NASCAR teams started to pay attention to Kyle and his progress not long after Kyle joined Keith Kunz Motorsports. I think what really got things kind of started was Kirk Spridgeon, who works for USAC. He had tipped one of Chip Ganassi’s attorney’s in Indy, Bruce Kempton, that there was this kid named Kyle Larson, who really no one had heard too much about, and that he was looking pretty good in his first races with KKM. One night when Kyle was racing for Keith and Pete Willoughby, Bruce came and introduced himself to Kyle and explained that he was also with Spire Sports Management Group.
My wife Janet and I didn’t actually meet Bruce until we got there in May 2011 during our first visit to Indiana. Kyle was going to run the USAC Silver Crown race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and the Night Before the 500 USAC Midget race at Lucas Oil Raceway. Janet and I went back a couple more times during the summer for things like Indiana Midget Week and Four Crown Nationals. During those visits, Bruce would sit with us and together we’d watch Kyle race. We were building a friendship during the races, but looking back it’s obvious that they were interested in Kyle, and they also saw something in him. But, at that point I don’t think any of us expected Kyle was going to develop as quickly as he did.
One day Bruce took us over to meet Mike Hull, who runs the Indycar program for Chip at Ganassi’s place in Indy. I remember asking Bruce that day what he thought in terms of Kyle’s future chances of getting opportunities to move up with someone like Ganassi. Bruce explained that for the time being they just wanted Kyle to continue to do what he was doing, at least through the next year. He felt we should just keep him racing midgets and Silver Crown for Keith and Pete, as well as doing as much winged sprint car racing as he could, and fill in with the occasional non-wing ride. At that point the feeling was that there was really no need to hurry anything along, and that we should just let Kyle keep developing as a driver and they would keep their eye on him.
Wins Begin to Pile Up
At Brickyard 400 time Kyle won his first pavement midget race at Lucas Oil Raceway, and then followed that up by setting a new track record at the Indianapolis Speedrome before the race got rained out. We left from there and Kyle won at U.S. 36 (Raceway in Missouri) in a midget, then went to the Belleville Midget Nationals and he swept both nights. Belleville was really Kyle’s first big national win and that pretty much put him on the map. It was the first time people all over were realizing that Kyle was pretty good. We left Belleville and went to Knoxville to spectate for a few days before the Nationals.
The Hoffman’s were racing the Sunday night USAC sprint car show, and on the first turn of the first lap of the first heat their driver crashed. I half-jokingly said to Janet, “I bet they’re going to ask Kyle to drive the car.” It’s hard to believe, but at that time, the Hoffman car was not considered to be one of the elite non-wing rides. People were saying on places like indianaopenwheel.com that the Hoffman’s had kind of lost their way. Sure enough, that Sunday night they offered Kyle the ride for the Ultimate Challenge race at Oskaloosa, and in my mind I was thinking, “I’m not so sure about this.” I actually tried to talk Kyle out of taking the ride on Monday morning, but Kyle insisted that he’d already accepted. I really wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but of course I was completely wrong. Kyle went out and dominated the race, in fact he won every event he was in that night.
Kyle had no ride for the Knoxville Nationals, so we headed back to California. He ran a race for the Finley Farms team at Yreka and Kyle won that. He won the USAC Silver Crown race at DuQuoin, IL on Labor Day weekend. At the Gold Cup at Chico a week later Kyle won a USAC/CRA non-wing sprint car race on Thursday, and then won the World of Outlaws on Saturday. One week later he won in Canton, Illinois for Keith and Pete in the midget. All of this led to Kyle running 4 Crown for the first time and he swept it his first time ever racing at Eldora!
Business Picks Up
The day after Kyle swept 4 Crown things really blew up. Robin Miller was calling him “The best thing since Parnelli Jones” and Tony Stewart saying “This kid is a can’t miss.” He paid Kyle a $10,000 bonus for winning all three races. After that night people beyond the midget and sprint car world now noticed, and believed Kyle had gone from a developing driver to ready for bigger things.
