Zach Herrin’s first pro race was at Daytona. Ten years ago, the prodigious young driver competed on the most iconic track in NASCAR without knowing much about himself, besides the fact he wanted to race professionally.
Since then, Herrin has undergone a lot of self-discovery, with his sexual identity at the top of the list. Last weekend, he returned to Daytona as an out gay man. The experience was incredible, once he got his anxiety under control.
“I was so stressed out the night before, and was like, ‘I have done this my entire life, why am I doing this to myself?,’” he said. “But once I got out to about the third lap in, I said, ‘Oh, I do know what I’m doing, and now let’s figure out how we go fast.’”
Herrin was one of 63 drivers who traveled to Daytona International Speedway for some pre-season testing over MLK Weekend. The event is an opportunity for drivers to get back into the seat after a long winter hiatus. But for Herrin, it was a chance to start anew.
Growing up, Herrin always knew he wanted to race. He learned how to ride bikes at four years old, and started racing cars shortly thereafter. Eventually, his family moved from Southern California to Georgia, the heart of NASCAR country, and built a track in their backyard.
While Herrin’s racing dreams were realized at Daytona in 2012, he felt empty. Herrin never took the time to discover his identity as a person — not just as a driver. After coming out to friends and family, the boy who literally grew up with a race track in his backyard walked away from the sport that always defined him. From 2016-19, Herrin seldom raced professionally.
He spent the time figuring himself out, falling in love with a boy along the way. On Saturday, Herrin’s now-fiancée, Matt, was there for his big day. After years away, Herrin is set to compete in the ARCA Menards Series, NASCAR’s fourth national traveling series.
But this time, he’s going to drive as his true self, and there’s no putting the car in reverse: Herrin told his coming-out story last month to Outsports.
He says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive — not a given in the conservative world of auto-racing.
“I’ve been shocked. It’s been everything positive, and from people I wouldn’t have expected it to be so positive,” Herrin said. “I know we’re going to have some people who are going to push buttons, but as I said before, we’re just gonna feed on the hate and try to create a space that’s ready and right for us. I’ve just been overwhelmed and happy with what we’ve been seeing so far.”
Herrin and his manager, Michael Spencer, the legendary action-sports agent who represents Gus Kenworthy, are actively recruiting sponsors to make Herrin’s dream a reality. Right now, Herrin says they’re looking at participating in five or six races out of the 20-race schedule.
He expects to be competing at Phoenix Raceway March 11.
But in many ways, he feels like he’s already won.
“I’m happy, and that’s one of my other big personal goals coming back to this,” Herrin said. “I spent so many years just solely driven on ‘am I doing enough to have these results I should be having?,’ and just earning the opportunities to be there with my partners. I’m going to focus on that, too, but I need to really focus on having fun, because if I’m not having fun doing what I love, then it’s just going to be like, ‘Why am I doing this again?’ Now I’m going to make sure that I enjoy it.”
So far, Herrin is undefeated in the enjoyment category.
“When we ended the day at Daytona, I was just thrilled,” he said. “I think I had an adrenaline rush for 30 minutes after we left the track, and today waking up I was like, ‘Here we go again.’ I know it’s going to be a lot, and I’m ready for it. I find myself smiling more about the whole process. I’m just really excited about it.”