'It's important for the future': Openly gay NHRA driver prepares to make history

·6 min read

Any number of things should have stopped Travis Shumake.     

Nearly two years ago, Shumake had planned his debut into the frenetic, high-octane world of National Hot Rod Association drag racing as the governing body's first openly gay driver.

As the son of NHRA Funny Car drag-racing legend Tripp Shumake, the younger Shumake had grown up in that world, having attended drag races each summer at the Kansas Speedway and racing shifter karts with his father in the late 1990s.

In the decades since his father died in a 1999 motorcycle accident, though, something kept calling Shumake back to the sport — back to following in his father's footsteps.

So he started driving.

"I came in 18 months ago thinking I’d be a world champion, driving the fastest cars on the planet," the Phoenix native said. "Things were just going to happen my way.

Nothing since has gone his way.

First, he crashed during a November Funny Car qualifying event in Las Vegas, ripping his mentor Randy Myer's car in half. Shumake escaped that crash with just two cracked ribs, although he had raced well enough to complete his licensing requirements during an earlier run.

Then at a racing event in Pomona, Shumake's pricey safety gear was stolen from the pits. At a separate race in Las Vegas, Shumake failed to qualify, marking the first time the Myer's dragster that he was driving failed to qualify in over eight years.

After all that, Shumake has learned to manage his expectations, even as he prepares to qualify as the first openly gay drag racer at the NHRA Camping World Series at Heartland Motorsports Park on Friday. 

Travis Shumake pulls the vinyl decal to reveal the letterings 'Pride Kansas' as he works to complete the full rainbow decals on his drag race car Tuesday evening in Spring Hill.
Travis Shumake pulls the vinyl decal to reveal the letterings 'Pride Kansas' as he works to complete the full rainbow decals on his drag race car Tuesday evening in Spring Hill.

He'll do so in a rainbow-colored dragster — complete with rainbow parachutes — thanks to a first-of-its-kind sponsorship deal with Visit Topeka, the city's destination marketing organization, and Pride Kansas as the organizations look to promote the city in an inclusive way.

"Nothing has ever gone exactly my way, so that’s why I’m simply excited to have a great time — to have a great car, and to have my family at the track. We’ll see where it goes," Shumake said.

But as he gets ready to race in qualifiers Friday, Shumake is excited at the prospect of making it through to the elimination rounds on Saturday and Sunday.

Travis Shumake shows off his drag racer at Evergy Plaza Wednesday morning detailing the number of world championships it has won. Shumake was recently sponsored by Visit Topeka and Pride Kansas as the first openly gay NHRA racer in history and will be competing this weekend at Heartland Park Speedway.
Travis Shumake shows off his drag racer at Evergy Plaza Wednesday morning detailing the number of world championships it has won. Shumake was recently sponsored by Visit Topeka and Pride Kansas as the first openly gay NHRA racer in history and will be competing this weekend at Heartland Park Speedway.

Visit Topeka, Pride Kansas play role in Travis Shumake's debut as gay racer

As Shumake set out to make his debut, one of his early challenges was finding a sponsor. He wasn't necessarily looking to take anyone else's sponsor, but after some initial difficulty, he started thinking outside the box.

"One of my hunches was that I would find somebody willing to sign me who was making decisions with the pink dollar in mind — maybe a gay marketing officer or someone with a marketing focus on the LGBT piece," he said.

Sean Dixon, president of Visit Topeka, takes a selfie with Travis Shumake's drag car during a media event at Evergy Plaza Wednesday.
Sean Dixon, president of Visit Topeka, takes a selfie with Travis Shumake's drag car during a media event at Evergy Plaza Wednesday.

When he reached out to Sean Dixon, president of Visit Topeka, Shumake found someone who was not only willing to sponsor him, but also someone who was willing to invest in a racer who could increase visibility for a city and sport that historically have been characterized as conservative and unwelcoming to LGBTQ people.

"His journey and being the first openly gay sanctioned driver really resonated with us," Dixon said. "We had this opportunity to marry a new audience to a historic Topeka tourism event that just hasn't seen or had that exposure."

