NASCAR and its American stock car racing counterparts are historically known to be a bastion for conservative thinking and old time rhetoric. At least, that’s the perceived reputation for anyone that’s viewed so much as a lap of a stock car race on television. Despite growing concern to the contrary, the traditional fans and competitors aren’t going anywhere, and nothing in the following article will suggest otherwise. Fans from all eras should all be welcomed to share their perspective and knowledge of motor racing. That being said, there are a great deal of fans, competitors, and supporters that simply don’t fit into those historic demographic checkboxes. If there’s any sport that can be specifically designed as a meritocracy on the field of play while being wholly inclusive to even the most casual of spectators and enthusiasts, it’s auto racing. The execution of both of those standards in the past has been poor at best, disgusting at worst…but despite its imperfections automobile racing is still the greatest thing that’s ever been invented. As we begin the first day of Pride Month, let’s take an earnest look at the state of affairs in regards to the relationship between the LGBTQ+ communities and the sport of NASCAR.
NASCAR in the 21st century is above all else, a corporation. As the calendar turns to June, we can expect a great deal of the corporate entities that dictate our day to day existence to hoist the rainbow colors and “keep it gay” for 30 days out of the year in what can be seen by many as crass product positioning. To NASCAR’s credit however, much of their effort can also be seen during the other 11 months of the year as well. Efforts including LGBTQ+ aligned auctions, alliances with The Trevor Project, employee resource groups, and business related equity programs show the progress NASCAR has made in recent years. Perhaps a little late to the party, but NASCAR has at least finally taken that step to embrace groups of fans that are possibly larger and CERTAINLY more dedicated than detractors have given credit. Let’s explore a bit of that fandom, shall we?
“By allowing me to be myself, I’ve learned through my time with the NASCAR community that I am bisexual, and also non-binary. I have changed, and I have also watched the NASCAR community change, both for the better. This community isn’t perfect, but I am very hopeful for the future.”Martin Roberg
We can start with a look at some covered ground. In 2021, Kate Bekkering, formerly of Pit Box Press published a work on the demographics of NASCAR. “A Look into NASCAR Twitter ” was of course a concentrated look at participants of social media, but is some of the only data mined specifically into (among other things) LGBTQ+ race fans. From information gathered in an online survey, around 30% of respondents identified as something NOT heterosexual. While these findings are not considered a “scientific” endeavor in the academic sense, this is enough indication that at the very least the stereotypical NASCAR fan is not an exclusive condition. What intrigued me further, was data submitted by these LGBTQ+ race fans on their favorite drivers and race teams.
One of the biggest contentions from detractors of NASCAR fandom diversity is to say, “they only like (insert driver name here), and don’t care about the actual racing itself.” Typically, that inserted name driver is someone outspoken on social issues and/or a member of a minority group. A two second conversation with just about ANY race fan can quickly prove that tired line to be false, but there’s now some intel to back it up. Going back to Kate Bekkering’s data, which they kindly provided to TehBen.com, 27 different Cup series drivers were selected as being a “favorite” among all respondents that identified as LGBTQ+. Ranging from recent champion drivers like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, young talent like Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney, social media savvy racers like Cody Ware and Anthony Alfredo…and nearly every competitor we regularly see on Sunday. To put it simply, all “brands” of driver were accounted for in this survey. Bubba Wallace, who among others helped promote participation in this survey via his social media, was statistically the most popular driver selected, accounting for 22% of the LGBTQ+ respondent’s selection. Wallace while commendable for his commitment to civil rights causes, and even with the clear boost in favor from sharing the survey, the detractor’s poster child for “wokeness” and being the “only reason” for non-traditional fandom doesn’t have as controlling an interest in this fanbase as some may think. You don’t need hard data to prove that, you don’t need me telling you about it, you could just talk to people and figure this out yourself.
NASCAR racing fandom may look daunting to someone that’s only exposure to public discourse is the comment section of the average NASCAR on NBC Facebook post. The fans, the ACTUAL race fans, and those that work in the sport have surprised many when considering new levels of their personal racing experience. “I feel very positively about how NASCAR has handled Pride initiatives in recent years, and of Jimmie Johnson for showing support publicly on social media,” states a race fan turned media mogul turned entry level racer who struggled with the notion of her identity becoming an issue at the speedways of American stock car racing, and chose to remain anonymous. “When I tested a late model, people in my personal life warned me to stay closeted at the track. But when I revealed my true self [as a trans woman] to someone I was working with, I was met with a lot of support. My advice is to enjoy racing and understand that anyone who isn’t an idiot, or hasn’t been kicked from the 21 car recently, has your back.”
