The machismo world of motor racing has produced very few golden boys. To be successful in the sport, racers must acquire an enormous amount of mental strength, fearlessness, and humility. Add strikingly good looks and an unruffled personality, you have the making of legends like Hurley Haywood.
In the world of 1970s motor racing, there was no better duo than Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood. Together, they were a perfect “Batman and Robin” team, winning numerous championships and titles while simultaneously attracting the eyes of boy-crazy young ladies across America. But behind the spotlight and flashing mobs of fans, Haywood had a secret of his own.
Despite making numerous appearances with women, and frequenting Studio 54 during its hey day, Haywood remained elusive about his personal life. It took nearly 40 years for him to come out publicly as gay in his 2018 autobiography Hurley: From The Beginning, which has been made into a documentary, simply titled Hurley, now available on streaming services and on demand.
Executive produced by Derek Dodge and actor/racer Patrick Dempsey, Hurley is an intimate portrait featuring candid and emotional interviews that explore Haywood’s experience living as a gay man in the ‘70s while often being overshadowed by his racing partner Gregg, whose death in 1980 shook the sport to its core.
While reflecting about his lucrative career in racing, the Trans-Am champion and five-time 24 Hours of Daytona winner admits now that he never chose to hide his identity from those closest to him, even Gregg. But in the early years of the LGBTQ rights movement and the divisive nature surrounding queer culture at the time, conversations about his sexuality were kept under wraps.
At the end of the day, it was his talent that protected him from public scrutiny.
“When you're the best at something, it's easier for people to accept different quirks in your character,” Haywood explains. “And also, they have to be strong enough to knock down that barrier that stands in front of them. So if that barrier is somebody that's intolerant of your sexuality, you have to prove that they're wrong,” adding that the “easiest way to do that is to beat the guy next door to you so he can't come back and say, ‘Well you're never going to beat me because you're gay.’ Well guess what?”
Haywood acknowledges that a lot of people knew he was gay when he first started racing, though it was never discussed. “Because I was able to hold my foot down on the throttle longer than the guy next to me, and win the race, it didn't seem to make any difference to anybody,” he says now. “If I were not successful, if I wasn't a really good racing driver, then I would think it would have been a whole different story.”
Rumors of Haywood’s identity also prompted theories that he and Gregg were secret lovers. While it would have made scandalous headlines at the time, none of it was true. A testament to Gregg’s emotional "intelligence," Haywood says that while his partner was keenly interested in “what [being queer] meant,” Gregg's main focus was for the well-being of his friend and racing buddy.
“We never actually discussed it at all and never ever was there any implied interest in that realm with him,” says Haywood, referring to any kind of sexual attraction from Gregg. “He was so intelligent and well-schooled that [it was] natural for him to say… ‘Okay, Hurley is my friend. He's my teammate. He is gay but so what? It doesn't make any difference to me.’”
Living in the closet in the 1970s and ’80s was no picnic. There were many times when Haywood became paranoid someone might recognize him at gay bars, and sometimes he’d go “out of my way to disguise myself” so he’d be incognito. Mainly, the racer was concerned about protecting those around him as well as his many scandal-averse sponsors.
“I wasn't quite sure how all of those people would feel if I really publicly came out,” Haywood admits, stating that even today we still have a long way to go in lifting marginalized stories upwards. “We as Americans need to lighten up a little bit… In such a bully nation, we need to pat people on the back rather than punch them in the face.”
Haywood’s passion in setting a good example for others is the very reason why he chose to come out publicly. A few years back, Haywood received a call from a male high school senior who was doing a term paper on the business of racing.
The boy ended up coming out to Haywood, confessing to the racing legend that he was being bullied because he was gay, and thought about suicide daily. A concerned Haywood guided him through his emotions, even recommending organizations for him to reach out to. A couple years later, Haywood received a call from the boy’s mother, who said: “What you told [my son] saved his life.”
“That was the justification of me coming out on a more public platform,” Haywood shares.
Haywood’s fans have been incredibly supportive. While he admits he doesn’t “know any other professional racing driver that are gay,” he also believes they are out there — just not publicly. Still, he understands all too well the journey of self-discovery. And it’s that self-evolution he encourages for not only athletes, but for anyone daring enough to make the effort.
“It’s not what you are, it's who you are,” he proclaims. “It's the who part that people remember.”
Hurley is now playing on most streaming and cable services — including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, XBox, Playstation.