August 28, 2013 | by Santiago Melli-Huber
In the driver’s seat
Evan Darling, Stephen Rhodes, NASCAR, gay news, Washington Blade

Evan Darling (left) and Stephen Rhodes say NASCAR is not as leery of gays as one might suspect. (Photos courtesy of Darling and Rhodes)

To the casual observer, NASCAR may seem conservative, but the sport has been largely welcoming to LGBT professionals in the industry. The main hurdle for drivers of any demographic, including some openly gay drivers, is finding sponsors.

Michael Myers, founder of Queers4Gears, a website aimed at gay and lesbian NASCAR fans, sees NASCAR as “warm and inclusive” of the LGBT community. He notes that Mathew Pattison, a prominent official in the Timing and Scoring Department, is openly gay and feels accepted by NASCAR. On his website, Myers wrote in 2011 about an incident in which a crew member with Red Bull Racing (now Infiniti Red Bull Racing), Tweeted an inappropriate comment about gay people. Within two days, the crew member was fired.

Stephen Rhodes, an out driver, is currently working toward returning to the NASCAR Camping World Track Series for the 2014 season. Rhodes took a hiatus in 2010 to help his partner open a cafe.

FIND MORE OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE SPORTS ISSUE HERE.

Rhodes’ sexuality was common knowledge in the garage for the majority of his career and had little impact. He did, however, experience a single negative experience related to his sexuality, but it is an anomaly he chooses not to dwell on.

“Having 15 years in this business and having that one experience isn’t going to hold me back,” he said, “and I don’t want to entertain and bring it back up because it is in the past.”

“There are at least 77 million NASCAR fans,” said Rhodes. “And if I get one percent of them and the LGBT community behind them, I’ll have a huge fan base.”

His role in the sport could help pave the way for future out drivers. Rhodes sees himself as, “following in Danica [Patrick]’s footsteps … I look forward to potentially being a spokesperson in the business for [my] community and trying to create some equality.”

The NASCAR Diversity Affairs department manages a Driver Development Program, which aids the careers of female and minority drivers. The mission statement does not include LGBT drivers. Representatives from Diversity Affairs were unavailable for comment.

Recently, Rhodes has spent time putting together media packages for sponsors and building his name in the NASCAR community in anticipation of the 2014 season.

He is encouraged by the leverage his sexual orientation may provide, saying, “by being a driver that happens to be gay and approaching LGBT-supportive corporations, I think it’s going to pique a little interest and set me apart from many other drivers that are out there.”

Like Rhodes, Evan Darling, an openly gay Grand-Am Road Racing driver, noticed positive reactions from those around him when he came out in 2007. Since then, however, he has lost sponsors, though he points to the economic crash of 2008 as a major factor.

Darling has not raced professionally for a year and is seeking sponsors to re-enter professional driving.

“The demographic that I race in front of is very conservative,” Darling said. “And all those people have kids that, whatever percentage are LGBT, get to see someone doing something positive in their community, in their little world. It could really make a big difference.

“It’s a very expensive sport,” Darling said. “I have to find … a good company that wants to get in front of a new demographic, a demographic they don’t generally market to.”

Myers echoed his sentiments, saying, “The finding of sponsors these days for racers is difficult whether you’re Dale Earnhardt Jr., Evan Darling, Justin Mullikin (an out driver in the NASCAR Grand National Sportsman division), or anyone in these cash-strapped times. If a person could drive a racecar and win, then there’s going to be an owner and a sponsor out there that are going to want to be a part of that.”

Each year, Myers crosschecks NASCAR sponsors with the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. Most recently, he found that many companies earned a perfect score of 100, including Toyota, Ford, Best Buy, Budweiser and Coca-Cola.

According to Myers, the companies currently sponsoring NASCAR earned an average score of 80 from HRC. He notes that ExxonMobil brought down the average. In 2013, the company earned a rating of -25.

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