While much of it was overdue, NASCAR really has been changing to meet some of the most basic necessities of inclusion for patrons at the facilities. There’s plenty of discussion out there about NASCAR “losing its way,” and much of that can be attributed to decisions made since around 2020. The most notable action was the ban of Confederate flags and related imagery from race tracks, which was met with many self-proclaimed stalwart fans resigning their fandom in the glorified name of “tradition.” To others however, this moment represented an opportunity to explore the depths of NASCAR fandom and take stock of the sport’s inclusion efforts. “I feel like it’s shifting, NASCAR has shown way more support for LGBTQ+ children than any comparable sports organization that I know of” states Renee Edwards, a 20 year old race fan from Oklahoma. “As many fans have left the sport over the rejection of hateful images, queer people have been able to carve out a space in NASCAR’s fanbase where they feel safe and part of something they truly care about. As more queer fans enter the sport, their presence may be felt more. I hope someday that people like us could ‘reclaim’ NASCAR from its dark history and reputation.”
Race fans in general are hard to categorize when talking about their specific racing interests or ideas, and that thinking applies to race fans who happen to be LGBTQ+ as well. Some like dirt racing, some don’t. Some think stage racing is good, some think the Winston Cup points system was perfection…and so on. There’s not some secret “code” to crack here. There is no magical formula to conjure up to “appeal to the gays,” as it were. Frustrations that “woke” fans don’t count and will abandon the sport are simply unfounded. The hard facts of economics, media consumption, and changes to everyday life outside our hobbies mean more to race attendance and viewership than anyone’s sexual or gender identity ever will. “The sport has a very diverse fanbase, not just the ‘died with Dale’ crowd,” states lifelong race fan Aaron who hails from Virginia. As a race fan who happens to be gay, Aaron believes that NASCAR still has a lot of work to do. “At times I feel sorta alienated, mainly because I feel they go out of their way for Christianity. I’m not saying the invocation needs to go away, but the whole ceremony [Easter Sunday at Bristol] was way overboard to me.” As NASCAR continues to grapple with its balance of long standing commitments and expansion to overall inclusion, Aaron still believes race fans of any background can find a space in the sport. “I know it’ll be hard but try to block out the bullshit. Find yourself some fans through socials, look into guys like Cody Ware, Bubba Wallace, or Myatt Snider, as I said before, there is a very diverse fanbase.”
Many who work inside the sport of NASCAR naturally start out as race fans long before realizing their dream of working within the industry. An example of such a dreamer turning this into a reality is Alexander Nedd, a production assistant with NASCAR. Assisting in the production of videos and promo shots for all three national series, Alex can draw on his experience with the sport to help engage with the modern fan. “I’ve been a race fan since I was 5 years old when my dad introduced me to it in 2001. Since then, I’ve been infatuated with NASCAR, and vowed to somehow become part of the sport. What draws me in is the intense action, but also the amazing storylines of drivers and their backgrounds all coming together for the common goal…to reach a checkered flag first.”
Alex Nedd is gay, and has certainly experienced the shift of inclusion first hand over the last two decades. “I didn’t feel like an outcast, but there was nothing from the organization that made me feel welcomed until a few years ago when NASCAR made it their mission to be inclusive for EVERYONE in rainbow letters. That signified a huge shift for the sport and what would be accepted at the racetrack. It wasn’t too long ago that I was worried about bringing a partner to a race. But now, I am seeing initiatives from the organization to bring a more inclusive atmosphere to both the workspace and the race track. In short, there has never been a more welcoming atmosphere in NASCAR for LGBTQ individuals than right now, and I myself am proud to have their support as an employee.”
There’s one current driver in the ranks of NASCAR’s top touring series that has come out as openly gay, and Nedd makes a suggestion that there’s more to supporting a driver than just statistics. “NASCAR currently has one LGBTQ driver in their national three series, a truck racer named Devon Rouse. He’s an up and coming driver looking for a big break with sponsorship but he is someone of which any LGBTQ+ fan can wholeheartedly get behind as he’s trailblazing forward on a path that’s not been seen yet in NASCAR…an OUT driver looking for their first win.”
To Alex’s points, perhaps the best way to check the temperature of the NASCAR industry in regards to the LGBTQ+ community is to speak to more industry people directly. For this, I aimed to keep it simple, and let the folks around and on the track speak for themselves as much as possible. To each of them, I presented two questions:
- “How do you feel about the current state of affairs with NASCAR in relation to the LGBTQ+ community?”
- “What would you say to LGBTQ+ racing fans that are looking to get into NASCAR but might be struggling with stereotypes or notions of exclusion?”
Ryan Ellis, driver in the Xfinity series with Alpha Prime Racing, is a long time NASCAR competitor. As a racer that’s worked in multiple facets of the industry, Ellis’ experience speaks volumes to the improvements he’s seen from all ends of the racing community, despite his understandable desire to avoid toxic conversation.
“I’m probably not the best judge on NASCAR’s involvement in LGBTQ+ relations. I do try to stay off social media just because of how toxic literally any conversation can go, and our race weekends are so much shorter. It is much more ‘show up and race’ than it was before. I do hope that NASCAR continues to support all types of people, however. Of course, I’d love to support the LGBTQ community, and any other community any way I can. I’m a big believer in ‘do what makes you happy,’ when it isn’t hurting anyone else. The world is extremely diverse and unfortunately, divided right now. I hope that we can all lift each other up because there are enough people out there knocking each other down.”
