Travis Shumake is the son of former NHRA Funny Car driver Tripp Shumake, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1999.
At 36, Travis Shumake hopes to become the first openly gay driver in the NHRA Funny Car class.
Shumake plans to hit the racetrack by season’s end, commemorating his father’s last NHRA Funny Car victory 40 years ago at the Finals.
Travis Shumake was just 15 when his father, popular NHRA Funny Car driver Tripp Shumake, was killed in November 1999, his motorcycle struck by a hit-and-run driver traveling on the wrong side of the road near their home at Chandler, Ariz.
Father and son had bonded through karting and spending seemingly endless days at the dragstrip. And Travis Shumake said he thought his connection to drag racing had been severed.
Now, at age 36 and well-established as a development officer for a New York City-based global non-profit organization, Travis Shumake is preparing to plunge into the 330-mph Funny Car world he has observed from the fringes—tackling perhaps the last frontier in the already-diversity-rich National Hot Rod Association.
Shumake plans to hit the racetrack by season’s end, commemorating his father’s last NHRA Funny Car victory 40 years ago at the Finals—and becoming the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ first openly gay driver.
On June 15, Shumake earned his Nostalgia Funny Car license at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School Florida. He still needs to secure his Nitro Funny Car license.
What distinguishes him played a large part in what held him back for so many years but today motivates him to move forward with his dream.
“I've been planning this for a very long time. I was waiting to pull the trigger,” Shumake said. “As everyone would say, going through COVID helped me kind of realign my priorities, just allowed me to take this chance. For me, it’s always been Funny Car. That’s where I belong. I want this for my dad, and I want this for our sport. And I'm only getting older, so let's try it.
“All the interactions I'm having with people within the sport are very positive. And I have to believe that it's not just because people knew my dad. One thing I've always heard from most people about my dad is that he and my mom were just the nicest people on the circuit, that my dad was always just so nice. And I just want to continue that, as well. That jovial spirit in the pits would be something I really want to continue on and (have others say) ‘You remind me of Tripp’ – and not just my big nose, but the way I act. But they're not giving me a mulligan for being gay because my dad was great or whatever. I'm sure there will be some hiccups along the way and people who are challenged by my sexuality. And I certainly don't want to impose anything upon them,” he said.
“But I also do think it's a really good thing for the sport. It brings a new conversation to the table and more eyes on the sport when the sport certainly could use some additional eyes,” Shumake said. He’s hoping to leverage his situation “to elevate the sport” in terms of ratings, attendance, the FOX-TV package, new fans, and additional corporate involvement.
He said “the month of July and even the last week of June are going to be pedal to the metal with my goal of trying to be licensed (in a Nitro Funny Car) by the U.S. Nationals (Labor Day weekend) and if not, testing the Tuesday after the race. I'd love to be in a seat by the Finals. My dad won the race 40 years ago, and that would be kind of a cool experience to compete in my first start at the race that he won four decades ago. So those are kind of my next steps, but ideally, these next three to four weeks are going to be pretty aggressive.” He plans influential meetings this week “and then it's really super-duper go-time.”
Securing sponsorship always has been a challenge—for the experienced racer or newcomer to the sport, for the garden-variety racer or one with a marketing-niche edge, pre- or post-pandemic. But Shumake said, “I’m always shaking hands and asking for large checks” in his job. So he’s less fearful than most about the funding aspect of starting a racing career.
If he had to say his sponsorship-procurement chances will be harder or easier, he said, “I definitely think it’s the latter. None of this is going to be easy, so I’m certainly not trying to paint a rosy picture. But I do think that the sponsors that would engage with me are going to have a strong stance on this topic.
“And I do think it’s going to open additional doors for me but not just for me – for the sport. And that’s kind of the conversations I’m having with the NHRA,” Shumake said. “I’m not just going to take (another racer’s) sponsorship. Ideally, I’m going to be bringing in new money to the sport and new eyes that are interested in being a part of this first test of the waters in this area. Maybe it’ll hinder me within the sport, with existing sponsors, but as far as getting new dollars in, I think it’s going to be a great tool.
“Corporate support of the LGBTQ+ community should be represented on the racetrack, as well,” he said. “Bringing new fans and sponsors to the fastest growing motorsport in the world is a win-win for everyone involved. Someone will be the first. It’s only a matter of time.”
