By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
Dirk Smith: I appreciate you taking the time. I know you’ve been quite busy and you’re becoming so popular!
It’s been a crazy month, I still processing how much has come together in just the past few weeks. My Grindr fire suit brought a lot of new eyes to my story. I’ve been working on corporate partnerships for two years now and the combination of the Grindr suit and an article with old shirtless thirst trap picture of me doubled my social media following which is a key indicator for companies when pitching a marketing partnership. I’m feels weird, but it’s good for business.
“As a gay man in America’s oldest conservative Motorsport, authentic representation matters. At 280 MPH, I’m proud to be turning heads and raising eyebrows with Grindr as a partner”@ShumakeTravis is queering the racetrack as the first openly gay professional drag racer 🏁 pic.twitter.com/c7KzU4p8Pr
— Grindr (@Grindr) August 17, 2022
DS: To me, it’s quite a statement you’re making because you’re in probably one of the straightest sports ever. Then you hit the scene with a giant Grindr sponsorship on your chest and car. There’s nothing that can establish quicker, as a gay racer, than Grindr. How did you convince Grindr to sponsor you?
TS: I joke that Grindr messages change people’s lives every day. This one just happened to come on Linkedin. In racing, the driver is often in charge of finding the sponsors and raising the money, so I am constantly networking on Linkedin. Someone introduced me to a marketing person at Grindr and we had a great zoom. Grindr is based in Los Angeles, and I was headed to a race in Pomona, California just outside of LA. I said, “let me take you to the racetrack.” They always say, “if you can get a sponsor to the racetrack, they’ll lose their mind over the drag race.” It’s such a visceral experience with the smell of the nitro methane. You can’t breathe standing next to the car. When they slam on the gas you vibrate off the ground. It’s an experience you can’t imagine until you’re there. I took them to the starting line and they were 10 feet from these 11,000 HP cars as they’re taking off and their mind are blown.
By sheer terrible happenstance, while we’re at the race, someone stoles all of my safety equipment from the pits. I had my dad’s vintage racecar duffel bag with $8,000 worth of equipment. Every strap, whistle, t shirt, sock and helmet was taken. Fast forward, Grindr comes back to me and says “we like you, we like your story, and we want to see you succeed. So, the least we can do is replace your equipment.” That’s how the partnership got started. I didn’t have the funds to get new safety equipment, so I was on the sidelines until they stepped in. I don’t know where the partnership will go from here, but they are actively involved. As I plan for next year, we’ll see how it all integrates.
It was a bold statement, debuting the Grindr suit with the Pride Kansas racecar, which is also a first. Visit Topeka was promoting a pride festival on my car and I’m over here in Grindr gear, in the middle of Kansas of all places. I ended up being protested by the Westboro Baptist Church. I mean, that’s how you know you’ve “gay made it.” People asked me “are those protesters outside for you?” Which I proudly respond, “why yes, they sure are!”
DS: if you can piss off the Westboro Baptist Church, then clearly, you’re doing something right.
TS: They even sent out a formal press release and media alert about their 3-day protest. That’s how you let the world know you’re really pissed at Travis. They had to engage someone to write that for them, so they are really bending over backwards to make a statement against me. Thanks sis.
DS: You can’t even buy that kind of publicity.
TS: It’s awesome, in a terrible way! It also answered the question about the conservative side of drag racing. It gave those drivers and fans who are pro-Travis a reason to come up and to me and say, “I support you!” One of the wealthiest and conversative owners in drag racing came up that weekend and asked if he missed me using my rainbow parachutes. He was excited to see the big rainbow parachute that launch off the back of my car at the finish line. You just don’t know who your fans are until the Westboro Baptist church gives them a reason to say something. When I started this endeavor, I was at a dinner with some friends who cover the drag racing from Fox Sports. We were talking about how we could show the world that drag racing isn’t a totally conservative space. How do we counteract two years of Racers for Trump stickers on race cars? I said I could get some friends to put rainbow stickers on their cars for Pride Month or…I could just be the first openly gay drag racer. You could’ve heard a fork drop in restaurant. I just needed someone to say that they would support me. I thought “This is it. Here we go.” That conversation created an opportunity for people in the sport to rally around me and the concept of inclusion. It also creates a line in the sand and that’s made it tough on the business front for me. Just an example, my car owner also owns a large business in Kansas which is where I debuted the Pride car and the Grindr suit. He has had a few tough conversations with clients and vendors that were upset about him having the rainbow race car. I may have mislead him when I said it was just going to say “Visit Topeka.”
