Drag racing is all about good timing, and for Travis Shumake, the decision to finally fully commit to following in the footsteps of his late father, national event-winning Funny Car driver Tripp Shumake, and to do it as an openly gay driver, just felt right.
He’d long wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and, just as importantly, connect with the people who knew and loved his dad. As a teen, Shumake had made enough “runs” in the Funny Cars parked in the family garage to know it was something he wanted to do, but the decision to take the ultimate plunge and sign up for classes at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School came after an emotional weekend at this year’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
Shumake, a long-time friend of NHRA on FOX top-end reporter Amanda Busick, had dinner with members of the TV crew, including pit producer Todd Veney, himself a second-generation national-event-winning Funny Car driver, as well as lead announcer Brian Lohnes and two-time Funny Car world champion Tony Pedregon.
GETTING FIRED UP
“I know this all sounds very sudden, but it was a story Todd told at dinner in Gainesville that sparked this,” he explained. “I had never heard the particular story about my dad, and he was telling it with so much excitement in his eyes. And then Brian jumped in with a story. And Tony got there a little bit later, and he told a story about Cruz and my dad, and now I've got three new stories about my dad. I knew I wanted more, and I knew that following my dreams would lead me to more untold Tripp tails from the strip.
“I was leaving the parking lot Sunday, and I was stuck in the traffic. One of my dad's big things when he was the color commentator at Firebird [Int'l Raceway] was avoiding the traffic, ‘Travis, if you make me stay to watch the Funny Car final, when those parachutes come out, you sprint to the car and I’ll leave the tower. We're not watching Top Fuel, so we can get out before the traffic.’ So, as I was stuck in traffic in Gainesville, I had this huge weight on my chest, and I called my sister, Heather, and said, ‘I haven't felt this connected to our dad in 20 years,’ we got a little teary-eyed, and I came home and realized that I needed to do this.
“I don't want it to feel like it's a rush thing because it’s something I've written about in papers since the fifth grade, and every two to three years, I call my mom and say, ‘Guess what? I'm going to save enough money, and I'm getting that Funny Car license,’ but this just seemed like the right time in my life to really make it happen.”
Nearly 40 years after his dad’s final victory, at the 1982 World Finals, and more than 20 years after his popular father’s passing in a 1999 motorcycle highway accident, Shumake, who raced shifter karts with his father in the late 1990s, signed up to try to earn his Super Comp and Nostalgia Funny Car licenses at the Hawley school as the first steps to his full-fledged nitro Funny Car license.
“Although we had yet to discuss it, my dad was aware I was gay, and racing shifter karts was our bonding moments,” he said. “I knew that I would eventually follow in his footsteps, and I wanted to be in racing, but there wasn't a master plan in place at age 15 when he died. He thought shifter karts were more of a transferable skill than Jr. drag racing, but I tell ya, there were lots of disappointing Christmas mornings when I’d wake up to no Jr. Dragster in the driveway.”
Although Shumake’s journey to the driver’s seat is years in the making, his decision to chase that dream as an openly gay driver required much less thought and was a linchpin in his press release and was his advocacy and accolades within the LGBTQ+ community.
“I knew right out the gate that I wanted to get it out there,” he explained. “I refuse to say, ‘Let's just talk about it once and be done, and I’ll go back in the closet at the track.’ It is a part of my story. Visibility and representation in sports are important for young folks to see. It doesn’t need to be discussed every day, or in every article, but it shouldn’t be minimized. I believe my unique lived experience outside of the roll cage add value to my team, my sponsors, and my sport."
Shumake has networked within motorsports with gay drivers, some out and some not, to share experiences and advice.
“Devon Rouse and I talk every week,” he said. “He's in the ARCA series and very open about his sexuality as he tries to make it in the cup series full time. He is also a 22-year-old farm boy who just took his first flight on a plane, and I’m the 36-year-old city slicker who plans his life out in an Excel document. We’re polar opposites and have completely different life experiences. We have different angles on how we are approaching our sports and sponsors. We keep each on track and have a healthy competition of who's going to land a full-season deal first. We are pushing each other in hopes one of us will be the first out pro racer to roll into our respective winner’s circle.
“I didn’t expect my announcement to come without some negative feedback. Comments like ‘Why can't you just drive and leave the gay out of it?’ are exactly why it needs to be mentioned. Me downplaying the topic isn’t fair to those who have raced before me in silence, those who don’t have the opportunities or access I have, and youth who would benefit from seeing someone like themselves suit up and win a drag race. It’s also a differentiator in a field of talented young drivers looking for a seat and a sponsor. I’m trying to bring new sponsors into the sport while separating myself from bonified badasses like Austin Prock and Jordan Vandergriff. I hope fans embrace the new level of diversity I am bringing to our sport while I try to make sure we have a full 16-car ladder at every stop on the tour."
