Kyle Larson: Sprint car racing has received “a bad rap”

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Last Saturday’s Tony Stewart/Kevin Ward Jr. incident at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park was the latest in a string of tragedies for sprint car racing that has stretched over the last year and a half.

Among those tragedies: Two people being killed in March 2013 when a car careened off track and into pit road; the death of NASCAR veteran Jason Leffler at a New Jersey track in June of that year; and the August 2013 death of hall of fame sprint car racer Kramer Williamson, which came one day after he was injured in a crash in Pennsylvania.

NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie phenom Kyle Larson first made his name in sprint car racing, and today at Michigan International Speedway, Larson said that he wasn’t happy with how the sport has been portrayed in recent times.

While saying that he offered his thoughts and prayers to all involved in Saturday’s tragedy – particularly the Ward family – Larson also asserted that sprint car racing has received “a bad rap.”

“Sprint car racing is awesome – it’s some of the best racing you’ll ever see in your life, and over the last couple of years, with all the stuff that’s gone on, sprint car racing’s gotten a bad rap,” he said.

“I just wish, you know, ESPN and stuff could go play highlights of the Knoxville Nationals that just happened this weekend and see how good the racing was there, how good it is every weekend – they race three, four times a week and the racing’s great.

“I just wish, rather than it being where everybody talks about how dangerous it is and you’re stupid if you run ’em and stuff, I just wish you could see the good parts of it.”

Larson himself said that he would like to continue racing sprint cars in the future. While his Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series duties have largely kept him from doing that this year, he said that he’d like to get in some sprint car events either during this off-season or next year.

“I enjoy doing it, and hopefully, I can do it the rest of my life,” he said.

As for the Stewart/Ward incident, Larson felt it was tough for him to have an opinion on it since he wasn’t there and he had never been there before.

He added: “There’s only one guy that knows what happened – or two, and one’s not here anymore,” a reference to Stewart and the late Ward, who was laid to rest yesterday.

However, Larson believes that after Saturday’s fatal crash and with the immediate onset of NASCAR’s new rules regarding driver protocol in the event of on-track incidents, drivers will think before letting their emotions get the better of them.

Ward was fatally struck by Stewart’s car after walking down the racing surface to apparently confront him following an on-track tangle between the two.

Said Larson: “I’m sure everyone of us has, at least one time in our careers, done something on the race track where we’d get out of the car, and we’d look back and think, ‘Should’ve thought twice about it.’

“I think a lot of people now are going to learn after seeing that video or hearing about it. We’re all gonna think twice and if we’re upset with somebody, we’re going to think about it before we get out of the car…It just really sucks that it all happened.”

Carlin reunion a homecoming for Chilton, Kimball

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Given the amount of eventual talent that’s gone onto Formula 1 and IndyCar after racing for Carlin in junior series, there was always a good chance that Carlin would bring on two of its alumni for its Verizon IndyCar Series program when it got announced.

And with Chip Ganassi Racing downsizing from four cars to two cars for 2018, and with Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball both maintaining their relationships with their long-term partners of Arthur J. Gallagher and Novo Nordisk, it made a lot of sense these two would fit within that framework at Carlin.

Each driver hopes the return home to Carlin will bring him a degree of success they enjoyed when racing for the team in the past.

In Chilton’s case, that means a return to winning races. He won with the team in Formula 3 and Formula 2 (formerly GP2) before graduating to Formula 1 with Marussia, and then won from pole with Carlin’s Indy Lights team in 2015 at the Iowa oval, a race that put him on the map for IndyCar teams. It was only his second oval race start, following a mechanical DNS in Indianapolis and a first actual start at the Milwaukee Mile.

Chilton in Indy Lights with Carlin blue. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“My whole career, the best years of my career have always been Carlin,” Chilton said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. “I’ve never not won for them in British F3, GP2, and Indy Lights, so I’m hopeful that we can get a victory in 2018 season. That would be remarkably good. But actually, we can keep that consecutive wins going.”

Since he’s seen Carlin in a variety of championships, Chilton said the preparation and excellent team dynamic has kept them at the top of the heap regardless of the series.

“I’ll say it comes from the top, and Trevor is really at the top. He’s a super consistent sort of, let’s say, manager of people. He gets the right people involved,” Chilton explained.

