Larson out front as the face of Hendrick charitable initiatives

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 29, 2021

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE — 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.

Larson on Wednesday traveled across the Carolinas to present $280,000  to three different food banks as part of the  Hendrick Cares social responsibility initiative.

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 the driver 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 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.