Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson shrugs off scary crash

Elk Grove's Kyle Larson prepares sushi at Miknuni on visit to Northern California

Kyle Larson, a rising NASCAR star from Elk Grove, prepares sushi with chef Taro Arai at Mikuni in Sacramento on Thursday, March 24, 2016.
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Kyle Larson, a rising NASCAR star from Elk Grove, prepares sushi with chef Taro Arai at Mikuni in Sacramento on Thursday, March 24, 2016.

Since his days as Elk Grove’s reigning go-kart enthusiast, Kyle Larson has lived by a mantra that sounds something like this: If it has wheels, put me in.

The third-year NASCAR driver would rather drive than do anything except play with his 15-month-old son, Owen. Occasionally, he reads a racing magazine. Occasionally, the Charlotte, N.C., resident attends Panthers or Hornets games. Occasionally, he can be nudged out of his car and out of his comfort zone while visiting friends and relatives in Sacramento.

Thursday was one of those rare occasions. Larson, who is of Japanese-American descent, was directed to Mikuni’s in midtown for an informal media gathering and a one-on-one tutorial with owner and master chef Taro Arai.

The only problem? Or potential problem?

Larson doesn’t do sushi.

“Can you believe it?” he said, with a grin. “I might be the only Asian who doesn’t like sushi. But I don’t eat fish.”

Can you believe it? I might be the only Asian who doesn’t like sushi. But I don’t eat fish.

Kyle Larson

The dilemma was resolved when Arai, one of the area’s celebrity chefs, suggested substituting chicken. Game on. With cameras rolling and the curious noontime lunch crowd observing only feet away, Larson washed his hands, per Taro’s instructions, then went to work.

Smoothed the rice. Lined the rice on soy paper. Added asparagus, miso, teriyaki sauce, cream cheese and garlic sauce, and carefully sliced and then presented the No. 42 roll named for his car – yes, the one all over sports broadcasts following Sunday’s frightening crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

On Lap 47, Larson blew a tire and lost control of his car. It turned right, hit the outside wall, bounced off it and skidded across the track, where it hit the interior safety wall barrier at an estimated 180 mph. The collision was so violent the car went airborne and spun around before hitting the ground.

Larson, 23, could be seen moving around inside the car and moments later was cleared by medical staff at the infield care center. He underwent a more extensive exam Monday. Though he again passed all the tests, lingering discomfort prompted him to bow out of Wednesday’s Short Track Outlaw Showdown at Placerville Speedway. He will return to Northern California for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma on June 24-26.

“I feel fine today, but I was pretty sore after the wreck and a couple days after,” the 5-foot-6, slightly built driver said after the luncheon. “My neck and my shoulders ached. The inside of my legs hurt a little bit. Once you realize you don’t have brakes, you kind of brace yourself. That wasn’t the worst wreck I’ve been in, but it was probably the hardest hit I’ve taken.

“I guess it was scary,” he added with a shrug, “but I don’t know. It didn’t bother me.”

He insisted he walked away from the wrecked car and immediately moved on with his life, his thoughts already on his next NASCAR weekend, April 2-3 in Martinsville, Va. While chatting during lunch, the 2013 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year seemed far more concerned about his erratic start over the first five of this year’s 36 races than Sunday’s crash.

“I’d give myself a ‘D,’ ” said Larson, who dropped to 24th place in the points race. “The drop (of approximately 150) in horsepower has been an issue. A lot of the sprint-car drivers racing in the Cup, we all kind of struggle a little. But we should be able to adapt by now.”

I’d give myself a ‘D.’ The drop (of approximately 150) in horsepower has been an issue. A lot of the sprint-car drivers racing in the Cup, we all kind of struggle a little. But we should be able to adapt by now.

Kyle Larson on his 2016 season

Witty, thoughtful and unfailingly pleasant, Larson long has been regarded as a quick study. His aunt Diane tells of a toddler chewing on potato chips, then shaping them into cars and pretending to drive them around a track. During his pre-teen years, he was the precocious, diminutive youngster who routinely sped past competition at local go-kart races. Later, while being home-schooled for the final two years of high school (and graduating a semester early), he expanded his skills in a variety of cars and disciplines, in open-wheel sprint cars and the heavier stock cars.

With the support of his parents, Mike and the former Janet Miyata, family vacations were spent traveling to Daytona, Indianapolis, the Poconos and Charlotte, where Kyle now lives with his longtime companion, Katelyn Sweet. Owen’s middle name is “Miyata,” to honor Kyle’s heritage. The couple are close with both sets of parents, though visits home are infrequent because of his racing schedule.

Most of the season is spent traveling to races in a motorcade or on team flights, invariably accompanied by Owen. Larson cites three major changes in his life these past few years: a flirtation with yoga, which is becoming popular with drivers; too many speeding tickets; and the responsibilities of fatherhood.

“Owen goes with us pretty much everywhere,” Larson said. “We aren’t the kind of parents who are germophobes or always reaching for the (hand) sanitizer. We have a good time with him. And he sleeps through the night, so he’s easy in that sense.”

As for wedding plans? Nothing on the calendar yet. With a shake of his head and a grin, Larson sped off on his career, planning only to resume his ascension.

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