Curiously, he has gotten opposite advice from mentors about whether to trade on the fact he’s gay. Ultimately, he knows performance on the track is what counts. “That's a lot of pressure.” One told him, essentially, “You got to be good, too, Travis, if you get this to happen. You don't want to be the guy who was gay and terrible.”
He understands that. Shumake said, “So I'm back and forth on playing up the gay card, but I think it's a good business model.” Someone told him he doesn’t need to emphasize it because “it’s 2021.” But he played Devil’s advocate: “Yeah, but I kind of do. I don't know that you would be talking to me right now (otherwise). Hopefully after one or two races, it’s a non-starter. And I think that will be the case.”
The NHRA community skews conservative, but Shumake said, “I'm very confident about the percentage of the drag racing world that will accept me and that will encourage me . . . if and when I have those challenges, kind of hopefully bring people together. One of my bigger goals is to show people that this happened in drag racing and it's the first sport to make it happen, at least in the modern era. I don't want to just prove a point to the people in NHRA. I want an NHRA to be proving a point to other sports, like we have for decades.
“I've always known this would be the challenging part, the assumed demographics of the sport. I'm sure that there are going to be hiccups, but just knowing that so far as I'm going through this more and more people are like, ‘This is great,’ you build you that confidence so that when I hit a negative crossroad or I'm met with resilience or someone says something to me in the starting line or in the pits, I'll have that confidence. That's kind of been built by that inner circle of folks who believe in me,” he said.
Still, he said, “It is absolutely terrifying. I lose so much sleep. I lose a lot of sleep right now. My sister calls me to calm me down often. She (says), ‘I feel like you might be stressing.’ I'm like, ‘I've just put myself out there real far. I'm a little out over my skis, and I can't fall. Now. I've just got to lean into this and make this happen.’ But it's that internal stress and pressure by this sort of becoming a thing pretty quickly. I'm just trying to stay on top of it and not back down. Oh my God, it's terrifying. Like, wow, what have I gotten myself into? Oh my gosh. There's so much pressure I'm putting on myself because now this is out there. And you know, when you’ve asked Larry Dixon and Justin Ashley and Matt Hagan to be your brain trust, you can't really let them down and change your mind.”
Shumake said he and his father “never had that conversation.” But he said he has learned from a close friend of his dad that they “had several conversations in my teen years about the topic. And he was very much aware, but we had never had that conversation. So I know he knew that but not from my mouth.”
Tripp Shumake didn’t live to see his son become a foster parent and an advocate for homeless gay teens through his work in Arizona with one•n•ten, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping LGBTQ youth ages 14-24. But the younger Shumake said, “I know my dad would be proud of me for breaking that barrier. Now is the time to show the world there is a place for gay competitors and fans in motorsports.
“It’s Pride Month, and I’m sure there are plenty of drivers out there who feel restrained to pursue their passion for motorsports because these waters haven’t been tested,” he said.
“There are current drivers, even in the sportsman ranks. I know a few. I affectionately call us the Gay Mafia. There's about 10 people I know in the sport that are gay that haven't taken the steps like I am taking, just because of that fear,” Shumake said. “I think there are beyond more people that would be interested in getting into the sport, those being more comfortable being themselves within the sport—not trying to out anyone by saying that.
“There have been so many more gay people, but we don't talk. I mean, they just don't—no one talks about it. I think there's a lot more, but there's not a comfort level. I'm putting it out there, if anything, to make people more comfortable and kind of break down that wall for a second,” he said. “Maybe if, for some reason, someone is able to come out of the closet or enter the sport—gay, lesbian, transgender—because of my attempts at this, that would certainly be rewarding enough to me.
“The sportsman drivers I'm referencing have husbands,” he said. “I'm like, how do people not know you're gay? ‘Like, we just don't talk about it’. I'm like, ‘Wait, what? So I'm going to get all the credit, but you've been out here forever?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but do it, Bro, do it.’ I'm like, ‘OK, I'll do it for you.’”
Devon Rouse, 22, a dirt-track sprint-car veteran from West Burlington, Iowa, is a friend of Shumake, and they encourage one another as Rouse embarks on his NASCAR journey as the first openly gay Camping World Truck Series driver. Rouse tested in an ARCA Menards Series car and in a NASCAR truck entry, but his plans went on hold during the pandemic. Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis, who stepped up last year to sponsor the NHRA pro series, is sponsoring Rouse for the July 9 Truck Series event at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.