CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson stepped out of the spotlight during last year's NASCAR suspension and quietly turned his attention to charitable efforts for communities in need.
Each initiative was an eye-opener for Larson, who wanted to educate himself on social issues while suspended for using a racial slur in early 2020. Now back in NASCAR as both the championship favorite and most dominant driver of the year, Larson has also become the face of one of Rick Hendrick's most important charitable endeavors.
What started two decades ago by a single employee at Hendrick Automotive Group as a donation of 35 Thanksgiving meals has grown into a massive annual food drive by the largest privately held dealership in the country. The more than 10,000 employees had collected food twice a year until the pandemic, when their 27 partner food banks asked Hendrick Cares to pivot to cash donations.
In the year since, the employees and a Hendrick Cares match have raised $1.5 million and tasked Larson with making three of the deliveries. Larson presented the Second Harvest Food Bank in Charlotte with $150,000, a check for $50,000 to the Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston, South Carolina, and $80,000 to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh. Each donation represented the amount collected from employees in that region.
“It was always a great partnership because of the size of the food donations we received, but certainly when the pandemic hit, it was so great when the Hendrick group reached out and said ‘What do you need?’” said Jenna Temple, manager of corporate partnerships at the Raleigh food bank.
“We were honest — we needed funds. That was something that was so vital to us, but we didn't know what that was going to look like when companies traditionally do food drives and then transition to a cash donation. It's always a surprise to see the money come in and you wonder ‘Are people getting fatigued? Are they over the pandemic? So to see $80,000 today makes a huge impact on what we’re doing.”
The hand-delivery by NASCAR's hottest driver was just a bonus.
Rick Hendrick offered Larson his second chance once NASCAR lifted Larson's suspension, and Larson joined Hendrick Motorsports unsponsored. But as his on-track performance exploded, so did outside interest in aligning with Larson.
Ultimately, Hendrick Automotive found that its online traffic at HendrickCars.com skyrocketed whenever Larson raced in its paint scheme, so that arm of the company has used its marketing budget to pick up the full sponsorship package on NASCAR's hottest driver.
Larson won his ninth Cup race of the season last week — he technically has 10 victories if the non-points All-Star Race is included — and he goes to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday as the only driver locked into the winner-take-all Nov. 7 championship-deciding finale. As he's rebuilt his image, the Hendrick group has made him the face of its charitable initiatives.
“I'm just a very small part of it, the Hendrick employees do all the work, but it makes me so proud to be part of the Hendrick family,” Larson told The Associated Press.
Larson during his suspension last year connected with retired soccer star Tony Sanneh, whose foundation works on youth development and empowerment in the Minneapolis area. Larson volunteered with Sanneh's foundation in Minneapolis and was put to work sorting dozens of pallets of food and distributing meals to 400 cars a day.
Larson saw firsthand the hunger and food insecurities plaguing many Americans.
“You're out there for hours, bagging food and handing it out to a lot of people for hours, and it's so eye-opening to see how many people are struggling to eat or get enough food on a daily basis,” Larson said.
Hendrick Cares has also started another program this year built around Larson called “Hendrick, Get Set. Go!” to fund educational STEM projects in markets selected by economic need, proximity to NASCAR tracks and Hendrick dealerships. The company has earmarked $100,000 in $10,000 grants and Larson has so far participated in nine of the award presentations.
Pandemic restrictions have made many of the presentations virtual, with Larson taking questions from students that have ranged from racing inquiries to his feelings about blue cheese. Students from a local Charlotte school were able to visit with Larson at Hendrick Motorsports, and ahead of the May race in Austin, Texas, Larson raced go-karts with the grant winners.
Interacting with kids is Larson's favorite part of charitable work.
“It's just so fun and I remember being a kid and meeting somebody, it didn't even have to be anybody famous, but you just sit there and think ‘Oh wow, this is so cool,’” Larson said. “I don't know if some of these kids even know who I am when we do the events, but just to hear their questions and interact with them and have some fun... it makes it really rewarding to show up and know you made some people happy that day.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports