Rafu Sports Editor

(Published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 13, 2013)

Kyle Larson chats during dinner at the Fu-Ga restaurant in Little Tokyo. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

The questions Sunday night at the Fu-ga restaurant in Little Tokyo referred to the incident at Daytona as simply “The Crash.”

The fact that Kyle Larson was there and able to answer them is part miracle, part testament to the evolution of safety design in auto racing.

“I was fine, really, I was,” Larson said, almost shrugging it off. “My elbow hit the seat and my arm was a little sore, but that’s about it. It’s scary that so much of the debris went into the stands, that was the worst part, just awful.”

It was in the final lap of a Nationwide Series race on Feb. 23, during a NASCAR event that preceded the next day’s Daytona 500. Some 200 feet from the finish, Regan Smith attempted to protect his lead by blocking out the oncoming Brad Keselowski. In the blink of an eye, 12 cars were mangled, and Larson’s No. 32 Chevy Camaro was airborne, careening into the retaining fence that encircles the track and separates the spectators from the action.

The force of the wreck, however, was such that Larson’s car was sheared into several pieces, many of which flew over and through the safety barrier and into the grandstand. Nearly three dozen fans were injured.

“NASCAR has come along way, in terms of safety, but I’m sure they’ll be doing more research after that crash,” Larson, who walked away from the wreck, explained.

At the age of 20, Kyle Miyata Larson is one of the fastest-rising stars in auto racing. Last year’s K&N Pro Series champion and rookie of the year, he is a solid contender for the 2013 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year title.

Hoping for a safer ride this time around, he will be taking part in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Royal Purple 300, at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

The native of Sacramento is a member of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which seeks to reach out to women and minorities with an interest in racing. Larson, who was first exposed to auto racing at the delicate age of one week, began racing go karts at age 7.

Kyle Larson's No. 32 Chevy Camaro.

“My parents were huge fans,” Larson said of his father, Mike, and mother, Janet. “They would go to see 80 to 90 races a year to watch, and when I was four, my dad built me a go kart.”

At 14, he began to attract national attention as a sprint car driver, and made his NASCAR debut last June at age 19.

Larson said he’s unaware of another Japanese American driver currently in NASCAR, but that he would be proud to take up the mantle on behalf of Asian Americans in the sport.

“I’m not out there necessarily to do great just for Asian Americans, I’m just focused on driving,” he  explained, “but it would be cool if I can help attract more Asians in NASCAR and get them out to the track.”

As a Yonsei, Larson admitted that he is somewhat removed from his Japanese heritage, but said that he loved the stories of his grandfather, Manjo Miyata, who was interned at the Tule Lake, Calif.  detention center during World War II.

“My granddad didn’t talk much about his experiences during that time, mostly stories about getting straight A’s in school, girlfriends and things like that,” he recalled.

Larson’s grandmother, Betty, was also imprisoned at Tule Lake.

Having risen to fame so quickly, Larson said it’s been strange but exciting to be recognized off the track, signing autographs and being interviewed on television. He said he ultimately hopes to advance to the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR’s elite division, and someday to own a team and help other young drivers.

“There are so many hungry drivers out there,” he said. “ I’ve had a lot of opportunities and support, so I want to help others in return.”

Asked about his biggest fan, Larson’s answer was an easy one.

“My dad is thrilled,” he said. “He’s on Cloud 9.”