Arizona native Travis Shumake grew up racing go-karts with his father Tripp, a legend in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Now, he’s behind the wheel of a funny car himself, smashing barriers as the first openly gay driver to compete in the NHRA. Shumake, 36, spent three years as director of program development for Valley nonprofit one-n-ten, which supports LGBTQ youth, before moving to New York to work for the Clinton Foundation. His homecoming in February marks his professional debut on the racing track, for the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Motorsports. We recently sat down with Shumake to talk about his debut into the sport of drag racing, which differs from NASCAR in both number of competitors (just two cars in a two-lane race on a quarter-mile track, versus 40 cars doing 200 laps on a longer track) and what it’s like to be behind the wheel of a funny car with the engine in front of him and a rainbow parachute behind him.
What are your earliest memories of drag racing?
All of my memories of drag racing are based around Firebird Raceway, which is now Wild Horse [Pass] Motorsports [Park]… My dad was the announcer for the big national event that’s on ESPN every year… he’d pick me up from school early on Friday and we’d go out to the race track for three days… He would be in the announcer’s tower, and I would be down at the starting line with all my VIP credentials, just getting hit in the face with nitro methane and rubber.
What’s it like to be behind the wheel going 300 mph?
It’s amazing how loud these cars are. The smell of the nitro methane makes your nose run, your eyes water and your whole body shakes. You could be a thousand feet away, and when this car turns on, you can feel it. But when you’re inside the car, you can’t smell it or hear it… My feet kind of go under the engine, so it’s in my lap. There’s an 11,000-horsepower engine in my lap, and it kind of shoots around you. Everything you know about racing is happening around you, and you’re just kind of in this quiet little shell.
What are you proudest of doing at one-n-ten?
The role at one-n-ten was really transformational for me because it paired my love for event planning and philanthropy with my passion for helping youth. Being at one-n-ten during its period of rapid growth and putting together large events that educated and impacted the community were really meaningful to me.
What are some of your favorite places in the Valley?
We are a FEZ family… Anytime I need to celebrate, Durant’s is my go-to for an olive martini. And then CityScape. Before transitioning to one-n-ten, I opened the Hotel Palomar and CityScape residences as part of the team that launched [it]… It was so cool to watch that grow and become all the things it has become.
How have you been received as the first openly gay driver in the NHRA?
The sanctioning body, along with the drivers and the sponsors, have been amazing. Drag racing has always been the sport of milestones – we had our first female drag racing champion in the ’80s, African-American champion in the ’70s, and 30 percent of drag racers are women… I also think because of my father’s legacy in the sport, people don’t want to mess with me. I’m aware that I’m coming in with a legacy piece that has empowered me to put my foot down and say, “I’m here and I’m queer and I’m gonna go 300 miles an hour with rainbow parachutes.”