The coronavirus outbreak has forced the suspension of virtually all professional sports leagues, which, to put it bluntly, really sucks. Some leagues have ventured into the online world to keep their audiences entertained, including NASCAR, the US-based stock car racing association, which has joined up with iRacing for a virtual "Replacement Series" of races featuring real NASCAR drivers.
It's a great fit for fans. The simulation is realistic enough that it can be difficult to distinguish virtual camera shots from the real thing, and drivers online can banter between themselves in ways that aren't possible (or at all advisable) in the real world. That adds a certain amount of levity to the whole thing, but the competition is still fierce: Both of those aspects were on display last week, when Jimmie Johnson joked about firing an NPC crew member while Bubba Wallace ragequit and lost a sponsor.
A less amusing incident took place during an online race on Sunday—not part of the Replacement Series—when Kyle Larson, one of NASCAR's top drivers, uttered a racist slur after his headset appeared to cut out. "You can't hear me?" Larson asked, apparently not realizing that he was broadcasting to the entire field. "Hey n—." Other drivers immediately reacted with shock; one of them quickly said, "Kyle, you're talking to everyone, bud."
NASCAR moved quickly to address the matter, suspending Larson indefinitely the next day. "NASCAR has made diversity and inclusion a priority and will not tolerate the type of language used by Kyle Larson during Sunday’s iRacing event," it said in a statement. "Our Member Conduct Guidelines are clear in this regard, and we will enforce these guidelines to maintain an inclusive environment for our entire industry and fan base."
Larson was also suspended from future iRacing events. "iRacing considers itself to be a welcome and inclusive community for racing enthusiasts all around the world. We have strict policies against offensive behavior and language," it said in a statement of its own. "Kyle Larson's language last night during a streamed online race was both offensive and inappropriate, and in violation of our sporting code. As such, Kyle Larson has been suspended indefinitely from the iRacing service."
Predictably, Larson released an apology video shortly after the incident, saying he "made a mistake" and acknowledging that there's no excuse for it. "It's just an awful thing to say," he said. "I feel very sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community, and especially the African-American community. I understand the damage is probably unrepairable, and I own up to that."
pic.twitter.com/RPsp7ARIeaApril 13, 2020
In the short term at least, he was correct. According to an ESPN report, major sponsors including McDonald's, Credit One Bank, and Fiserv have all terminated their sponsorship deals with him, while Chevrolet has halted its "personal services relationship." Faced with that loss of financing, Chip Ganassi Racing, the racing team Larson was driving for, announced today that he has been fired.
"As we said before, the comments that Kyle made were both offensive and unacceptable especially given the values of our organzation," CGR said. "As we continue to evaluate the situation with all the relevant parties, it became obvious that this was the only appropriate course of action to take."
Statement regarding Kyle Larson: pic.twitter.com/5Q06Dhst8VApril 14, 2020
Larson could face even further repercussions, as Lucas Oil, which partially sponsors his entry in the World of Outlaws sprint car series, has ended its relationship with the driver as well.
The rapid and decisive response to Larson's incident highlights a contrast to typical reactions to similar incidents in esports, where pro players and streamers routinely face brief suspensions and minor fines for racist outbursts. When racist or homophobic slurs are uttered by streamers on Twitch, these "heated gaming moments" aren't usually met with broad, immediate blacklisting by platforms and sponsors. But I'd be willing to bet that we won't be hearing any more racist outbursts in future iRacing events.
NASCAR actually makes a relatively high-profile effort to combat racism through its Drive for Diversity programs, which are aimed at attracting women and minorities to the sport. In part, it's an effort to address the association's notoriously racist roots: US stock car racing emerged from the country's deep south, Confederate flags are still a common sight at races, and drivers remain almost exclusively white and male—Bubba Wallace's second-place at Daytona in 2018 was the best Daytona 500 finish by a black driver in NASCAR history. The association clearly understands that change sometimes requires a heavy hand. Maybe esports orgs will take note.
There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport..I am the 1. You're not gonna stop hearing about "the black driver" for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey..November 8, 2017