While the NFL, NBA and even the UFC have addressed the issue of openly gay male athletes none of racing’s top series have, even racing media has largely ignored the question, so it’s worthwhile asking, could an openly gay driver thrive in NASCAR or Indycar?
Just a little bit of biographic detail on me so that you’ll understand where this is coming from. I was a reporter for almost a decade, and have spent several years working for Atlanta’s GLBT weekly news magazines. I’ve attended both NASCAR and Indycar races, both in the closet and openly, and so I think I can speak with a bit of perspective on this issue.
The conclusion I’ve reached is that a gay driver would be run out of NASCAR as soon as their contract ended, if not before, but an Indycar driver could probably make it work for him. Also, let’s be honest, if an attractive lesbian driver were to come out it would be different. Straight guys repulsed by gay men, but turned on by attractive lesbians. If Danica Patrick were to come out — and I’m not saying she’s a Lesbian — she would be even more popular with men.
The crux of my decision is that Barber Motorsports Park and Talladega Super Speedway are only about 30 miles away but decades apart when it comes to culture. I’ve been to a number of races at both tracks, and I can’t imagine ever returning to a NASCAR race. Last time I went to Talladega I lost track of how many times I heard the word faggot shouted. I try not to be overly sensitive about these things. I understand that straight guys love using “Faggot,” “Queer,” and “Gay.” I live in the south and play online games. If I got offended every time some dropped a gay slur I don’t think I’d have time for anything else.
They problem I had during my last trip to Talladega is was used so often, and with such venom it was really hard to ignore. Faggot seemed to be the insult of choice for everything, from imported beer I drinking – seriously, someone called the Stella Artois I was drinking a “Faggot Beer” – to Toyota. I’ll never forget someone calling Michael Waltrip a not polite word for black people “loving faggot,” because he owned a Toyota team; actually that construction was used several times by different people. Given the amount of beer that NASCAR fans consume at these events I just don’t feel safe going into a situation like that, alone, or with a boyfriend.
Now that the NBA put together a PSA with stars like Grant Hill, Steve Nash and others saying that it’s not appropriate to use “gay as an insult.” Given that the UCF has gone to great length to be transgender inclusive, it is beyond time for NASCAR to issue some sort of anti-homophobic statement. NASCAR VP of Public Affairs told ESPN that they totally support the gays.
“We want our athletes and our sport to look like America, and exclusion or intolerance of any kind, whether behind the wheel, on pit road or in the garage, is not part of that formula.”
I’m sorry, but I totally don’t believe that. If you wanted gays to come to your races you might actually reach out to them, or at least follow every other major sports’ lead.
Given that the NFL, NBA, UFC, NHL, MLS have all done something to publicly address homophobia you have to look at NASCAR’s silence on the issue as a least a tacit endorsement their fan’s behavior. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Patrick, Tony Stewart reach an audience than the NBA, and it’s time they say something too. Straight allies appear at gay pride events all the time, and Atlanta has one of the biggest pride events in the country, and Atlanta’s Black Gay Pride happens Labor Day Weekend, the same time the NASCAR show is at the speedway. You’d think a few NASCAR drivers could find their way to Midtown for that.
The environment at Barber is radically different. I’ve been to every Honda Grand Prix of Alabama since I’ve been there and such a better event. The crowd doesn’t drink as much, it’s more relaxed and friendly and I’ve never heard a fan utter an offensive word. It’s the sort of place where I would feel safe bringing a boyfriend. Given what I’ve seen about the crowd I’m not saying all of them would be supportive, but they seem to have the good sense to not throw around racial epithets and anti-gay slurs.
There’s also fairly sizable amount of openly gay fans at the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix, and at least a couple rainbow flags fly from the condos overlooking the race during the weekend. I’ve heard stories of some pretty righteous gay parties in those condos as well.
That said, it would be nice to see Indycar issue some sort of statement, or have their drivers do some sort of outreach to the gay community. Gays are loyal, Indycar needs new fans. Racing has never reached out to any gay community, and it doesn’t take much. Start showing up at pride events, do a NoH8 photo shoot and I guarantee you Indycar would start picking up gay fans. That said, Indycar’s management misses the boat on a lot of things, so I for one have a hard time holding this one thing against them. NASCAR however has their crap together, and I don’t think it’s an oversight on their part.
I also think a smart open wheel driver could make being openly gay could actually built an effective platform around themselves. James Hinchcliffe is a talented driver, but arguably he’s in the sport today because he built a platform around his personality sense of humor that led to him getting the Andretti Autosport ride. I would expect an openly gay driver could use his personality to build their sponsor-attracting platform.
We gays are a loyal people, almost to fault really, and an openly gay driver would provide an avenue to market to that community. While there are some companies that wouldn’t want a gay driver, there are probably plenty who would. Delta, Coke-Cola, Miller Light and others have a big presence at Atlanta’s gay pride. Most major companies have nondiscrimination policies, GLBT affinity groups and some actively recruit gay employees. Having an openly gay driver would offer a company the ability to promote to two communities at the same time.
I also want to address the “Why do you have to make it public,” that is often used as a reason why gay people should just pretend to be straight. Yeah, I can go to Talladega and people don’t clock me as gay, I’m sure a driver can to. But if you’re straight you don’t understand how pervasive sexuality is. Heterosexuals flaunt it all the time. Everything from putting a picture of your wife and kids up in your office, even having kids for the most part, or kissing your opposite gender significant other in public advertises your sexuality. It’s not that you’re trying to force others to recognize you’re heterosexuality, you’re just doing what comes honestly.
How far should a driver go to conceal their sexuality? It’s not enough to just not mention your private life anymore. Social media and cameras are everywhere. If you’re a driver at Long Beach do you not go to a gay bar with your boyfriend? If you’re questioned about it do you have to lie? Do you have to pretend you’re something you’re not just to make other people feel better. It’s not just being quiet, at some point you’ll probably have to lie. Driver’s wives and girlfriends get access to the pits and are often shown on camera. Would a gay driver need to hide their boyfriend? Do gay fans?
My bet is Indycar will have the first openly gay driver, the atmosphere there is more conductive to it. If an open wheel driver comes out and embraces it, I think they would be embraced for it. We just have to wait to see if anyone is out there is gay and has the bravery needed to be the first.