Hurley Haywood is from a different time, one when being openly gay wasn’t necessarily the easiest. It wasn’t that he was closeted, per se, but when the now-70-year-old retired race car legend was at the height of his career, he was unsure how the broader world might react.
“When I started racing, I didn't hide that [I was was gay] from anybody,” he told Out. “I don't act gay, I don't look gay, I just sort of live my life the way I want to. And if somebody asked me the question, I would say, ‘Yes, I am,’ and then we would talk about it.”
But he knew the world of racecar driving wasn’t ready.
“In the 70s and 80s, you just didn't want to discuss that with anybody,” he continued. “I was afraid, not necessarily to have that discussion with the industry that I was making my living at, but the fan base. I didn't want to let my fans down, and that fan base was growing considerably and I was just really afraid what their reaction would be if I publicly came out.”
Haywood didn’t publicly come out until he published his autobiography, Hurley: From The Beginning, a little over a year ago. And he does so again in the recently released doc about his life, Hurley. In it, the icon speaks for the first time about being gay in the 1970's macho world of motorsports. It features interviews with Hurley’s family members, racing contemporaries, and actor and racer Patrick Dempsey (who also serves as executive producer).
Out spoke with Hurley via phone about the documentary, how the racing industry has changed, and the ways that fans have supported him. He also describes the life moment that inspired him to officially come out.
What made you say yes to writer-director Derek Dodge about doing this film and discussing your sexuality in it?
There was a kid that came to my office for an interview, and halfway through the interview — which was originally to talk about racing and the business of racing — he stopped cold in his tracks, he looked at me and he said, "I need to ask your advice and your help." He said, "I've been bullied my whole entire life. Every morning I wake up, I think I want to commit suicide, and I'm gay and I don't know what to do. I don't see any path to move forward."
So I said, "Okay, let's slow down a little bit. Let's talk about this." And so we had a good conversation, talked about some places where he could go to get some support, and he left with a pretty positive attitude. And then I never heard from him again. About a year and a half later, his mother called and said, "I just want you to know that what you told my son saved his life." And that statement, coming from a mother, is pretty powerful. So I said that if I can save one person's life, maybe I can save two or 10 or 100. That was the reason why I decided now's the time to do it.
Can you describe for me who Peter Gregg is?
He was my racing partner that committed suicide back in the early 80s, and that was a really difficult thing for me to cope with because Peter was sort of my big brother. He was the one that gave me the break that I needed to get started in racing. He gave me great cars to drive, a great team to drive for. And we all knew that he had some issues, but we didn't really know what they were. We didn't know how to prevent them from happening. And if we had learned more about it, I would have had the red flag in the air way before anything horrible happened.
The suicide rate in this country is just off the scale. Every 40 seconds an American takes their life by suicide, which to me is just an incredibly sad statement.
You’ve said that you were nervous about coming out because you didn’t want to disappoint fans. What has their response been like since doing so?
Well today it has been 100 percent supportive of me coming out, and the reason why I came out. And everybody that sees this film takes something a little bit differently out of it that they can relate to their own lives, to their families.
One of the talking heads from the doc said he was hesitant about you coming out because he wanted your racing titles to be what you’re known for, not for being gay. Have you seen that shift take place?
No. I think I've won a lot of big races and I think that that is going to be the title under my name. And then being gay is the subtitle. And being gay in this day and age is a lot simpler than it was back in the 70s and 80s, and much more accepted. Who would have ever guessed that same-sex marriage would be approved nationwide by the Supreme Court? Back in the 70s and 80s, that was something that wasn't even in people's minds so we've come a long way.
I think that people, hopefully, will come away from the film and say, "If Hurley can do it, then I can do it."
Has the racing world also become more inclusive and supportive of LGBTQ+ folks as broader society has?
The racing community as a whole has been supportive of me, specifically. But I think with the sanctioning bodies, and the teams, and everybody, the more people you get to come to a race the better it is for the series and for the track owners. If they can open up a new level of fans then they're going to support that and so I think racing in general has been pretty open to different cultures, different ethnic backgrounds. I think that they look at the long range effect of that rather than short range.
What advice you would give to, say, somebody in the racing world who is still closeted, who has not come out, or is not living their authentic life?
Everybody has to deal with the problem in their own individual way. We all have barriers that we have to knock down. I don't care what business you're in, or what sports you're in. In sports, the pioneers of that whole discussion was the women. Billie Jean King and Martina [Navratilova], they were the front runners of knocking down the barriers in sports, and then everybody followed suit. There are lots of people that came out that were football players, basketball players. All of these different sports had gay participants in them, but racing was the last bastion where people could come out and be comfortable about it. And I think that is [because of] a reeducation of the fan base. I don't think the industry itself cares, just as long as you keep your foot down on the throttle longer than the guy next door, then everybody's happy. But it's the fan base that has to change. And I think that that is gradually changing in the racing world.
Hurley is available to stream now.