BY NICK POUST
Freddy Niblack is the first openly gay driver in the IndyCar Series, but that’s not all that defines him. As is the case for so many athletes, homosexual or not, he is also a person looking to accomplish a dream – a dream he’s had since his childhood days spent carving a race track through neighbors’ yards on his go-kart as the sound of the nearby Indianapolis 500 engulfed the air surrounding his family’s Speedway, Indiana home.
“I literally grew up two blocks from the track, and I was born in May, which happens to be the month that all the festivities for the 500 go on,” Niblack says. “My mom said I would scream and cry until she’d sit me on the porch and let me hear the Indy cars. They were like a lullaby. As long as there were racecars and motors, I was good.”
Niblack, 44, is still longing to be part of the roar that hummed as his childhood’s theme. He came out as a teenager and has traveled down a bumpy road filled with discrimination in his professional career. While he was racing in the Mini-Indy Series in 1992, he was the subject of hateful remarks that led to his departure.
“Someone put a poster on my race trailer that said ‘AIDS cures fags,'” he says, “and so that team owner didn’t want me anymore.”
Niblack then went to Europe, hoping for a better opportunity, but more of the same transpired. “People over there were even less accepting,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you had a podium finish, a first-place finish or a top-five, you were still the gay driver.”
“With some teams gay men are viewed as the weak link, which is funny because some of my times and finishes were a lot better than my counterparts, or my teammates,” he adds. “Instead of being happy for me it became a source of a pang.”
That’s not the case anymore, however. Niblack is back home after signing on to race for Indianapolis-based Top Kart USA, which didn’t even know he was gay when he was signed. He competed in the Freedom 100 in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for the first time, his presence in the driver’s seat wasn’t because of his sexual orientation or the sponsors and revenue that would coincide. It’s about his talent.
“Here, it was all about what I brought to the table,” Niblack says. “There wasn’t this IndyCar mentality. And what I mean by that is a lot of IndyCar people, they forget to be human, and they forget what this sport is about. It’s to have fun. It becomes a money situation, and yes, here, it takes money to do what we do, but it’s also really fun. We can laugh and have a good time and be ourselves. For the first time in a long time I feel welcome. The gay thing isn’t really brought up unless I bring it up.”
That’s not to say his sexual orientation and its impact on the racing community doesn’t matter to Niblack. It means plenty. In his 22 years on the track, no one from the LGBT community has ever come to see him in his element. That changed in March when Indianapolis’s JJ Gufreda, the president of GEI, Inc. – the first transgender-owned company certified as LGBTBE by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce – attended a testing at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“I was on the track, going about 160, 170 (miles per hour), and when I saw JJ — when I was in my racecar on the track — I waved to her,” Niblack says. “To see JJ walk up was such a milestone, such a sense of pride, such a sense of ‘finally.’ JJ wasn’t there to flip her hair or challenge the bathroom rules; she was solely there to support me. And in my entire career I cannot think of a more defining moment than seeing JJ walk up.”
Niblack wants this to be the start of a pattern, to make the LGBT community feel as welcome at the race track as Top Kart USA and Gufreda have made him feel.
“To see someone come in who is different, who is out of the ordinary – and guess what, they are today’s ordinary,” he says. “They are today’s human being. The gay community, take your place. Be supportive. Be proud of your own people. Not everybody dresses up like Tina Turner and lip-syncs for their life. Not all gay men are strippers or escorts or wear eyeliner. Embrace diversity. Embrace our differences.”
Niblack says he simply races better when he’s happy, and after he saw Gufreda he increased his lap speed by 1.5 seconds. “I had this feeling of self-worth, this feeling of strength in numbers, and this feeling of love,” he says. “That’s huge for me. An honor, and I’m very grateful. I can’t imagine if I had 100 people from the community there, what I would do.”
Including the Freedom 100, Niblack raced 13 times throughout the summer this year – and while the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t one of them, he plans on inhabiting one of those cars his childhood self lived to hear one day soon.
The 500 may be the ultimate goal for Niblack and Top Kart USA, but this year is about honing their craft as a team. Top Kart USA is predominately self-funded, and in March was the first time his number-22 car spent time on the ground, let alone a track.
“We’re not focused on IndyCar this year,” he says. “We’re focused on the cars that we have, and making them well. We’re not begrudging what we have and angry about what we don’t have. We’re happy about what we have and focused on what we have. We want a winning car. We want a winning team.”
Niblack brings his individual sponsors to Top Kart USA, but unlike other stops on his road that’s not the reason behind his presence. “We don’t need that sponsor money to create something,” says Blake Deister, the team’s co-owner. “It’s already created.”
“From the front of the house to the back of the house it is every single person that works on that team to get that driver into that car to win races or be competitive,” adds Niblack. “The owners of a lot of the larger teams, without those drivers and those drivers’ sponsors they wouldn’t be where they are. It’s not just about one person’s brand here. It’s about the team as a whole. Yes, I do drive for this team, and, yes, I did bring sponsors, but these people own the shop, the semis, the cars, the mechanics, the tools.”
With all of the pieces but the driver upon his arrival, the immediate acceptance of Deister and the Top Kart USA team was a weight off Niblack’s shoulders. Here, he can just race, without distaste for his sexuality in the undercurrent, waiting to rear its discriminatory head.
“It is such a small part of my life, but it is who I am,” he says, regarding his homosexuality. “It’s just not a factor here. Now, at other places, it was, ‘We don’t want you going here, we don’t want you going there, we don’t want you dealing with this publication, we don’t want you dealing with this gay event.’ Well, I am a gay man. My community – I want their support and their love, and I’m not going to be something that I’m not, and that’s the most important thing.”
That community would have much reason to cheer. Not just because of what he represents, but because of his talent, and that of his team.
“I have the same big visions and the same big dreams, but I’m intelligent enough to know that you have to start here before you can get here,” Niblack says. “With this team, we have the facility to grow. We have the technology, the equipment, the manpower. These guys will be here until midnight if that’s what it takes.”
And so will Niblack, with his childhood’s lullaby forever in his head, striving to accomplish just one his many goals, hoping to influence a community along the way.