NASCAR driver Zach Herrin has announced a partnership with Lambda Legal, a national organization aimed at achieving full recognition of the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people and everyone living with HIV through litigation and public advocacy.
Adding to the significance of this historic partnership is the fact that Herrin is one of the few openly gay drivers on the NASCAR circuit.
The partnership recently debuted during the weekend of the Daytona 500 (Feb. 18-19) that took place in Floridaa state that has several anti-LGBTQ+ statutes (including the so-called "Don't Say Gay" Law) that Gov. Ron DeSantis has backed.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: So the Daytona 500 took place last weekend. What role did you play? Did you drive in the main race?
Zach Herrin: So I race in NASCAR's ARCA [Automobile Racing Club of America] Menards series [stock-car racing]. So under NASCAR's brand banner, you have the Cup series, which includes the Daytona 500; the NASCAR Xfinity series; the NASCAR Truck series; and the NASCAR ARCA Menards series. We are a new developmental series that NASCAR recently purchased about two years ago; it's for younger drivers like myself who are looking to break into the [upper tier].
It was a great time for someone like myself to be part of the Daytona 500 weekend. It's a massive event from Wednesday through Sunday, with huge fan attendance. Our race actually took place on Saturday [Feb. 18]; our race was 300 miles less than the Daytona 500 but we still did 200 miles, running 80 laps. It was a hot, long one.
WCT: You left the world of racing for a decade and recently returned. Why did you leave, and what compelled you to come back?
ZH: What brought me to make my professional debut at 16 was that my life had been so sped up at that point. It was a hobby that turned into a dream and a career for my family; I have an older brother [Josh Herrin] who has gone on to have a massively successful career in professional superbike racing.
I never had the opportunity to focus on my mental health and this part of my identity that I always felt was there. But growing up in this industry, I never found someone that I could connect or identify with. It's a very challenging industry, and it's very difficult for people of [different] sexual orientations or gender identities as well as people of color to find representation in [it].
And I was already having issues, as I was just breaking into my professional career. Ultimately, I just said, "I'm done with this. I just need to step back and focus on me and who I am before I can find my internal happiness again and go down this career path." Through that period, I was able to grow with this identity that was always there and led me to coming out to my family and friends.
Now, I've been able to grow into this person. I know how I want to be perceived and express myself as a gay man in today's world. But another part of mebeing an athletewas missing again. In December 2021, I said on social platforms, "This is who I am and I'm going to chase my dream. I'm going to put it all together and I don't know howbut we're going to figure it out together."
WCT: You mentioned that this industry can be rough.
ZH: What separates motorsports from your standard stick-and-ball sports is that we have such a small niche of people to begin with; to find acceptance in this industry is one of the challenges we face. And there really hadn't been anyone else before me doing this, so I'm creating a space for myself and LGBTQ fans; it's making an impact, even though it may be small. [Writer's note: Stephen Rhodes was acknowledged to be the first openly gay NASCAR driver when he debuted in 2003, but there have been very few LGBTQ+ drivers.]
NASCAR has reached out to me, asking, "How can we help you? How can we grow in the right direction together?"
WCT: Tell me how the partnership with Lambda Legal happened.
ZH: I'll be very honest: Partnerships and sponsorships are extremely important in our sport, and it's a very expensive sport. It can't be done unless you have family funding to get you to this point. It's just not feasible.
So someone like me is always striving to find brands that are willing to support an out athlete in today's America. To many, marketing to the LGBTQ+ community is only relevant one month out of the year and everything is put in the closet until it's trendy to make sale dollars.
I reached out to Lambda Legal because I know what it does for our community. I saw a good opportunity, specifically with this race taking place in Florida. The "Don't Say Gay" bill is being replicated across the country and it's a very challenging time for LGBTQ+ peopleespecially youth. As one who felt silencedespecially in a sport I love so muchI was wondering, "How can I help out here?" I want to help LGBTQ+ youth chase the dreams they want.
WCT: Where do you see the Lambda Legal partnership going?
ZH: What we want to do is really drive this message across the country. We're kind of at a standing point right now with my on-track schedule. In the best situation, I secure additional partnerships and funding to have the schedule that we want together. I'll be going to locations across the country that are challenging our community, like Alabama, Tennessee, Ohio and Arizona. We're going to be bringing the fight directly to them if we're able.
WCT: If you could talk with Gov. DeSantis, what would you say to him?
ZH: That's a good question. I think the right answer for me, with my career path, is that I'm trying to not create a political divide. I know where a lot of the current fan base would stand. I'm trying to paint the prettiest picture to say what I'm here to do but, respectfully, I'll just agree to disagree with their statements and beliefs.
I know I'm creating change. There's some discomfort but there's also new comfort coming into this sport because of it. Once there's a more solid platform for me to amplify my message, we'll continue pushing. We're doing what we can.
WCT: Also, please talk about your involvement with [the LGBTQ+ motorsport organization] Racing Pride.
ZH: Racing Pride is based in the UK and, last year, it expanded into North America. They see a lot more inclusivity and presence among motor sports in Europe. Their efforts to expand here were to help, in any way possible, a more inclusive spot in North America. We're trying to see how we can make that work; we have to work with the series to continue pushing the envelope here. We do have some pretty exciting things lined up with Racing Pride.
WCT: You mentioned youth earlier. What's your advice to that younger LGBTQ+ person who may want to get involved in race-car driver or other motorsports?
ZH: First and foremost, they need to remove the thoughts that they're in a box; the box is broken now. Go beyond it. Your dreams are limitless; all it takes is hard, relentless work. It's eventually going to happen.
I think as we see motorsports continue to grow with this new generationa more diverse generationI think it's going to be more accessible. I think LGBTQ+ youth will be in a better place but we're going to continue fighting for them.
More information on Lambda Legal is at www.lambdalegal.org .