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AP photo by Chris O'Meara / Kyle Larson greets fans before the Daytona 500 on Feb. 16. The former NASCAR Cup Series driver has been working behind the scenes to educate himself on racial issues since he was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing for using a racial slur.

INDIANAPOLIS — What do you do when the entire world believes you are a racist? When your career has collapsed because you uttered the N-word while playing what is essentially a video game?

Kyle Larson packed his things and left the NASCAR hub of North Carolina for his native California, too embarrassed to show his face in public.

The facts were plain, and he doesn't deny them: He was competing in an iRacing event late on the night of Sunday, April 12, couldn't hear his spotter on his headset and used the N-word to get his colleague's attention. The event was being streamed live, and Larson's downfall was swift: The 28-year-old lost his sponsors, his job with Chip Ganassi Racing and any shot at a multimillion-dollar contract despite being due for free agency.

Depressed and devastated, Larson began a journey to understand both why he had said the word and how to grow from the experience. What the former Cup Series driver discovered was that he'd been living in a bubble most of his life in which winning races was the only thing that mattered. Anything that happened in the real world was simply not on his radar.

"I was just ignorant. And immature. I didn't understand the negativity and hurt that comes with that word," Larson told The Associated Press. "That's not a word that I had ever used. I grew up in Northern California, all I ever did was race and that's all I was focused on. There's probably a lot of real-life experiences I didn't get to have, and I was just ignorant to how hurtful that word is."

Larson sat down with the AP at an Indianapolis hotel Wednesday for his first interview since he was fired April 15 by Chip Ganassi Racing after every sponsor cut ties. He had also been suspended by NASCAR and needed to complete a sensitivity training course for reinstatement.

Larson immediately took the course. Then he decided he needed to do more.

He connected with retired soccer star Tony Sanneh, whose foundation works on youth development and empowerment in the Minneapolis area. Larson went to visit Sanneh and volunteer at the foundation in the weeks before the city — and the nation — were rocked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody.

"I take my work very seriously and made it clear I was not here for any dog and pony show where he shows up and writes a check and we do a photo op," Sanneh told AP. "But we were taking 20 pallets of food on 100-degree days and sorting them for hours to distribute to a line of 400 cars. He was very much here to listen, to learn, and this was about him growing personally."

Larson later returned to Minneapolis, and Sanneh took him to the site where Floyd died. They also toured parts of the city heavily damaged during protests regarding racial injustice.

This was new ground for Larson. His family — father Mike and mother Janet, both devout in raising their son to make proper life decisions, be a good person and treat people equally — made racing a hobby, and when Larson began go-karting at 7, they used all discretionary income on his racing.

"I never really realized how privileged I was in the way I grew up," Larson said. "I never had to really worry about anything, and I guess I was naive. I didn't have a full understanding that there are people struggling with different things on a daily basis. It was very impactful, very moving."

Sanneh connected Larson with former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Larson visited her foundation in East St. Louis. He got on the phone with Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track & Field who also runs a NASCAR-sanctioned team that is part of the series' diversity program. Larson, who is half Japanese, came through that very program on his way to NASCAR.

Larson also continued work he'd already been doing with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia. The nonprofit helps minorities advance in motorsports, and Jysir Fisher, one of its students, had celebrated with Larson in victory lane after a win in Delaware last October.

Fisher was deeply disappointed by Larson's use of the N-word and discussed it with founder Anthony Martin. When Larson said he wanted to visit the school, a meeting was scheduled with Fisher.

"Kyle made it his business to come here to this school and apologize. He didn't want to do it by telephone. He wanted to do it face to face," Martin told AP. "That had a strong effect on Jysir. His favorite driver is still Kyle Larson."

While at the school, Martin said his wife gave Larson a history lesson spanning 400 years on racial inequality: "He sat up and listened to every bit of it. He's been listening and learning. He's been sincere about putting the work in."

Larson has also hired a personal diversity coach, Doug Harris, CEO of The Kaleidoscope Group that specializes in diversity and inclusion consulting.

Martin understands celebrities often go through the motions to repair their image after a fall. He insists that's not what Larson has been doing the past four months. He noted Larson has not advertised any of his behind-the-scenes work and remains in frequent contact with the school about projects he can assist with.

"Kids make mistake," Martin said. "Do I think that Kyle was ever a racist? Absolutely not."

Only Larson is not a kid. He's the married father of two young children, and his mistake came in his seventh year racing at NASCAR's top level. He accepts he should have known better.

He said he isn't doing what he's doing in a desperate attempt to get his job back. Larson, whose maternal grandparents spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, is adamant he wants to educate himself.

"I just felt like there was more that I needed to do — and I wanted to show through actions that I am a better person than I was before," Larson said. "The sensitivity training was great, but I felt like it was just a starting point to what else I needed to do."

Larson has spent his time in NASCAR exile back at the starting point of his career, racing sprint cars across the country. He has piled up 31 wins from coast to coast; this weekend, he will be at the Indy Mile Race at the Fairgrounds at nearly the same time the Indianapolis 500 is running across town.

He is back to his roots and, arguably, the type of racing closest to his heart, going from dirt track to dirt track with all the drivers he grew up with.

He still hopes to get back to NASCAR. Fellow Cup Series drivers who are in his close circle of friends have remained loyal and said he'd be welcomed back.

"He's got a love for dirt, there's no question about it. He also really likes Cup racing," said three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, a golfing buddy. "He's been doing all the right things. Obviously he put himself in a really bad spot saying something that was totally inappropriate.

"But, you know, people make mistakes. A lot of people make mistakes."

Larson doesn't know if a team or sponsors would be willing to give him a second chance. He returned to his home in North Carolina and has met NASCAR's requirements for reinstatement, though he has yet to request that, he said Wednesday.

NASCAR has been working through its own racial reckoning and recently banned the display of the Confederate flag at events at the urging of Bubba Wallace, the only full-time Black driver currently competing in the Cup Series.

"I made a mistake, and I'm paying for it and I accept that," Larson said. "NASCAR is where I always wanted to be, and I do believe I proved I can compete at the Cup level. I'd like to get back there, and we'll see if there's a way. All I can do is continue to improve myself and let my actions show who I truly am."

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