eighth in the overall point standings, needs a calculator to keep track of his major sponsors and his girlfriend is expecting the couple’s child in December.

Oh. And he turns 22 on July 31.

Though not completely forgotten – his horrific airborne crash in his Nationwide Series debut in February 2013 at Daytona International Speedway still causes viewers to cringe – Larson’s rapid ascent has shifted the conversation. The overriding question isn’t how he was unharmed in an accident that injured 28 spectators, but how high is his ceiling?

The elite club of local athletes features Dusty Baker, Bill Cartwright, Larry Bowa, Urijah Faber and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, among others. But Larson, who supplanted popular veteran Juan Pablo Montoya in owner Chip Ganassi’s car No. 42, already moved out of the neighborhood; for the last few years, he has been projected as a likely heir to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, a few of his predecessors who moved from open wheel to NASCAR.

Kyle’s father, who plopped his diminutive son in a go-kart when he was about 5 years old, says he frequently hears another comparison. “Parnelli Jones,” Mike Larson said Tuesday evening. “People have been saying Kyle will become the next great American driver for a long time. I honestly didn’t see it until about the middle of 2011, when he started winning all these huge national events (in Nationwide Series). Then it was like, ‘Wow. He really is good.’ ”

The next great American driver? Maybe. Probably. That’s the plan. But regardless of whether Larson fulfills or even exceeds expectations, his story already is a uniquely Northern California narrative. Of Japanese and Native American descent, Larson’s maternal grandparents were interned at Tule Lake during World War II. His mother, Janet (formerly Miyata), who like her husband is retired, never raced but has been an enthusiast for decades. Mike has been obsessed seemingly since birth. His sister Andrea Larson, 26, works in the industry in Charlotte, N.C. And Kyle, well, everyone knows about Kyle now.

“Normal kids would draw pictures of houses,” related his aunt Diane, smiling, “but Kyle was always drawing race cars. He would take a potato chip and put it between his teeth, grind it into the form of a car, then take it out of his mouth and drive it around an (imaginary) track. … Zoom, zoom, zoom.”

Bedtime stories often were abbreviated accounts of Mike Larson’s favorite athletes: Jerry West, Sandy Koufax and LeRoy Van Conett, the Galt resident who was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1999. Vacations were spent attending Kyle’s kart races and touring tracks throughout California. Little League was attempted and abandoned. Because of the travel expenses, the family relinquished their Kings season tickets in 1999 – “before they got good,” Mike added, ruefully.

Later, as Kyle developed his skills by competing in a variety of cars and disciplines, in open-wheel sprint cars and the heavier stock cars, the Larsons literally packed up and traveled along to Daytona, the Poconos, Indianapolis, Charlotte, often with his Pekingese dog, Stagger, peeking from the inside of Diane’s purse.

“I used to tell Kyle, ‘the vet is going to think we’re a family of drunks,” related Mike Larson, chuckling. “My wife asked, ‘Why can’t you name the dog ‘Ratchet or Socket?’ He said, nope. It’s gotta be ‘Stagger.’ ”

Relatives describe Kyle as the family prankster, and indeed, he can be seen mugging in old photos. He offered hints of his humor after Wednesday’s luncheon at Zocalo. When asked where he stays during visits to the area, he glanced at Katelyn and grinned. “With her family in Grass Valley,” he said. “She has a bigger bedroom. At my house, we only have my old twin bed.”

Larson looks like he still could squeeze comfortably into his old digs. At his estimated height of 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7, and with 135 pounds distributed on his slight frame, he might pass for someone too young to buy a beer. Unlike several of his peers who work out to improve their stamina and maintain their strength, he admits the only exercise he gets is behind the wheel. That approach might change with age, or it might not. But he figures he is young enough to figure it out.

His ease during Wednesday’s media gathering was almost as impressive as his driving record. Besides flashing his humor, Larson was warm and engaging, though his competitive nature was very much in play.

Asked his immediate goals, Larson recited from memory, as if rehearsed, as if never in doubt: Top-10 finish in the NASCAR standings. Rookie of the Year. Hints at a career that replicates that of Jimmie Johnson.

“He’s who everybody wants to become,” Larson added, quietly, if forcefully. “I want to win bad.”

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