AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Anthony Martin had just left Kyle Larson’s NASCAR championship celebration, raised his arms and exclaimed, “We’re world champions!”
Oh yes, at Phoenix Raceway, Larson’s first career title was shared with all who backed him in his comeback.
The Urban Youth Racing School, the Philadelphia-based program that creates opportunities in racing for minorities, had founders Anthony and Michelle Martin and two students at the track -- and they all got swept up in the championship bash.
“I feel like at this point Kyle can’t be denied, on or off the track,” Michelle Martin said. “We’re talking about realness here. And realness means Kyle Larson.”
Larson used a slur while racing online in April 2020 and lost his NASCAR ride, his sponsor, his multimillion-dollar contract. He also worried he lost the relationships he had forged with the kids and the school even before he was suspended from NASCAR. The Martins had deep, emotional talks with Larson and believed his pain and his apologies were sincere. Michelle gave him a history lesson on racial inequality that spanned 400 years.
“They are a big part of my life now,” Larson said Sunday night. “I’m glad they were here to share with it.”
The Martins s tood their ground as they accepted a driver who some had labeled a racist back in the fold.
“It wasn’t like our community was happy that it was something that we did,” Michelle said. “We took a lot of shots, as well. One thing I told Kyle was, if you’re willing to stand strong, we’ll stand strong with you. We just have to stand here and take everything that comes because it’s going to come.”
Larson rewarded the olive branch offered by UYRS and Hendrick Motorsports with a Cup championship and renewed dedication to the school. Even as wins piled up and championship pressure mounted, Larson never lost his bond with UYRS. Larson bought the school needed racing simulators and Zoomed with students on race days. He visited the school without fanfare while he sat out most of 2020.
“Second chances are well-deserved for every type of human,” Michelle said. “He knocked this chance out of the park.”
In a sport in which minorities are scarce at all levels, the Martins made it their mission to introduce inner-city youngsters, most of them Black, to the motorsports world with the school. The school has served more than 7,500 students from ages 8 to 18 over the last 22 years and teaches all aspects of auto racing, including driving and Black racing history. UYRS uses a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum and students are quizzed and graded and compete for various year-end awards.
Larson was already involved with the program through his relationship with UYRS partner Chevrolet and attended a year-end banquet in 2019.
“You have to understand what he went through,” Anthony said. “We were there from Day 1. Believed in him. Saw how down he was. We saw him go through all that. And then go through all that and win a championship?”
“I’m like a proud mom,” Michelle said.
The Martins had an instant bond Sunday when they met Larson’s parents, Mike and Janet, for the first time. The Larsons told the Martins how much they appreciated their role in Larson’s personal growth.
“Kyle talked to him about us. They knew,” Anthony said. “It was love.”
The Martins mingled with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon at the track and then watched from the pits as Larson crossed the finish line first and confetti fluttered down.
“It makes me feel really special that they were here today and got to enjoy all the festivities,” Larson said.
It was a moment that seemed hard to imagine when this journey began.
“You kind of get through all of it and then at the end we’ll see where we truly stand and see where we are,” Michelle said.
And she liked where she stood on Sunday night.
She said: “At the championship race, because Kyle is a champion!”
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