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NASCAR's Kyle Larson to AP on slur: 'I was just ignorant'

FILE - In this Oct. 18, 2019, file photo, Kyle Larson sits in his car before the final practice for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. Kyle Larson has been working behind the scenes to educate himself on racial issues since his firing from NASCAR for using a slur.  (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 18, 2019, file photo, Kyle Larson sits in his car before the final practice for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. Kyle Larson has been working behind the scenes to educate himself on racial issues since his firing from NASCAR for using a slur. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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 a late night video game?

Kyle Larson packed his things and left North Carolina, returning to his native California too embarrassed to show his face in public.

The facts were plain and he doesn't deny them: He was iRacing late Easter Sunday, couldn't hear his spotter on his headset and used the N-word to get his colleagues' attention. His downfall was swift: The 28-year-old Larson lost his sponsors, his job and any shot at a multimillion-dollar contract in NASCAR’s upcoming 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 he 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 death of George Floyd in police custody.