Shumake is an experienced fundraiser in his 9-to-5 job as a nonprofit gift officer, and he expects that his accumulated business acumen will also aid in his pursuit of a sponsor.
"I’m tasked with raising a few million bucks a year, and that cycle starts over every January," he said. "It can be daunting. This is a long game. I understand the researching and prospecting, the marketing and storytelling, and how to align my value proposition with the needs of a specific sponsor. I’m creative and outspoken and comfortable in a boardroom full of decision-makers and millionaires. I see it as a leg up that I apply these sponsorship-related skills in my daily routine. I’ve been shaking hands and kissing babies since I was high school class president,” he jokes.
Shumake’s announcement last week didn’t get all of the traction a drag racer would like because just a few hours after his groundbreaking release, the Oakland Raiders’ Carl Nassib came out as the first openly gay pro football player, but he’s hoping that the interviews he’s done since then will help put his name on people’s lips, outside of the racing world. It’s important to him that he represents the community well both in and out of the car, but there’s a bigger picture than that for him.
“I'm not just representing the LGBTQ+ community on the racetrack — I’m representing my dad and his legacy. That's where the real pressure comes in,” he admitted. “What if the last thing written about the Shumakes is that Tripp's son what a lousy driver with a terrible reaction time? He was a great racer and even better dad, I don’t want to screw up the history books."
OFF TO SCHOOL
If early indicators are any barometer, that might not be something Shumake has to worry about.
“Over the years, we’ve had many second-generation drivers come through the school, but having Tripp and Susie Shumake’s son Travis attend was really special,” said Hawley, a two-time Funny Car world champion. “Maybe the ability to drive race cars is genetic because Travis did a great job.”
“When I was little, I’d go in the garage at night, and I would use pledge to clean the frame rails and tin work of Paula Martin’s Funny Car,” he remembered. “And then I’d strap in, get the body lowered down over the top of me, and dad would go through the whole sequence with me as the driver and he as my crew chief. Even down to adjusting the tenor of the idle noises he was making when I’d open the fuel valve at the first beam. He’d simulate tire shake and time me coming out the roof during a surprise fire in the lights. He was a great coach, and I am so lucky to have those memories. It was emotional watching the onboard footage of my runs in the Funny Car with Frank. It just looked so natural, me executing all the things I practiced as a kid when I crossed the finish line, like pulling the chutes, grabbing the brake, closing the fuel and clicking the ignition. Frank certainly noticed and said, ‘Alright, you’ve got the last half of the running down pretty well.’
“It was a memorable experience to be with Frank and my mom down in Florida,” said Shumake. “It was great to hear her tell stories of their time together on the road. I mean, we could barely get the crew out of the trailer to start working on the car, because Mom and Frank were swapping stories about sleeping in hotel parking lots and putting bags of spaghetti in their pockets at all-you-can-eat buffets. Frank added another layer to what I am enjoying about this experience, I’m connecting with my father by hearing stories I would never have heard otherwise.”
Tripp Shumake’s final win, at the 1982 World Finals, was accomplished in a second team car for Billy Meyer, who was trying to use Shumake to block Hawley’s shot at winning the championship.
“To hear Frank's version of the ’82 World Finals adds another unique lens to my dad’s history,” he added. “We know our family’s version, but to hear the story from the eyes of the guy who was standing in the shutoff area at OCIR when he popped out of the roof hatch is totally priceless.”
Shumake earned both his Super Comp license and then, using the school’s auto-shifted Alcohol Funny Car, his Nostalgia Funny Car license. Shumake has no plans of owning a team but thinks that he could bring a lot to an established team as a second-car driver.
“I’m completely focused on sponsorship right now. Marketing budgets are set as early as August for the next year, so it's full-court-press for the 2022 season. I’d really like to get connected with a team on a development deal,” he said. “A deal where a team owner says, ‘Travis, we see the potential. We will support you with knowledge, experience, and infrastructure, and if or when you come up with X million dollars, we will strap you in, wrap a trailer and a body, and get you a crew chief.’ I'm not in a position to have strong opinions on what I drive or who owns it, but there could be some great storylines and partnerships to come by adding me as a second car to an established team next season.”
“I'm excited for the first time I go 300. My dad always wanted to go 300 and talked about it a lot as a bucket list thing. He was convinced he could get Force to let him make one pass in his car someday. It will be weird, maybe emotional, the first time I exceed his personal 270-speed record. There will be memories relived at every track for my family, but I sure can’t wait to get home to Firebird. Phoenix is our home track. Dad was the first Funny Car to take the Tree when it opened in 1984, and Mom ran the place with Charlie Allen when I was in high school. I’m adamant about being there next year and bringing the governor, the mayor, heck, the whole town to my homecoming.”
“Those are the moments I look forward to the most. Being at the same tracks, in the same pits, and pulling through the same staging lanes while strapped into my funny car like my dad. What a powerful connection.”