Evan Darling always loved motorsport, but came to racing as a career by accident. After moving out of his parents’ house when he came out (he has since reconciled with them), he became an auto mechanic to support himself. Soon after he started working as a mechanic, he built a club racing car – a Datsun 240Z – and raced it on and off in the nineties. He discovered he was actually good at racing, and got more serious as a result of doing well. He started winning more and more races, until he won a championship, and decided to race professionally.
He started racing in the GrandAm and World Challenge series in 2007, and got good results. He also publicly came out in 2007 in an attempt to raise awareness and support for the Trevor Project, an LGBT+ focussed anti-bullying campaign, among other queer philanthropic causes. The combination of being a polarising figure in a traditionally conservative sport, and the crash of the US economy in 2008 shrank his sponsorship pool. This led him to instructing as a means of earning a living while trying to raise enough sponsorship to continue racing professionally.
Bridget Schuil: What were your biggest struggles in motorsport before publicly coming out?
Evan Darling: Before coming out, my struggles were that pretty much everyone who wasn’t born into a giant pile of money has a hard time racing. Finding money to support my addiction without having the resources to do it on a level that I really wanted to was probably the biggest. I mean, I had a partner all the way through the nineties, when I got into this sport. He would come to races with me, and I never really hid it, but I never really talked about it. I never actually came out, but all the people who interacted with me knew the person I was with was my life partner. In the racing world, it really didn’t seem to be much of an issue.
When I went pro, it was a different story. Even today, as a peer or an instructor or paid driver at a club event, I get scrutinised a lot harder by other people. I think that’s because I’ve kind of earned my way up to a certain point, and so people get jealous. Petty people are really stupid to discriminate because someone’s earned something.
BS What have been your biggest struggles since coming out?
ED Acquiring and maintaining enough sponsorship to compete on the pro level.
And my other biggest struggle is what we’re doing right now – technology! (We were interviewing via Skype.) You know, communicating and technology. It’s not using the devices, the operating of all these new apps and programs that I struggle with; it’s being able to keep up with them all. There’s just so many forms of communication. It’s not just email any more. It’s different messaging, different ways to share data. It’s really getting kind of mind-boggling for me. I’m trying to keep up with it and stay with the times and utilise all these channels to get sponsorship, but it’s really difficult.
BS So do you get a lot of online hate?
ED I have gotten quite a bit of it. It comes and goes. Whenever I try to do a publicity campaign, or I try to raise funds and put it on my Facebook fan page, I get inundated with really, really awful small-minded comments. I try to delete it, and put a positive spin on everything.
Like, this past week, I was pretty much off the grid because I was doing the AIDS/Life Cycle ride. It’s seven days; we went five hundred and forty-five miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and raised fifteen million dollars. It was a real positive, fun thing. We stayed in these little camp grounds. It’s pretty amazing. If you look at my Facebook feed, you can see pictures. My business partner Brian Darling – no relation, other than a common surname – and I raised a significant amount of money for the cause, and I went and rode and did the whole event. It was a pretty life-changing experience.
BS So tell us a bit more about Life Cycle.
ED This is the twenty-fourth year Life Cycle has been running. It started out as a little event to raise funds and awareness for AIDS and HIV. Now, it’s the biggest annual fundraising event – I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest – for HIV/AIDS in the world. It happens every year. It supports the San Fransisco and Los Angeles LGBT Centres. It helps people within the community get the medications and healthcare they need. Especially in today’s times in this country, people with HIV and AIDS are on edge because of the things that are happening with health insurance.
I mean, there were a lot of people that were displaced from their families and homes; they don’t have anywhere to turn; they weren’t able to get the education they may have wanted to get, or pursue the potential they could have achieved. They can’t afford to have all this wonderful health insurance that costs eight hundred or a thousand dollars a month. If you’re infected or have a terminal illness or a pre-existing condition, your insurance can be two or three thousand dollars a month, which is simply unaffordable for someone who’s just trying to survive. It’s kind of a tough deal.
This whole ride brings awareness and much-needed money to those causes. And it is an absolute tonne of fun. I mean, there’s themes, everybody’s enthusiastic, and it’s three thousand people. There’s six hundred and fifty roadies – people who support the whole circus that goes from town to town – while we get on our bikes and ride anywhere from sixty-five to a hundred and ten miles a day. It’s pretty epic. So my back hurts, and my legs hurt right now. I have a pretty stiff racing bike, and it really took its toll on me. I just finished a little nap, and I’m going to go sleep like a baby tonight!
BS Do young queer kids contact you to express gratitude for your being out and visible?