“But, most importantly, people aren’t afraid of him. I’ve been at teams where people are sort of like the boss walks in and they treat him like headmaster and you can see them sort of squirm up and they don’t want to talk to him. That’s not the way a team should run.

“A team owner, team manager, should be speaking to every single person on the team regardless of what level of job they’re at to see that everything is going well there and bringing everyone together.

“And he won’t run the IndyCar program any different than a British Formula 4 program. It’s about managing people, getting everyone so that they’re working efficiently and giving the drivers the best tools to do the job.

“And I’ve never seen it not that way. Every team I’ve driven for here in the different categories, we’re always given a good well-prepared car, probably the best prepared cars I’ve ever had. That’s part of it. The cars we touch are very reliable, and it’s always a pleasure to drive for Trevor.”

In Kimball’s case, it’s a chance to come home after more than a dozen years since – coming second in British Formula 3 in 2015. He lost out to a then-unheralded Portuguese driver named Alvaro Parente, who ultimately has gone onto a successful and title-winning sports car career.

“Racing for Carlin has always felt like family,” Kimball said. “In fact, my sister met her husband, my brother-in-law when he was working for Carlin while I was racing for Trevor. So there are more than just that familial feel with racing for the team. It runs deeper than that.

“Especially this week, you understand the importance of family and this announcement (Kimball’s family is fighting the wildfires in California), to be able to rejoin Carlin, I’ve always felt a part of Carlin since I first raced for them in 2005 and finished second in the championships to Alvaro Parente. It was a great season.

“Then in 2007, going through that transition of getting diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and starting to build a relationship with Novo Nordisk, because you mentioned, a global health care company that makes the insulins and delivery devices that I use every day to manage my diabetes, Trevor and his team were there with me through that transition.”

Chilton and Kimball have each enjoyed bits of success in their IndyCar careers but never fully grew at Ganassi into having the team building around them. That wasn’t their fault, per se, but with a clear focus on Scott Dixon as the team’s number one driver and these two plus Tony Kanaan often falling into a supporting role, they weren’t necessarily able to fulfill their maximum potential.

Chilton’s two-year stat line is 33 starts, eight top-10 finishes, 66 laps led, and an impressive fourth-place finish at the 2017 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 (led a race-high 50 laps there), with an improvement from 19th to 11th in points from year one to year two in the championship. For Kimball, those totals over seven years are 117 starts, one win, one pole, 13 top-five finishes, and 162 laps led. His best finish in points is ninth on two occasions (2013, 2016).

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 16: Charlie Kimball of the United States driver of the #83 Tresiba Honda prepares for practice on day 2 of the GoPro Grand Prix of Somoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 16, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Having the uniform chemistry from working together at Ganassi the last two years should help this transition, Kimball said.

“The biggest advantage is that Max and I having worked together for two years in an existing IndyCar team, one that has a lot of experience, we’ve been able to help each other — I’ve learned a lot from Max about different approaches and concepts and I hope he’s been able to learn from some of my experience in IndyCar,” Kimball said.

“And having that dialogue, that relationship, that communication, that foundation already built means that when we get to the racetrack for the first time, we’re not learning each other as people or as drivers, we’re just getting to work on getting up to speed.”

Chilton added, “The important thing is we’ve got a very short period of time between when we first drive the car and the first race. And so there’s no learning phases.

“I know Charlie and I, for the last few years, we shared the same room in the Ganassi bus. So we know each other as friends but we also know how we sort of like to engineer the cars and drive. He’s raced with the team before. I’ve raced with the team before. And actually some of the mechanics who mechanic my car in 2009 would be on my car in IndyCar.

“So there’s so much less learning for a new team than usually. So that’s going to speed up the process. And I’m really looking forward to getting on with it and hopefully getting some success soon.”

Carlin summarized the pairing more succinctly: “For a team to have two experienced guys like Max and Charlie, our first day testing will be a massive bonus to the team, because we know we can rely on the drivers to do the job. So we can just focus on the job we’ve got to do.

“So both those drivers are a massive asset to our team. And they’re going to be a big part of pushing the team forward very, very quickly. So we’re very fortunate to have both those guys.”

The pair of drivers will test their Chevrolet-powered cars starting in January after the testing blackout. Carlin will remain based in Delray Beach, Fla., with a satellite operation to be opened in Indianapolis at a later date. Further team announcements will also be made later.