The attention of sports fans this week turns from the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay to a major event at the opposite end of Florida’s Interstate 4: the Daytona 500.
Since mid-January, teams have been at Daytona International Speedway testing and tinkering. A number of hopefuls were mixed in with the veteran drivers, auditioning for a chance to live their dreams.
Devon Rouse was among those hopefuls. The 22-year-old native Iowan is confident, winning races at local tracks in his home town along the banks of the Mississippi River. He traded the familiar mounds of dirt he’s raced on for a baptism in stock car racing’s high church.
“When I came off of turn two and blended into that backstretch, that is when it all finally hit,” he said. “It was excitement. I was ready to go show myself. When I blended in, I was thinking, ‘I am at Daytona right now?’”
Rouse’s racing journey got a major leap when he tested with Fast Track Racing in the American Race Car Association (ARCA) Menards Series, a ladder series on the road to NASCAR’s elite Monster Cup championship.
Yet, the 31-degree high banks of Daytona seem small in comparison to a different climb he made months before.
“I couldn’t keep living a double life.”
Racing drivers, by necessity and nature, make bold moves. Rouse’s bold move was off the track. He took to Instagram and came out as gay last June. “It finally came time to where I needed to do it for me,” he said. “I couldn’t keep being dishonest with others and dishonest with myself. That’s not me.”
Rouse describes his persona thusly: “I live my life to the fullest,” he said. “I’m a go-getter.”
Rouse started racing karts as a four year old and won six local track championships. By his teens, he was racing modified-lites, and later sprint cars at nearby 34 Raceway, his home track. In May 2014, Rouse, who was 15 at the time, raced in the mod-lite feature and earned his first professional win.
He’s competitive and affable, much like media-savvy four-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jeff Gordon. Rouse sees Gordon as a role model.
“I used to watch him win and watch the interviews and I was like ‘I want to do that!’” he said. “I like people. I like being behind the camera. I have passion and a God-given talent for racing. Why not combine the two?”
During a Florida getaway in 2019, Rouse happened to chat up a person who worked for a team in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. That chance meeting led to a chance to shadow the team, a test session in one of the team’s race trucks, and an invitation to do two races in 2020. The COVID pandemic unfortunately scrubbed the two events from the schedule.
As he was moving forward career-wise, Rouse was also coming into a new phase as a person. He was hurting inside and had been for years. He dubbed it his “double life”, and keeping up appearances was tiring.
“My mental health was at an all-time low. I was just so upset with life,” he said. “But as soon as I was not by myself, and I was at with people or at the race track, they just knew me as perfectly fine-happy Devon. No one knew how much I was hurting inside.”
He tentatively came out to a few close friends prior to 2020, before coming out to his parents last spring. He said his father struggled with it at first, but they’ve both moved forward together.
As far as his mom’s reaction?
“The only question she asked was, ‘why did you wait so long?’” Rouse said.
His answer to the question centered on how coming out would affect his ambitions in the sport he loves. “I was so scared that it was going to alter any future racing endeavors,” he said. “But I needed to do it for me. I couldn’t keep living a double life. Knowing that was my last and final wall and to knock that down? I was at peace.”
Two weeks after his coming out announcement, Rouse was back at 34 Raceway. His nerves subsided when he saw his fellow competitors.
“I had a lot of people who came up to me to say ‘we are so proud of you’ and ‘we’re glad that you are finally able to be your true self and nothing changes for us,’” he said. “That was a confidence booster for me, knowing that everything was still okay.”
Blazing a trail on the track
Rouse, smiles and all, was racing and drafting through Daytona International Speedway last month. He put up 34 laps of practice and ended up with a best lap at over 174 mph, enjoying every second of the ride.
“In my last session, I got to draft almost the whole time, and I was able to create those slingshots off the corner when you get a good run,” Rouse said. “It finally hit you were racing Daytona, and it meant that you’re here you need to show yourself. I had to perform well, and I felt I performed very well.”
I can spill on here because there isn’t many followers.. I’m very excited to be running @DAYTONA this coming weekend!! Not only a career changing moment for me, but also going in as the only open LGBTQ @NASCAR Athlete/Driver! Let’s go turn some dreams into reality! https://t.co/p0Jy9qiYAG— Devon Rouse (@MrRouse16) January 12, 2021
The biggest moment was after the practice sessions. He was asked to stick around by the team’s owner, Andy Hillenburg. What came next was a meeting with ARCA’s president Ron Drager.
“He’d led me in and introduced me and I was like, ‘thank you so much for having me,’” Rouse said. “Then the first word out of his [Draper’s] mouth was, ‘how did people treat you this weekend?,’ and I said everything was fine. He then said, ‘We’re looking very forward to having you and I’m glad it went that way for you.’” That was very welcoming and comforting to me.”
Rouse will not run in the ARCA event at Daytona this weekend, because ARCA did not give him competition approval for superspeedways — yet. He can race in the dirt track and short track events in ARCA schedule, but the opportunity may come back to him this year. Rouse says there’s a deal in the works with a Camping World Truck Series team, with an eye on racing on the dirt at Bristol, Tennessee March 27. If he takes the green flag there, he will join Stephen Rhodes on the list of openly gay drivers in a NASCAR national series. Rhodes made two starts in the trucks series in 2003.
Rouse eyes the possibilities for the season ahead with a clear focus.
“I want to be that person for others who is out there as a role model,” he said. “I want to show my talent and skill, but to also bring my story with me would make my life complete. Knowing I can help others and live my dream of being a professional race car driver? I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misspelled Devon Rouse’s first name in one instance. We regret the error.