ED Oh, I’ve got a lot of wonderful friends on Facebook – on my fan page and my personal page – and I get people thanking me all the time. Strangely, I get a lot of straight people coming up to me. I’ve had a few incredible experiences where I was at a race and someone came up to me and actually thanked me for coming out. I’ve looked at them and thought, ‘You’re a sixty-something year-old straight guy, what’s the deal here?’ Then I find out that their kid had come out, and they’re trying to find common ground to talk. The father is a racing enthusiast – and the kid may have no interest in race cars – but at least now he’s got something he can talk to his kid about. Like, ‘Oh, there’s a gay racer.’
My original charity that I was trying to help was called the Trevor Project. It’s a teen LGBT+ suicide prevention website and resource. It’s very important. You talk about statistics, and how many kids out there are committing suicide. It happens more often than people really want to understand. You really can’t count how many of these kids are committing suicide because they are LGBT+. They can’t help it, and they can’t come to terms with it, so they make this terrible thing happen, and we lose them. And that’s one more life we could have somehow saved, just through being happy, comfortable, and ourselves. My goal has always been to say who you love should not determine who you can and cannot be. That’s my motto, and it encapsulates everything I represent.
BS Have you used being out and queer as a USP to differentiate yourself in your sponsorship search, and has it helped or hindered your career, or made no difference?
ED On the sponsorship side, I think it’s hindered, for the most part, because it shrunk my base. The way I see it now in retrospect, I can understand. Even if it’s a really LGBT-friendly company already in sponsoring race cars, they’re going to be very reluctant to sponsor a gay person, because they’re just going to lose market share from the existing conservative fans. Yes, they’d gain fans for showing support, but it’s a risky thing to do for a very large corporation.
Where I thought it would help me – and I’m still hoping it will – is that I can find a company that has the foresight to do something like this that isn’t already a racing sponsor. If they want to get into this industry, they’re not going to lose anyone; they’re going to gain people for their support. So I’m trying to target the fashion and jewellery industry, and a few others that you don’t really see on the sides of race cars. So I’m trying to push in that direction and see where that goes. Hopefully someone’s brave enough to slap their brand on me, and let me wave the flag for them, so to speak.
BS What would you say to people who said that Danny Watts’ coming out was ‘not news’?
ED Well, it is news. A lot of people fault a lot of sportspeople for coming out after the fact – when people retire, and then they come out – and that happens a lot in this country.
BS That was a theme in the data I collected on the response to Danny’s coming out.
ED Well, yeah, it’s true, and it’s what’s on people’s minds, so it does come to the front as one of the comments that people come up with. You’ve got to look at it from his perspective as well. He was married, and he came out later in life, and he had his realisations later in life. So he was already embedded in his career. Coming out is pretty profound. It could end his marriage and his career, all in one shot. So I’m sure he had to keep it pretty quiet, or risk damaging everything he’s all about.
From my perspective, I came out at the beginning of my professional career, hoping that it could carry me a little bit. There are a lot of football, baseball, and basketball players who come out, but they generally come out at the end of their careers – in the twilight of their careers or after they’ve already retired. So I’m trying to blaze a new path, and give people something to watch, so they can say ‘Hey look, the gay guy’s on TV racing a car! Let’s see what he does.’ You know, even if it’s just that, I don’t care. If it gets people to turn the TV on and watch, for the series – GrandAm and World Challenge and IMSA, all the series that I really strive to be part of – I think they would benefit from that. Even if people aren’t understanding what LGBT+ people are, I think this would give me a chance to show people that we’re just like everyone else. I can win a race. It doesn’t matter that I am who I am.
BS There was an incident recently where a planned LGBT+/motorsport event tie-in was postponed because the motorsport group organising the event were concerned that people would show up in clothes that were inappropriate for a family atmosphere. Do you think that the fear of men showing up in assless chaps is an unfair stereotype of LGBT+ people, or do we need to do something different in our public image?
ED I think there really is a middle-ground balance for all that. I mean, yeah, if you go to a Pride parade, it can get a little racy. Especially in some of the bigger cities, it can get a little out of control. Just like any community, there’s a side to it that people see, and there’s a side to it that people judge. If someone goes to a queer sporting event – like a gay run, or the Life Cycle – there’s going to be some campy style in there. That’s perfectly fine; it’s personal expression. We’re human; we need to do that.