The week prior to winning 4 Crown, Kyle had been invited to Chicago to meet the Toyota NASCAR teams, since Keith and Pete were sponsored by Toyota also. For some reason I was unable to go so Kyle went there by himself, with no agents or any representation, because he had none. It was a really disheartening and disappointing experience for Kyle because he went there and met all of those principals of those Toyota teams and every one of them was like, “Hey kid, if you can bring $500,000-1,000,000 we can get you in a K&N ride and get you going.” It wasn’t what we expected to happen. We kind of thought that the whole reason Kyle was there was to get hooked up with a Toyota team, and they would find a way to fund it. It didn’t happen and Kyle was pretty bummed out.
A week later, right after he won the 4 Crown races, we decided that we were going to get Kyle hooked up with Spire because he was starting to get other calls from NASCAR teams. I realized then that the situation ahead was bigger than me. Up to that point I’d done pretty much everything for Kyle because he was so busy just racing all over the country. I was booking his flights, his hotels, rental cars and taking care of the little details for him. But I had a full time job and knew I couldn’t devote myself to all that was coming for Kyle, so we finalized the contract with Spire. One day in October Kyle visited the Roush, Hendrick and Ganassi shops in North Carolina, and he went there with a couple of the Spire people. Roush and Hendrick were very interested but they really didn’t have a situation they could plug Kyle into.
Chip’s shop was the third stop on the tour, basically just dropping in to visit. Chip lives in Pittsburgh but it worked out that he was there that day. They all met in a room and Spire kind of explained what Kyle’s standing was. Chip already knew about Kyle, as he had been getting videos from Bruce that Janet was sending. When they all kind of got in the same room Chip was like, “Sooo, what are we sitting around and waiting for? Let’s sign the kid and get him going,” and that’s exactly what he did.
The Week from Hell
We didn’t actually have to deal with any of the contracts until around Chili Bowl in January 2012. I now call that week “Hell Week.” I was going to Chili Bowl for a vacation to relax and watch. But that would all change when Bruce showed up, and he had a contract for Kyle to run a Late Model down in Florida at the end of January with Tim Russell Racing. So there was a contract for that. Chip likes to split up his contracts into a driver agreement and a sponsor agreement, so there were two more to look at.
There was also another contract with Rev Racing, through the Drive for Diversity, to start Kyle’s NASCAR career in the K&N East Series. So in total there were four contracts put in front of Kyle and me at the Chili Bowl that needed to be signed. Chip’s people wanted Kyle to do that K&N program because they could save roughly half a million dollars by hooking up with them. The plan was that the Ganassi organization would provide a crew chief, and additional parts to Rev Racing.
Of all of the contracts I dealt with that was probably the one that caused the most apprehension, because for the couple of months prior to that Rev Racing was going through some turmoil and a bunch of higher ups had left. The word was that maybe they were not in the best shape as an organization. We weren’t totally sure that Rev Racing was right for Kyle. We had to ask ourselves “If he’s in a penalty box of a race car is that going to benefit him?” All three of us – Kyle, Janet and I – had serious reservations about going and doing the Rev Racing deal. So here I was at Chili Bowl with almost 100 pages of contracts in front of me. I was trying to stay up after the races and read through them, and it was exhausting. I read a lot but I’m no legal scholar. So much of the wording and the terminology was just beyond me. I thought I knew what I was reading but I wasn’t sure, and I just didn’t feel confident about what was looming ahead.
Keith and Pete went to Tony Stewart at Chili Bowl and explained that we were in a bind, that we had four contracts in front of us and needed some advice. After being introduced to Tony I told Bruce I wouldn’t be able to have any decisions until we got back home from the Chili Bowl. When we got home I had to call in sick to work because these contracts had to get done. So here I am feeling bad about lying to my work that I was sick, and I’m home spending all day negotiating contracts.
You have to realize, as a family, we were all new to this big time racing stuff. Looking back, there was a lot of learning ahead about the industry. Although Kyle was signed with Spire, by that point I had only met Bruce. I had never even been to North Carolina in my life, which is where Spire is located. I thought Bruce was Spire’s designated representative for Kyle. But I also realized that Bruce worked as an attorney for the Ganassi organization. And he was basically negotiating for the Ganassi side on the two Ganassi contracts. Fortunately, Tony hooked me up with someone who could give me some legal advice. So, here I had help walking me through things, but I also had Bruce on the other side working for Chip and he’s wanting answers very quickly.