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DS: Clearly it was to promote the Equality House in Topeka!
TS: laughs* right? But yeah, the word PRIDE was pretty large. We definitely came out guns and rainbows blazing. I’m transitioning to a different way of telling my story in my two-race partnership with Sheetz convenance stores.
DS: A real powerful statement your making is that drag racing isn’t just a sport for one kind of person, you’re making it more open an accessible to new fans and future drag racers. If there’s somebody like you that can drive a rainbow car sponsored by Grindr, another gay person will see that they can be in that sport as well.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 15, 2022
TS: It’s also helped in this last nine months that we’ve created a network called Racing Pride. It’s based in Europe but just expanded. Now there are eight North American ambassadors in different discipline to create that much needed visibility. You see someone like me in drag racing and then you look online and realize there’s one in another category. I’m in charge of shipping orders of a Racing Pride bumper sticker and in the last four or five weeks I’ve shipped out a lot of stickers to middle America. Which is exciting for me because I can see how and where that visibility is expanding.
DS: I feel like you’re going to see a lot more people wanting stickers now too.
TS: Last week I started a partnership with the Human Rights Campaign, I’ll be their first athlete for equality in the motorsports realm. I’ve always been a supporter of HRC and their work. I’ve got a great platform in a sport with 30 million fans to educate others on the importance of LGBTQ+ representation and equality. I also love education LGBTQ+ folks that I am not a drag queen on drag race. They get confused, often. I’m educating folks on both sides of the coin.
DS: Like, actual drag racing, not Drag Race.
TS: Exactly. There have already been a bunch of openly gay racecar drivers, I’m by no means the first. I think I am the 52nd. Maybe the first openly gay driver in my discipline, but this been going on for a long time. The problem is no one has ever made it all the way to the top. There was one openly gay driver in NASCAR, but he only did one race, and it wasn’t a top-level race. He could’ve gone further but it was hard to find the corporate funding needed back in the early 2000’s. I am trying to take it further, almost 20` years after him. I’m going for that big sponsors and I’m not going to give up until we have corporate support of LGBTQ+ drivers, year-round, not just during Pride month.
DS: That’s the biggest thing too is that corporations love the rainbows and stuff during pride month, but it’s during the rest of the year that it really matters. This is where visibility becomes key. Can you tell me more about your background getting into racing?
TS: My dad was a Nitro Funny Car driver, which is one of the vehicles I drive. It’s the biggest, fastest, scariest car with the shortest wheelbase. Basically, my legs go under the engine. My personal top speed is that car is 319 miles an hour. My dad did that his whole life and I wrote papers about it in the eighth grade, I wrote “I’m going to be a funny car driver,” and now I am! I grew up around the sport, watching him race until he retired. From there we transitioned into racing go karts together and while I still wanted to be funny car driver he said, “I want you to race go karts where there are other kids your age on the track going 100 miles an hour around turns, together.” He wanted me to learn about spatial awareness, turning, and all the different mechanics, even though my goal was to drive real fast in a straight line. He passed away unexpectedly in an accident when I was 15. As a result, I took a complete left turn into competitive cheerleading. I hung up my race suit and picked up my pom poms. I was a collegiate cheerleader on scholarship. Tumbling, stunts and doing routines really challenged my athletic capabilities.
TS: I thought my time in racing was done when my dad passed away. Shortly after that, my sister wrote a book about him and I always considered racing my dad and sister’s thing because she grew up living in a semi-truck driving around the country with him, I didn’t. I realized during quarantine that drag racing is huge piece of who I am and that I can make a difference in the sport and society. I have this platform and this privilege. Some of the biggest drivers in the sport were close friends of my parents and respect what I am doing because they were friends with my dad. They understand and they want to help Tripp’s kid out. I’m also a professional fundraiser who worked for the Clintons, and a white man of privilege. I feel like there’s a little bit of an obligation that comes along with this opportunity and take it farther. I want to pick up where others have left off and make this happen. Now that it’s actually happening, it’s actually happening. I love when I’m at the track, not thinking about money and sponsors. I get to just flip the switch when I get to the track. I’m dirty, gross and I smell, I drive race car and that’s where it becomes really fun.
DS: It’s great you mentioned that too, it shows that your identity as a gay man and your identity as a racer are not mutually exclusive.