Sponsoring Shumake turned out to be great timing, since the city marketing organization was helping set up the three-day Pride Kansas event starting Sept. 24, billed as Kansas' first state-wide LGBTQ festival. Organizers for the festival quickly signed on to sponsor Shumake as well.

"Having that visibility in the NRHA will show that all aspects of Kansas are inclusive, and we do value diversity," said Shawn Zarazua, a Pride Kansas committee member. "It's going to give a voice to people who maybe didn't feel included before, and it'll let them know that we see them, we recognize them, and we want the LGBTQ+ community to be visible in all aspects of Kansas communities, society and culture."

Drag racer Travis Shumake, left, works with team manager and fellow driver Megan Meyer, right, to create a custom geometric rainbow-colored wrap around a race car Tuesday evening from their shop in Spring Hill. Shumake was recently sponsored by the Greater Topeka Partnership as the first openly gay drag racer and will compete at Hearland Park this weekend.
Drag racer Travis Shumake, left, works with team manager and fellow driver Megan Meyer, right, to create a custom geometric rainbow-colored wrap around a race car Tuesday evening from their shop in Spring Hill. Shumake was recently sponsored by the Greater Topeka Partnership as the first openly gay drag racer and will compete at Hearland Park this weekend.

Since announcing his debut, Shumake says most other racing teams and drivers have been welcoming, although some have told him they see his debut as more of a smart marketing move to get sponsor dollars.

"It has been a definer for me, because I think it's a great draw for sponsors," he said. "But the race car doesn’t know if I'm a boy or girl, or gay or straight, or Christian or Jewish.

"So it's kind of a great equalizer, but I would say I am accepted and welcomed, and a lot of that has to do with people being excited and seeing this as a new chapter for the sport, a new layer of diversity."

Drag race debut special moment for Travis Shumake's racing family

On Friday, the quietest spot in the world for Shumake will be in the cockpit of his 24-foot, rainbow-colored dragster.

Even though this will be his first race in front of an audience — 40,000 people are expected this weekend at Heartland Motorsports Park — the world will melt away for Shumake as he pushes the levers and buttons that will accelerate him at five Gs and propel him down track at speeds in excess of 250 miles per hour.

It'll be a day he dreamed about since he was a child, watching drag races alongside his dad. Although they never talked about it before his father died when Shumake was 15, his father knew he was gay.

"I grew up idolizing female racecar drivers because there was no one in the sport who reminded me of me," he said. "It’s important that at some point, there’s an LGBTQ driver in America’s second-largest motorsport. There’s 40 million fans who self-identify as drag racing fans, and there just should be a gay driver.

"It’s important for the future, for our youth, and for the growth of our sport."

Throughout its history, NRHA has been a pioneer in diversity in motorsports, featuring some of the first African-American, Hispanic and female drivers. Shumake reasons that if the NHRA is the fastest at everything, it should also be the fastest in bringing more diverse drivers into the sport.

It does bring an element of pressure, to be the first person to do something in anything. But more importantly, it's self-imposed pressure, born out of a desire to do well and represent the LGBTQ community well, he said.

"I’ve already failed, and terribly," Shumake joked. "It can’t get worse, unless I crash really, really hard."

From left, Sean Dixon, president of Visit Topeka, drag racer Travis Shumake, Shawn Zarazua, with Pride Kansas, and Topeka mayor Mike Padilla pose for a photo by Shumake's car at Evergy Plaza Wednesday morning.
From left, Sean Dixon, president of Visit Topeka, drag racer Travis Shumake, Shawn Zarazua, with Pride Kansas, and Topeka mayor Mike Padilla pose for a photo by Shumake's car at Evergy Plaza Wednesday morning.

With most of them living in nearby Basehor-Linwood, about a dozen of Shumake's family members will be at the starting line to watch as he sets out to make motorsports history.

It'll be especially touching for Shumake's mother, since she first met the late Tripp Shumake at a drag race just 50 miles west in Manhattan.

"For them to be with me in Kansas on the starting line, watching another Schumake take off at five Gs down the drag strip, will be a cool moment," he said, "and I’m so grateful I get to be a part of bringing them back to a sport that’s been so important for us."

Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at rgarcia@cjonline.com or by phone at ‪785-289-5325‬. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Travis Shumake looks to make history as NHRA's first openly gay driver