Growing up, Travis Shumake’s Sundays consisted of two constants: God and drag racing. His father, Tripp, was a drag-racing legend who once left church on a helicopter so he could make it to the track on time.
But up until two years ago, Shumake stayed away from the sport that’s synonymous with his family name. His father’s sudden death, which coincided with his journey of self-discovery, removed him from drag racing.
Now, Shumake is back behind the wheel, complete with rainbow parachutes.
“Coming back into the sport two years ago, knowing there was kind of this need for diversity, and particularly in drag racing ... I felt like it was my opportunity, and also my obligation,” Shumake told Outsports. “I don’t mind being protested by the Westboro Baptist Church, like I was last week at the races. I’m up for the fight.”
Shumake is quick to point out he’s far from the first, or only, out LGBTQ auto racer. There are dozens of others, including Devon Rouse and Zach Herrin. The conservative racing world is undergoing a bit of a yassificaiton, if you will.
NASCAR ran a very gay “YASCAR” campaign during Pride Month, for example, featuring out racers in “YASCAR” gear.
Even so, Shumake is still making history in his small corner of auto racing. Earlier this month, he became the first out gay driver to compete in a national event on the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) racing circuit.
Shumake drove himself to the No. 11 qualifying position before falling in the first round in a narrow decision.
Shumake stood out for multiple reasons at the Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, Kan. For starters, his ride featured a rainbow buffalo, which was next to an advertisement for Pride Kansas.
The three-day affair, which is slated for Sept. 24-27, will be Kansas’ first statewide LGBTQ festival. Visit Topeka, the city’s top marketing organization, is behind the event.
It’s also behind Shumake. One of the advantages of being different is the ability to bring in different partners.
“I’m bringing in new people,” he said. “ That’s great for revenue, getting new sponsors in the sport. Every sponsor I have has never been in drag racing, I think that’s important.”
One of those new sponsors is Grindr, the ubiquitous gay dating (OK, fine, hookup) app. Shumake met with the company’s representatives at a race in Pomona, Calif., just a short distance from their headquarters in Los Angeles.
The day went well, except for the fact that $8,000-worth of safety gear was stolen from Shumake’s pit.
Though Grindr’s post-race analysis found the grid at the track to be pretty weak — “There’s 40,000 people at the race track, and the closest person is a mile away in LA. It’s almost like a black hole,” Shumake recalls the reps saying — they agreed to partnering with him.
They started by replacing all of his stolen gear.
“Those are the people I want to bring to the sport. I’m not apologizing for this,” said Shumake. “I’m trying to only partner with folks who can be unapologetically rainbow parachuted. But I get a lot of eye rolls.”
Shumake was born into drag racing. He attended races each summer at the Kansas Speedway and accompanied his dad to races throughout the 1990s.
His father’s fatal motorcycle accident in 1999 was devastating. A teenager at the time, Shumake says he dedicated himself to cheerleading and became “really gay.” He never came out to his dad, and came out to his mom when he was 20 (she already knew, however, thanks to his sister).
“I kind of feel like his death not only separated me from the sport, but really kind of separated me from my memories of my dad,” he said.
As Shumake has worked on licensing and qualifying, he’s simultaneously reconnected with his father.
“Connecting with these other drivers has also been a really cool thing, and fans — ‘Oh, your mom and your dad crashed at my house in Chicago, and your dad makes the best quesadillas.’ I’m like, ‘I love quesadillas! I didn’t know my dad made quesadillas!,’” he said. “They’re like, ‘Here is a piece of your dad’s old race car,’ and I’m like, ‘I will take it.’ I would have never known anything of this if I hadn’t taken this dive to reconnect with him.”
That doesn’t mean the road back has always been easy. Shumake encounters some resistance at the track — he says the split is about 50/50 — and one driver even remarked to him he was going to start an “uncircumcised race team” in response to all of Shumake’s gay.
But there are plenty of moments that make the jeering worth it. Before the race in Kansas, Shumake says two men in their 60s approached him. A bit dumbfounded, Shumake asked if they were sure they wanted his autograph.
They told him they were married, and love what he’s doing.
Shumake knows there are many of those people out there. He says 30 million Americans each year classify themselves as drag racing fans. That’s more than the number of people who watch the Housewives, or the other Drag Race.
“I know that will just take time. I’m only one national event in,” he said. “I think a year from now, I’ll probably be hosting karaoke in my pit on Thursday nights, that’ll be the thing I do. But it’s just going to take time.”
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