At Pride events, it’s kind of expected that people dress in crazy, outlandish outfits. That’s part of our culture, really, and that’s something that needs to be accepted. If you don’t like it, then don’t go to it. But I don’t think a big ol’ guy in assless chaps should be sticking his rear end in a nine year-old girl’s face at the side of the road during a parade. You know, don’t bring your child to a Pride parade, but don’t bring your assless chaps to a St Patrick’s Day parade. That’s sort of the balance that needs to be found. Everybody needs to respect each other, and then we can all get along. If we don’t respect each other, we won’t get along.
Just look at the US. It’s beginning to be a disaster in some areas. It’s crazy. It’s more divided than ever. I’m hoping something happens, something changes. So that’s my perspective on that. That’s the ‘assless chaps’ speech.
BS Other sports have official LGBT+ organisations – for example, Arsenal FC’s Gay Gooners Fan Club. When Danny came out, there was talk of starting an official FIA organisation. Given the political orientation of motorsport governing bodies, do you think it would be better to have an organically-formed queer-led organisation, or an official initiative run by well-meaning but probably straight people?
ED I think there should be no difference between straight and gay, as far as the racing organisations are concerned. We have some ‘racing for diversity’ programs and stuff here, but I think within big organisations like the FIA, if we had LGBT+ organisations formed through those, the initiatives would probably fizzle out, because it needs to be run by someone that puts it together as an LGBT+ person, or a fan, or a person who understands the problems. If, say a person from the racing community that comes out and they go to the FIA or whoever, and they want to start as part of the FIA, that would be a great thing. I think that would work.
But just a bunch of straight people saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to have a diversity program. It’ll work. We’ll just say that everyone’s accepted and everybody can join up here,’ I think that would just fizzle out and disappear. That would de-emphasise who we really are. I think a fan-led thing is more acceptable, and having an equal receptacle in the FIA to accept these groups and organisations as any organisation is where it needs to be. You need people on both sides.
BS What can motorsport entities – teams, series, and governing bodies – do to be more supportive of the LGBT+ community?
ED They can give me a drive! (Laughs.) The organisations themselves…I think maybe get a little bit more gender equal, a little less with the grid girls and trophy girls. I don’t know if you follow cycling at all, but the European and Australian circuits are quite funny because they have pro racing for women and men. There’s hundreds of years of heritage on this. So the pro guys come in, and they always have really pretty trophy girls kissing the winner on both cheeks at the same time. And there’s some really funny characters who’ve poked fun at the whole tradition and got himself in quite a pickle a few times.
But if you look at how it’s been handled there, you can see how it’s weird. They tried to have paddock boys for the women’s race, and had guys wearing these little speedos, trying to kiss the girls, and the women are like ‘Why is this strange man trying to kiss me?’ type thing. It was really awkward, and it’s assuming that everyone is straight and want random people of the opposite gender to kiss them. I suppose if we wanted to make it really awkward, we could put a guy on one side and a girl on the other and see what happens. It would be really awkward on TV, and kind of highlight how weird the tradition is. That stuff needs to go away.
In advertising, you’re always going to have the hot guys and the pretty girls and stuff, because it sells. I fully understand that, but in celebration and official business, I think it should probably get put in a drawer and closed and left there. (Laughs.)
BS What can individual straight fans and motorsport workers do to show their support for the LGBT+ community?
ED They can support their local gay racer, or LGBT+ person that’s in racing in some form. You might not know who they are, so welcome everyone to the motorsport community with open arms. I mean, in this country, it really kinda starts on the racial side. We have a lot of racial issues in this country. There’s a line, and we’re way in the back. The white guy hates the black guy, and then they finally accept the black guy, and the black guy and the white guy hate the gay guy.
How does this all work? How can we get everyone together? Maybe we can start a hashtag or something that gets everyone together, for each person to individually and publicly commit to accepting people for who they are, and not who they love. That would be the first great step, to have general people say ‘It doesn’t matter to me. We love you regardless. We like to watch racing, not watching a drama unfold from your personal life.’
I just want to be a race car driver. That’s where I’m happy. I get in the car; I strap in; I race. I do well, and that’s what makes me happy. When you’re racing in a car, going around a track, everything is covered. You don’t know who’s in that car. it could be a three-headed alien being, operating the car from outer space. You don’t know. It doesn’t matter who you are; you’re just racing a car.
That’s the beauty of motorsport is it doesn’t matter who you are if you can drive. If you’re good at wheeling a car, you’re good at wheeling a car. That’s what counts. Once the helmet goes on, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; you’re a racer. If people understand that – that we’re here for the sport, and we’re here for the fans. If our personal life becomes an interesting part of that, that’s fine too. If people do a search and look up their favourite driver or rider or whatever, and follow us. If they’re not interested in that and they don’t want to see it, they don’t have to look at it. I just want to be accepted as a driver