By Holly Cain
ELK GROVE, Calif. -- A little more than an hour's drive inland northeast of San Francisco -- a route where the hybrid cars on the freeway gradually become outnumbered by pick-up trucks, the rolling hills give way to vast sprawling yellow fields and the temperature climbs so dramatically you actually feel it inside your car -- is the unassuming home to NASCAR's next big thing: Sprint Cup Series rookie Kyle Larson.
Tall grain silos and family produce stands selling Northern California's tomatoes, almonds, cherries and pistachios replace roadside office parks and fast food restaurants.
Instead of towering, tacky billboards interrupting the expansive landscape, small hand-painted banners remind the locals about festivals such as the "Rib Cook-Off" in tiny Dixon, California -- halfway between San Francisco and Larson's home town of Elk Grove.
A few miles up the road from Dixon -- on the other side of Sacramento -- similar banners advertise Elk Grove's "3rd Annual Dog Days of Summer Picnic." The celebration is the earlier counterpart of the town's other big annual fete, the "Giant Pumpkin Festival" held each October.
For all the talk about the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate's bright Sprint Cup future, it helps to unravel Larson's past, learning just where his 3,000-mile journey to NASCAR's big leagues began.
Big and important as the "Giant Pumpkin Festival" is in these parts, the small bedroom community on the outskirts of Sacramento may have held its biggest celebration last week when Elk Grove honored its favorite son, the 21-year-old Larson.
Before earning a second row starting spot for his Sprint Cup Series debut at the Sonoma road course in last Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 -- a qualifying effort that stunned veterans and furthered his super-talent reputation; before winning Saturday's NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race on the track; Larson stopped by Elk Grove last Wednesday for some humbling hometown adoration and the city's first ever "Key to the City."
"No matter where your career takes you, the door is always open -- and literally you'll be able to open it with this key," Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis told the large crowd. An impressive gathering of fans, city leaders, family and family friends gathered in lawn chairs and stood under shade trees eager to congratulate Larson, whose parents Mike and Janet still live in the same house where they raised Larson and his older sister Andrea.
"The fact Kyle's made it happen so fast is amazing, and he's transcended some barriers too," Davis said referring to Janet Larson's Japanese-American roots.
"He might be doing for NASCAR what Tiger Woods has done for golf.
"We created this [Key to the City] program, put some criteria in place and decided to wait for the right person, and Kyle was the one. We're a middle-class community with humble roots, and for him to have climbed up as fast as he did, that's exciting.
"He's got a big following. Even as our town grows in size there is still a sense of community and people get excited about celebrating their own."
That was evident. Some fans lined up outside the Elk Grove City Hall as early as 7 a.m. for the 3 p.m. ceremony and autograph signing, greeting Mayor Davis as he showed up for work.
The crowd of 300-plus -- ranging from senior citizens to toddlers -- was dressed in everything from the bright red Target colors reflective of Larson's No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to old, faded sprint car T-shirts from Larson's early career and first love.
And Larson, dressed in a suit and tie, stayed outside for two hours in 96-degree heat signing autographs and posing for photos with every single person who waited in line.
Kyle Boehringer took his place in the rear of the long line figuring he might grab a couple extra minutes to catch up with his childhood friend Larson. He remembers NASCAR's new superstar as the first kid in third grade to befriend him and his twin brother when the family moved to town.
"He's just an all-around great guy, gets along with every single person he meets," Boehringer said, noting that it is still amazing to see his old neighborhood friend now a national celebrity.
"It's surreal. I get a kick out of it. He's my bud, so I support him.
"He's been racing go-karts ever since I've known him. I was never huge into NASCAR then but now I feel like I'm into a whole lot more because of him. And so is everyone else around here."
Even Larson's parents -- themselves high school sweethearts at Elk Grove High -- concede they are still grasping their son's much-talked about potential and shake their head and smile contemplating his accomplishments so far.
Although a mechanical issue prevented a finish as impressive as his start at Sonoma on Sunday, Larson is still leading the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, and his current 10th-place ranking in the Sprint Cup Championship standings would be good enough to make the postseason.
"It's hard to believe," said Larson's father Mike, who recently retired after a career working for Elk Grove's utility department.
"I've grown up here in Elk Grove most of my life and you just can't anticipate something like this. We started out racing just for fun and it gets to this," he paused. "It's a dream."
Though seated on the front row for Wednesday's celebration, Larson's parents prefer to stay in the background. Larson's mom Janet is always with a camera in hand. The unending video and photography she shot of Larson as a child has come in handy and NASCAR fans have seen it used in web-based short films and commercials about him.
As Larson celebrated his first victory in the K&N Pro Series West in the his first start at Sonoma on Saturday afternoon -- a birthday present for his father as it turned out -- Janet stood unnoticed among the dozens of photographers in Victory Lane. Unnoticed except for the large grin, which surely gives her away in such instances.
She happily snapped more photographs, which will help further document the rise of a driver expected to be winning for a long time. They will also be cherished keepsakes for the child Larson and his longtime girlfriend Katelyn Sweet are expecting in December.
Larson laughs recalling one of the few times he'd visited Sonoma Raceway before -- always as a fan, never as a racer. Attending a NASCAR race here a decade ago, he dressed up like his favorite driver Jeff Gordon and at one point got on the live race telecast during a crowd shot.
"My mom still has the picture someone took off their television with me on it," Larson said smiling.
He can expect lots of television time in his future -- and on his own accord.
Although he salvaged a 28th-place finish in Sunday's Toyota-Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, his car lost power steering. With such poise under pressure, Larson had already demonstrated a natural ability that has captured NASCAR fans' attention and drawn notice from his veteran competitors who regularly heap praise on him.
"Kyle has done a really good job at every track we have been to this year," Sonoma pole-sitter and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray said, noting Larson's impressive qualifying effort.
"He is a sponge, not only in asking me or the other guys questions, but he watches what happens on the race track and I think does a really good job adapting to that.
"Not shocked at all [that Larson did so well in qualifying at his very first visit to the track this weekend]."
Larson echoes the respect, telling the crowd at his Elk Grove celebration this week about McMurray, "there's no other teammate I could ever want."
Larson's own childhood favorite, Jeff Gordon, also took notice after Larson's qualifying run -- especially considering Larson started his first Cup race there third Sunday, while the five-time Sonoma winner Gordon rolled off the grid 15th.
"You want to say the biggest surprise [of qualifying] is Larson since it's his first time here, but then again it's not a surprise because he's so talented," Gordon said.
A day earlier than Larson's event and 500 miles south of Elk Grove, NASCAR's six-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was also honored in his hometown of El Cajon, California, where a street was named after him and a day declared "Jimmie Johnson Day."
Like Larson, Johnson came from a middle-class, blue-collar upbringing that valued family time and good character above all else -- the foundation laid weekend after weekend, whether it meant the entire family supporting Larson racing sprint cars in rural northern California or in Johnson's case, dirt bikes in the southern California deserts.
And like Johnson, Larson seems to have a bright future of trophies and titles.
All of which Elk Grove Mayor Davis is prepared for. A "Key to the City" already in Larson's hand at 21, how could his hometown commemorate a Sprint Cup championship?
"I think we'll need at least a parade, don't you?'" Davis said smiling.
"And confetti, lots of confetti."