Racing with Tim Russell in Florida was about 10 days away and we had to get Kyle under contract with Chip before he could do that. I was juggling two things at once, on the house phone and e-mailing with my helper, and taking texts and phone calls with Bruce on my cell phone, who was wanting to know what we were going to do. I was trying to work it all out, but getting really stressed because it was so back and forth in a time crunch that was continually building. It took a solid two days and evenings of e-mails, phone calls and texts to get it accomplished. But at least the Ganassi and Russell contracts were finalized.
Even after I went back to work it went on through the week with the Rev Racing contract, using time at lunch, break time, or any moment that I could find. At this point I did have Bruce working on Kyle’s behalf, and mine too, but the decisions were still ours to be made. Kyle, who was off racing sprint cars in Australia, still wanted to run sprint cars and midgets here for the coming season, but in Rev Racing’s contract it said there would be no racing anything else, and that he would work in the shop. If you know Kyle, working in the shop is not for him. I was trying to tell Bruce, who was the intermediary between Rev Racing and us, that these guys picked the wrong prospect if that’s what they were expecting out of him. Kyle even called me from Australia and said, “If I can’t race open wheel stuff then forget it, I’ll walk away from the whole situation.” There was a lot of back and forth on that contract with Rev Racing.
I think Bruce was reluctant to push the issues we were insisting upon regarding Kyle’s open wheel racing, because I think he thought Rev Racing would push back, and everything would fall apart. It all finally came to an end after working through the weekend to get it done. We spent a lot of time and energy on that contract with Rev Racing, when in the end it was not that big a deal at all. They basically agreed to everything Kyle and I insisted upon and Kyle ended up racing 118 events that year, his most ever! Included in that was the Rev Racing 14 race schedule, where Kyle won Rookie of the Year, and the championship. Fortunately, the situation there was in a much better state than it appeared to be at the beginning, so it definitely all worked out
A Sigh of Relief
I’ve come to realize in a situation like this, that when you are a newbie to something you know very little about, it’s very hard to step back and analyze things at the time they are happening. You’re making life-altering decisions and you get one shot at it. It HAS to go right. We absolutely could not look back on those original contract negotiations or decisions with any regrets. That is why I commend Tony so much for stepping up and helping us get through the process of getting the contracts signed. He didn’t have to do that, and it was invaluable. But those are the kinds of things Tony does for people all the time that no one ever sees.
It’s ironic that as a pre-teen Kyle always wanted to be like Tony, by being successful in different types of race cars, and owning his own open wheel teams. I used to try to temper that by telling him that, because we didn’t have the resources to get him beyond the outlaw karts that he was racing at the time, it was more than likely not going to happen. I would tell him that his talent would be his only ticket to the big time. But sure enough he has done it, and everything he has now was gained because of that talent. At the end of all the contract hassles Kyle was glad to sign with Chip.
Kyle felt very honored and grateful for Chip because he was the only guy who stepped up and was willing to spend his own money. Early on Chip made a promise to us that if Kyle did the K&N deal with Rev Racing he’d run Kyle in four Camping World Truck Series races at the end of the season. Chip stuck to his word and Kyle performed so well in those four races that he moved directly to the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series the next year.
Kyle also wanted to go to Ganassi because there were a lot of opportunities for him there, in terms of him fulfilling the pre-teen wish to develop as a multi-faceted driver. As such, Kyle’s had the opportunity to win the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race in Chip’s car, and has his eye on a Ganassi ride in the Indy 500 someday. And fortunately for Kyle, Chip’s allowed him to continue to run sprint cars, midgets and outlaw karts, and Kyle now partners with Justin Marks in owning his own WoO sprint car team.
It’s funny looking back now though, because we’ve laughed with Jeff Dickerson, who I now realize is the main person at Spire, about the unpleasant ordeal I went through in 2012. I barely knew what Jeff’s role at Spire was back then, and he had little idea of what I was going through with all the contract stuff. After Kyle moved to North Carolina, and Janet and I finally spent time there, I got to know Jeff well. Jeff and I both kind of realized that things could have gone more smoothly if we had just put our heads together before contracts entered the picture. As time has gone on, Jeff and the people at Spire have been very instrumental in Kyle’s development as a NASCAR driver, putting together many opportunities for him. To this day, Kyle leans on them for their guidance and work behind the scenes, and things have worked out very well for all involved. But, man, if I could just get back that one week – “Hell Week.”
The Drivers Project is a media collective devoted to North American open-wheel racing.