HARRISBURG, N.C. — Ten years ago, on Sept. 25, 2011, I was introduced to the future of American auto racing.
The introduction didn’t take place in a dimly lit pit area, the back of a race car hauler or at a swanky sponsor function. This introduction took place at ZwanzigZ Pizza, a popular dining destination located at the intersection of 11th Street and Lafayette Avenue in my hometown of Columbus, Ind.
Earlier that week, my father, the person who ignited and nurtured my passion for auto racing, had suffered a stroke, and it had been a tumultuous week. I’d made the drive from North Carolina to Indiana to be by his side and provide morale support and any assistance possible.
By Saturday dad’s condition had improved considerably, and he was transferred from the local hospital to a rehabilitation facility where doctors planned to work out the remaining issues caused by the stroke.
My father was nearly back to his old self the next day and we spent several hours that Sunday afternoon watching local hero Tony Stewart win the NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which brought smiles all around.
I left the rehab center following the post-race interviews and connected with my mother. She suggested we grab some pizza and ZwanzigZ was the chosen destination.
While enjoying our dinner, a group of five entered the restaurant that caught my eye as I recognized midget owners Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby. Before leaving, I went over to their table to say hello.
After exchanging pleasantries, Kunz introduced me to the other members of their party: “This is Kyle Larson, he drove one of our cars at Eldora last night, and these are his parents, Mike and Janet.”
I’d heard about this Larson kid, a graduate of the outlaw kart circuit of northern California who was quickly establishing himself as a contender in anything he drove.
Kyle and I shook hands and I asked the shy, 19-year-old, “How’d you run last night?”
“I won all three,” came his surprising response.
By now we all know the story of the 2011 4-Crown Nationals. Larson shocked the open-wheel world by winning the midget, sprint car and Silver Crown features in his first visit to Ohio’s legendary Eldora Speedway.
Our conversation continued for a few minutes with Kunz noting that Larson had a very promising future in the sport. (Little did he know.) It wasn’t mentioned, but after I was gone the topic of discussion at that table eventually turned to Larson wheeling a midget for Keith Kunz Motorsports during the 2012 season.
As Monday morning dawned, attention returned to my father as he began physical therapy, but he wasn’t the same as he was on Sunday. His condition continued to deteriorate over the next few days and early Wednesday he was rushed back to the local hospital after suffering a second stroke.
A helicopter trip to an Indianapolis trauma center soon followed and despite surgery and the best efforts of several topline doctors, my father passed away on Thursday morning, Sept. 29, 2011. I had to plan a funeral before I could return to North Carolina.
To some this might sound strange, but the events of that September Sunday a decade ago created an association in my mind that forever links my father with Kyle Larson.
That day was the last I was able to spend quality time with my father. We laughed, shared a few memories and enjoyed watching the NASCAR race on television in his room at the rehabilitation center. Dad was the person who introduced me to auto racing and started me down a career path that has lasted four decades.
Then, that very same evening, I met a young man who would become a once-in-a-generation race car driver. The A.J. Foyt of this era. A racer who can win on any type of surface in any type of car. An ordinary man who can do extraordinary things when he climbs behind a steering wheel.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.