When racing driver Zach Herrin found his truth as a young gay man, he thought he would lose the sport he loved.
This weekend, the 27-year-old Herrin will strap in at stock car racing’s biggest stage now out, proud and, hopefully, fast. And he’ll do it with LGBTQ-rights organization Lambda Legal as a lead sponsor.
Herrin will compete for a place in the ARCA Menards Series-opening ARCA Daytona 200 starting with qualifying on Friday afternoon. If he’s fast enough, he will contest the Saturday afternoon 200-mile race.
“I always had this thing in the back of my mind, even with I was struggling with my personal identity, ‘Will I ever race again?’,” Herrin said in an interview on the Trans Sporter Room podcast Wednesday. “To find myself back here putting the pieces together to make an effort to make this career again and giving this 150% effort to make this a career again? It’s wild.”
The California native will have Lambda Legal on board as the lead sponsor of his Fast Track Racing Toyota Camry as part of a multirace arrangement for the 2023 season. Herrin said that he approached Lambda Legal as a potential sponsor last year and saw this partnership as a chance to continue the statement he made by coming out and getting back on the track.
“I’ve always paid attention to the work that they’ve done,” Herrin said. “I have an opportunity here to put some spotlight on what is happening in America today and specifically in this state I’m about to visit for the largest race of the season.”
“When the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill was first brought to Florida I thought there was a lack of large LGBTQ+ voices, specifically athletes, taking their stance to say we’re highly against this,” Herrin emphasized. “Now this bill has been replicated across the country and its getting worse from here. It was absolutely the perfect timing to see this come to fruition.”
The statement and the opportunity wasn’t lost on Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings. With the organization suing Florida over “Don’t Say Gay”, this race could serve as advocacy at 200-miles-per-hour.
“This is a great opportunity to educate people about this hateful law and how much damage it’s doing to young people,” Jennings pointed out. “And, to give young people a symbol of hope in the form of Zach Herrin.
“Zach is the gutsy one here. This is Zach making a statement that he stands for justice and stands for inclusion.”
It’s a stance that Herrin didn’t seen himself ever making on a racetrack a few years ago, and it’s a sight that Jennings never thought he’d see.
Shared dream. Shared story.
Herrin’s second ARCA start represents a move forward and a homecoming of sorts. His racing career began at Daytona International Speedway in 2012 as a 16-year old rookie. The difference was that instead of putting pedal to the floorboard during Speedweeks, Herrin put his knee to the pavement as a motorcycle road racer during Daytona Bike Week.
“I had two less wheels and I was running around the walls at Daytona at 185-miles-an-hour un-roll caged and immersed in it all,” he looked back. “Now asking the 27-year-old me? I’m much more comfortable being in the roll cage. I’ve fallen off a bike before so I’ve had my share of that.”
He was looking to follow the path of his older brother and two-time national champion Josh Herrin then. The younger brother started on two-wheels, but then was drawn to four and took to karting with an eye toward NASCAR.
While Zach Herrin didn’t question the path he wanted as a racer, he was questioning who he was as a person.
“When I made my debut at 16, that when things sort of started to kind of connect,” he explained. “With peer and fellow racers always having to deal with comments and the jokes I would get towards me.
“I was supposed to be this little superstar and always having these umbrella girls I was supposed to hang out with after the race. It was this facade that was continuing to build up that wasn’t making sense for me. That is what pushed me away. I wasn’t willing to sign up for a life of racing but not enjoying it.”
After four years of trying to climb the ladder while trying to find himself, Herrin stopped racing in 2016. He was out to himself, and to family, but also was out of competition to 2019. However, the sport was also a major part of who he is.
“Once I was able to come out to my family friends and connect with this identity I didn’t know I was there and how I was able to evolve into who I am today, the question for me was that I was always going to be an athlete,” he recalled. “How was I going to merge these two now? Well, I am going to figure it out, so I just had to take the steps.”
Herrin worked his way back into racing, and after a lot of close calls, he got his break at the ARCA Menards West Series finale at Phoenix last November. He had a solid weekend on a difficult track for a beginner. He started 25th and finished 18th, he also made enough of an impression on Fast Track to get a seat this week.
He also made an impression on Jennings. The Lambda Legal CEO grew up in rural North Carolina and became a NASCAR fan at the height of Richard Petty’s reign atop the sport in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the heyday of the driver known as “The King” and his legendary battles with the David Pearsons, Bobby Allisons and Cale Yarboroughs seeking to take the throne away.
Jennings said he was surprised that Herrin existed, let alone was seeking a sponsor. “My first reaction was ‘There’s an out driver in NASCAR?’” he said. “I never imagined there were out drivers in NASCAR.”
Jennings also noted possibilities in the season ahead and Herrin shares that vision as he begins the season. While his mind will be on getting in the race Friday and race strategy for Saturday, he also notes a greater focus for the weekend and the season.
“I need to be at completely game ready going into this but I know the bigger picture is more important,” Herrin notes. “ There is a bigger picture at the end of the day that we can create the sport of NASCAR and motorsport as a more inclusive and welcoming place for all.”
“We all love racing. That’s why we’re there.” he continued. “We can make it a people sport again and make it sport that is full of American people which is diverse people. People of color. People of gender. People of sexual orientation. People of religion. That is where we will see the sport of NASCAR growing in the right direction.”
Both Zach Herrin and Kevin Jennings were guests on The Trans Sporter Room this week, and discussed the ins and outs of this special racing partnership, and how they hope to inspire an entire community. Catch the full interview! Now available on Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts, and many other platforms for Outsports podcasts as well.