“For those LGBTQ+ fans that are looking to get into NASCAR, I wouldn’t hesitate. There are plenty of fans that come from within the LGBTQ community and from what I’ve seen on social media, they do lift each other up, and we as drivers and team members do try to show support however we can. As an Asian-American driver myself, I’ve seen how being ‘diverse’ can at times seem excluding, but that is also representative of how much of the world is today, unfortunately. The NASCAR community is more accepting than it ever has been and I hope that it only continues to trend in that direction.”
Cody Ware, driver for Rick Ware Racing in the NASCAR Cup series, has long been an advocate for important issues to the racing fan base at large, in many cases ahead of the curve to his colleagues in the racing industry.
“I feel like NASCAR, as an organization, has done a lot over the past couple years to mold themselves into something that is more open and inclusive. Not just with words or messages, but actually with the people they hire and organizations they have brought in to help them grow. I don’t know if I necessarily have any direct ideas for them, but as someone who is a mental health advocate, I see a lot of the struggles that the community deals with. Obviously I can’t relate to what [the LGBTQ+ community] has to go through but I can empathize with their battles as someone who has their own.”
“The biggest thing I can tell someone who might be looking into joining the sport and getting involved is this: believe it or not it’s becoming a lot more open, and very quickly. I have known a few trans people in the industry. One of them was working for a race team that definitely had a lot of ‘old school racers’ on it, but because of their hard work and dedication to the sport, that trumped any preconceived notions that a lot of people had, and for the most part was welcome not just at the team but by the sport as a whole. I’m sure there are lots of things that I don’t see, but things like that give me hope and the ability to say that things are heading in the right direction.”
Jon Wood, Senior VP for Wood Brothers Racing in the NASCAR Cup series, is a driver turned executive that came up during the height of NASCAR’s popularity in the early 2000s. Wood had a front row seat for the stock car racing community’s growing pains as it expanded into a more inclusive industry.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that it took a tragedy to rally support around African Americans and what happened to George Floyd certainly galvanized a huge movement in America. That movement has undoubtedly helped the sport with Bubba Wallace being so active and willing to push for a better and more equitable place. Whether directly or indirectly, a new and successful team was created, leading to a new fanbase that wasn’t necessarily comfortable being in and around the sport in the past. That’s a good thing. I think the same can be said for the LGBTQ community with respect to NASCAR being a more open and inclusive place for anyone and everyone. There seems to be less talk, less outcry both past and present for the sport to be better at welcoming anyone in the LGBTQ community than what took place following the death of George Floyd but there is no question today’s NASCAR is a place they can feel welcome and included. The overall chemistry and make-up of the sport creates a place where anybody and everybody can find someone else just like them, being both at-home consumers and at track attendees of NASCAR races.”
“That being said, I remember first getting to know some more established crew members, media members, you name it when I got my start in the sport twenty plus years ago and if you asked me this same question then, you’d get an entirely different answer. I remember VIVIDLY having a heart-to-heart with a super popular person in one of those two positions and hearing how hard it was to pretend to be someone else on weekends. Pretending only to try and fit in and not be different because the drivers and crews might treat them differently, might be uncomfortable being around them and that was so hard to hear. It was hard to hear because I couldn’t offer a solution, they had sound reasoning to feel that way.”
“I think I’m a fairly open-minded person and I don’t really care if somebody is straight, gay, trans or walks backwards. It makes no difference to me. You get to live one time and trying to conform to somebody else’s definition and idea of what’s ‘normal’ is a terrible way to waste your life. But we can all be better at welcoming people that are different. I have a few friends that I knew as a different gender or different sexual orientation. Seeing their struggles, fears, concerns, it makes it all the more real.”
The relationship between the NASCAR community as a whole and the LGBTQ+ community is not a “one month of the year” connection. True, there will rightly be due significance attributed at certain times to reflect on contributors around specific groups and identities, but a sport’s true strength is measured in its inclusive commitment and culture on a 365 day level. The days of romanticizing through clenched teeth the long inexcusable actions of an attention grabbing minority of hateful individuals should finally be behind us.
When talking with some long time fans who can’t grasp the “need” to signify and celebrate black, asian, gay, female et al members of the racing community, it’s met with a sense of being unnessesary. “Why treat a ____ fan/driver as special?” is the sort of question that I hear a lot of in these discussions. To that, I think it’s important to remember that inclusion is not a statement of exclusion for others. For anyone frustrated, knowing that they “have always welcomed” fans and associates of all backgrounds, the most simple thing to say is, “you’re right.”
It’s tempting sometimes to look at diversity efforts as some sort of commentary AGAINST the longstanding members of a community, but more often than not many of those same longstanding members are acting in the ways championed by such a diversity effort. When you actively welcome people into your hobby, culture, or traditions, you’re a big part of what’s being celebrated right alongside, and I hope people that chose to read this article carry that notion going forward. NASCAR is classic. NASCAR is historic. NASCAR is tradition, and NASCAR is Gay.
Thank you very much for reading and please follow me on Twitter for all things NASCAR. An extra special thanks to all who shared their experiences and to all the fans who above and below were kind enough to share their pictures showing Pride at the racetrack!