At the zenith of his open-wheel stardom, Jeff Gordon was a media darling. He was celebrated and was the focus of vast amounts of media coverage, so much so that some of his rivals eventually began to grumble, privately referring to him sarcastically as “Ultra.”
At his peak, Steve Kinser was a force of nature. He won so many races that, once again, his rivals began to push back at his success, with one young driver lamenting, “If Steve would just retire us young guys could win some races!” or something along that line.
So, the bubbling resentment of Kyle Larson in 2020 among his competitors is not only understandable, it is inevitable.
Larson is doing something special this year. Winning, winning, and more winning, literally in every type of car he drives. He recently took on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series – the toughest late model series on the planet – at Port Royal Speedway and in his second full start beat a Hall of Fame-caliber field of late model racers.
The late model guys were polite in defeat, but not thrilled. So, line them up in the same group as the World of Outlaws sprint car guys, the All Stars, the USAC Silver Crown guys, etc.
It isn’t much fun to have people coming by your pit after a race and gushing about this phenomenal driver who just kicked your ass, and reading endless coverage of it for days afterward.
This isn’t Larson’s fault. He’s doing what a racer is supposed to do; he’s racing as hard as he can and he’s trying to win every race he enters. What makes him different is that he’s coming pretty close to getting it done.
But is Kyle Larson the greatest driver of all time? It’s way, way too early to start making that claim.
I’ve followed racing for a very long time and covered it professionally for 40 years, and Kyle is having one of the greatest and most dynamic seasons I’ve ever witnessed. Certainly, one of the most diverse I’ve ever seen. Speaking personally, I happen to like Kyle very much and I am genuinely happy for his success. And I like his folks a whole lot, too.
But to be analytical, you have to set aside the emotion of the moment and look honestly at the big picture.
Is Kyle’s 2020 season more impressive than Steve Kinser’s 51 World of Outlaws wins in 1987, including 29 wins out of 41 starts down the stretch? I’m not so sure.
Is Kyle’s 2020 season more impressive than Doug Wolfgang’s 43 sprint car wins in 1989, earning $500,000 along the way? Or Wolfie’s 53 top-level sprint car wins in 1985, including a streak of 17 consecutive wins? I’m not so sure about that, either.
But you know what? None of this conversation matters, because that’s all it is: conversation.
No racing fan worth his salt could look at what Kyle is doing right now with anything less than total respect. He is in a magical zone and it is a sight to behold.
I’ve always cringed when people try to compare racers and proclaim who is “the greatest.” I’ve even learned to avoid writing “the greatest” when I describe someone; I prefer to say “most accomplished.”
I consider A.J. Foyt the most accomplished Indy car racer of all time, not just because of his four Indy wins and seven national titles, but especially because his record of 35 consecutive Indianapolis 500 starts (1958 to 1992) is a record that will not be broken in my lifetime and not in yours, either.
In my eyes, Steve Kinser’s 690 World of Outlaws victories, 20 WoO series titles, and 12 Knoxville Nationals championships qualifies him as the most accomplished sprint car driver in history.
Mel Kenyon is the most accomplished midget racer of all time because 111 USAC National Midget wins and seven USAC National Midget Series championships are both astounding and unprecedented.
Were there various drivers who, at different points in time, did spectacular things to draw themselves into the conversation? Yes, but the numbers tell the story. True greatness is measured not just by one season, or two, or three. And this isn’t just true in racing or sport; it is true in almost any professional endeavor. The greatest honors await those who show not just success, but longevity.
If Kyle stayed with short track racing over the next 20 to 30 years, I believe he would post phenomenal numbers and certainly challenge those at the top of the “most accomplished” lists.
But as much as we are mesmerized by Larson’s tremendous success this season, at some point the dynamics of professional racing will probably intervene and he will return to NASCAR. When that happens he will not have the time to chase sprint cars and midgets and dirt late models as prodigiously as he’d like.
We’ll all be a little bit sad when that happens (although his fellow competitors won’t exactly be heartbroken) but we will understand.
Let’s just salute Larson and call it like it is: A truly gifted racer, driving with a level of confidence that is magical, aboard top-flight race cars, doing what every racer ever born dreams of doing: winning, winning, and winning some more.
Ain’t that somethin’?