TS: I want to bring more of that into the sport as I continue to warm people up. There’s two parts to being Travis, one is this part, having fun talking with you, going to HRC galas, and getting likes on the internet for the Grindr race suit. Then there’s the guy who on Thursday night arrives at a racetrack with 20,000 conservatives with their arms crossed giving me that judgmental look. It’s a different reality and I still deal with being uncomfortable in that space. I have a great time at the track and my team makes me very comfortable. But walking from the starting line back to my race trailer, I often feel like a fish out of water. I know that will change and that’s why I’m doing this. I’m still learning to balance the two and bring the real, authentic Travis to the race track a little bit more but that’s just going to take time.
— Travis Shumake (@ShumakeTravis) September 19, 2022
DS: My background education and training are in sports psychology, which deals with a lot about how you mentally train and deal with performance. If you were to be in the same situation, come into the racetrack to a crowd of 20,000 conservatives, but you were in the closet and driving any random car that is painted the same color as everybody else. How would you feel in that situation compared to now with you going out there knowing as your authentic self?
TS: I thrive under pressure and coming into this, I know it’s what I signed up for. I’ve chosen this path for myself. My team owner pulled me aside several times and said I am in over my head. “You’re being protested outside, you’re on the cover of the USA Today, you’ve done five TV interviews this morning, you have 11 family members here. You are going to crash. My car owner actually said, “you’re going to crash my car. Any other driver would just be sitting here drinking Gatorade, but you’ve done all these things today. It’s too much of a distraction.” I knew that this was going to come with the territory I am just ripping that band aid right off because I can handle it. I keep saying about my experience in Kansas and I keep telling my car owner, “I’m sponsored by Sheetz, gas stations and it’s this really fun red clown car looking thing that has no rainbows on it, but it has an HRC sticker now, which 2% of the fans will know what that is.” But that’s the point, we’re going to educate them. I knew I put that burden on myself and I have proven to my team and to everyone else that, mentally I can do this.
In Kansas, in the first round of racing, I had one of the fastest reaction time of the entire race. He who slams on the gas first typically wins and in 16 cars, I hit the gas quicker than almost everyone else with all these other items on my plate and mind. Someday the interviews and protest will stop and I’ll just be another driver. I look forward to that but until then I am learning to balance the pressure and extra eyes with my responsibilities as a driver.
— Travis Shumake (@ShumakeTravis) March 31, 2022
DS: There are athletes who buckle under that kind pressure, but then there are those who thrive under pressure. In order to be successful and go as far as you want to go, you have to create that pressure. It’s exciting to be able to highlight this and I’ve seen it with several different athletes in different kinds of sports. To be able to be your authentic self and see how successful you can be even if, as you said, everybody in the crowd hates you right now. It’s one of those things where you’re creating the conversation and you’re helping to initiate change to build some awareness around this and show you can continue to perform as an athlete.
TS: Being as bold as I have been since my debut in Topeka has opened up doors for me. I knew I was taking a risk, that the Grindr suit was going to stress some people out. But it was also going to come with some added visibility. More sponsors are answering my calls, more teams are taking note of my performance and its starting to create a path to racing full time next season.
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DS: That’s how you get noticed and put yourself out there, much better than just driving a plain black car.
TS: My team owner often says that, and again, I think as change takes time. I wrote a book called Brotherhood; it’s about being gay in a straight fraternity. When I pledged Sigma Chi, I didn’t get in because one guy voted against me over me being gay. Three years later, I was in his wedding. Now I’m watching my team owner evolve. At first, he’d ask, “why can’t you just drive a black car” and now he’s asking for more rainbows. We’re all growing together. Last week he said “if you’re going to make me wear a giant rainbow t shirt, (which I did at my race in Topeka), just give me a little warning next time. I don’t mind wearing it, but I need a heads up!”
DS: Awesome! I am happy to hear that! What is next for Travis Shumake?
TS: I have three races left this year. One in Redding, Pennsylvania, and another in Charlotte at the end of September, Then the World Finals, which I’m super excited about as it’ll be my last race of the year in November in LA. LA has a lot of gay fans and there’s a plenty of gay fans in Charlotte, but we need to get the gays out to the racetrack. I think it would be great to have LGBTQ+ representation in the grandstands at the race in LA in November, so I just want people to come rediscover America’s oldest motorsport!
— Travis Shumake (@ShumakeTravis) September 19, 2022
Photo Credit: Travis Shumake