In October 2019, Devon Rouse booked a week-long trip to Florida on a whim. He had never been on an airplane. Little did he know that trip would kick off a racing career that would have him driving in NASCAR at the Daytona International Speedway.
“You could have told me when we were down in Florida, ‘You’re going to race Daytona at the start of the 2021 season,’ and I would have literally laughed in your face,” Rouse said by phone from his hometown of Burlington, Iowa.
On the last night of his 2019 Florida trip, Rouse, 22, was at a patio bar with friends in Clearwater when he noticed a group of guys wearing the NASCAR truck team logo. He struck up a conversation and, three hours later, they were exchanging numbers and promising to keep in touch.
Soon, they invited Rouse to join them at a Charlotte, N.C., race. He ended up tagging along as the circuit took them from rural Ohio to Fort Knox, Texas, and from Phoenix, Ariz., to Miami. Three months later, he was racing trucks himself.
Though it was a dream come true, Rouse felt stifled by a secret he had carried since he was in Grade 7. He was gay, and terrified that someone would find out.
“I always said I would take it to my grave,” Rouse said. “It was so exhausting. I could sit here and have a conversation with somebody and after every sentence I would pause and think about how I said (something) to see if that was a giveaway.
“I did that with every single word I said, and I couldn’t do it anymore. It was around fans. It was around sponsors. It was around friends. It was around family.”
Last June, Rouse decided he couldn’t keep up the act, and came out in a 400-word post on Instagram.
“This is me, and it’s time for me to stop living a double life. Living as what people want me to be, and living as what I want to be,” he wrote. “I wish each and everyone of you could feel the weight that’s been lifted off my shoulders, and pressure off my chest. It hasn’t been fun lying to people, it hasn’t been fun hiding, limiting myself.”
“This is me, I’m just your same Dev, just a little better now!” he ended his post.
When Rouse tested at Daytona this past January, not only did he set a personal record, racing a best lap of 174 miles per hour, but he made history as the first openly gay driver in the NASCAR Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) series at Daytona. “My name is in the history books,” he said. “That’s mind-blowing to me.”
Rouse is only the second openly gay NASCAR driver, the first since Stephen Rhodes debuted in 2003. Another driver, Evan Darling, who competed on the Grand-Am Road Racing circuit, came out in 2007. Darling has said that the decision cost him his sponsorships, and eventually his career. Fourteen years after Darling came out, Rouse has also struggled to book adequate sponsorship.
“I was approved for 26 races this year,” Rouse said. “I was approved for every road course, and I was approved for any race track a mile and smaller, and ARCA, and the truck series. And unfortunately, I don’t have the funding to do all that.”
After tweeting about his search for sponsorship, Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of American RV chain Camping World, offered to sponsor him for their NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in Knoxville, Iowa, on July 9. Rouse is also hoping to land a sponsor to attend four upcoming ARCA races in Springfield and Du Quoin, Ill., Bristol, Tenn., and Phoenix.
Since coming out, Rouse has had members of the media question his motives, suggesting he did it to raise his profile. “My biggest fear in coming out was altering any future racing endeavours,” he said “Racing is not a community where you see gay people. It’s not.”
That lack of role models has been discouraging, but Rouse is emboldened knowing that he will be that example for someone else. “I am 100 per cent okay with sharing my story, because I know there are hundreds of thousands of people out there that find themselves curious, questioning, or in the same shoes of knowing who they are but scared because of the stereotypes we have,” he said.
Someday Rouse would like to start a charity to support LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports. He has been working with ex-NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out in 2017. He’s asked O’Callaghan to introduce him to one of his football friends, former NFL player turned “The Bachelor” contestant Colton Underwood, who also recently came out in the media.
“I watch ‘The Bachelor,’” Rouse said. “I find it funny. I had the literal biggest crush on Colton when he was on the show. So here is the thing. We are going to have to hangout.”
Thinking back over the past two years, Rouse can hardly believe how far he’s come, not only behind the wheel, but personally as well. “I was always a fun, happy kind of person,” he said. “Everyone knew me as the life of the party. But now that I am 100 per cent comfortable with myself, my limitations are endless.”