Danny Watts on coming out, motorsport and Rainbow Laces Summit
'I want to be an advocate going forward for all LGBT people,' says former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 16/05/17 9:08pm
"This time last year, I was getting ready to race at Le Mans. Twelve months later, I'm going to be at Old Trafford doing a talk about my coming out story."
Danny Watts is on the victory lap of his own personal endurance race, and he still can't quite believe he's arrived at this stage of his life. He retired from professional driving in 2016 - his team, Strakka Racing, had finished fourth in their class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that June, and Watts felt he was starting to lose his edge. He began a new line of work, coaching young drivers. Then, after months of agonising, the 37-year-old told the world of motorsport in February that he is gay. "It's all been a massive whirlwind since then, to be honest. Has it sunk in? Not 100% yet. But slowly it will."
I just wanted to drive and race, and be the best person I could be on the track.
It's a whirlwind he's welcomed, banishing the black clouds of stress and depression, and energising him to be a voice of representation. First up, a panel discussion on inclusion in sport for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people at the Rainbow Laces Summit in Manchester, attended by leaders and CEOs. "It'll be my first foray into telling my story in person," he says to Sky Sports, who are members of the TeamPride coalition supporting the Stonewall campaign. "Hopefully we're going to change how people think about this issue. There's still a lot of work to do."
Previously in Watts' life, there wasn't much time to contemplate the wider implications of being out in sport. Racing was his sole focus - "the only thing I've known throughout my whole life" - and from his early days in karting, through to victories in a variety of cars and series, his enthusiasm and skill made him a formidable competitor. He's widely regarded as one of the best drivers from these shores never to have raced in Formula 1; aged 22, he saw off the challenge of a 17-year-old Lewis Hamilton to claim the British Formula Renault Championship.
"I just wanted to drive and race, and be the best person I could be on the track," he says. "F1's the goal for any driver, but I was always realistic - not only do you need to be a fantastically talented driver, you also need huge amounts of money and sponsorship. I was never blessed with that - my dad sells windows and doors, and my mum's a hairdresser! I was lucky to have a few sponsors along the way that gave me a footing. And I only ever raced to have fun and enjoy it."
Off the track, he didn't allow himself to dwell on matters like sexuality. "I was good at separating it completely," he recalls. "I had to, it was my job. You've got to be focused on that and that alone. I thought it was a stage I was going through - it would go away again. Now I know the feelings never go away if it's part of your make-up. But you keep it to yourself because you're worried what people will think about you. That was my biggest worry - what other people would think."
You don't have to be LGBT to appreciate the stress a personal secret can cause, and in the macho culture of motorsport - where 'grid girls' have traditionally far outnumbered professional female drivers, and wealthy sponsors often hold the keys to the future - being openly 'different' to the other racers was a risk too far. To keep up appearances with his peers in the paddock, Watts had a series of girlfriends and eventually got married and became a father.
"It wasn't until my mid-30s that it became a grind on the brain," he explains. "I'm happy-go-lucky on the outside, but on the inside... I'm the sort of person to bottle everything up and not share or tell anyone. I was suffering from lack of sleep, anxiety, a bit of depression - all of that together." He talked to his wife - "something in me flipped" - and her reaction was one of relief and understanding. They began the process of an amicable divorce.
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Watts couldn't be certain of the same reaction in his working life, however - "there was always the fear of the sponsors not accepting it and stopping me racing" - so he carried on at the wheel for Le Mans, his yellow-and-blue helmet (the colours of his beloved Oxford United) familiar to fans of the endurance race. Outside he was the same old Danny. "I was always famous for having good banter on the radio, such as with the engineers on the pit wall at Le Mans - I'd get them to tell me the football scores during the day, stuff like that," he says. "When you're driving for up to three-and-a-half hours at a time, in a gruelling event, you need something to keep you motivated and keep your concentration up.
"But the fun started going out of it for me. And in the last year or so of my career... I don't know why, but I started losing my edge slightly. I can't put my finger on it. Perhaps what was going on in my head was affecting my driving. But when you look at the lap time and it doesn't reward you, you know something's not quite right." He had other offers of a race-seat but his mind was made up. "For the amount of effort and time that you and your team put into it, preparing the car - through the night sometimes - if I'm not putting 100% into it, it's not fair on them."
His career highlights? Surely the class victories at Le Mans, but there was success and magic moments too in the Macau GT Cup and British Formula 3 Championship, as well as the aforementioned triumph over a teenage Hamilton in Formula Renault. That 2002 series title win occurred the year after a staggering crash at Oulton Park that continues to rack up thousands of views on YouTube. The wheels of Watts' Falcon team car made contact with those of Heikki Kovalainen, lifting the former at frighteningly high speed straight into the corner at Druids.
"I get a lot of comments about it, still," he says. "On the data, when I took off in the air and hit the wall, the speed was 138mph. The car split in two, and there was just the actual monocoque left.
"From the moment it took off to when it comes to a stop was only a few seconds. But from where I was sitting, it seemed to take an eternity - it was all in slow motion and a bit weird. Luckily I only ended up with a bruised ankle, but the biggest thing was the shock when I got out of the car. I was so disorientated, and not really sure where I was going. But 24 hours later, I was 99% fit again, and back at the gym.
"We had a race the following weekend at Silverstone - we had to source a brand new car, in Italy, pick it up, bring it back to the workshop, fix it, and build it up from scratch again. Then on lap 3 of practice on the Friday, the engine blew - so I missed the whole session. But despite all that, I won the race! I'll never forget crossing the line - everyone was out from every team clapping. It makes you stronger if you have a big accident - luckily I wasn't too injured. That was inspirational for my career going forward."
He took Kovalainen's seat at Fortec for 2002 and won the championship, with Hamilton third. Six years later, Watts had to flee from a burning Ginetta G50 sports car during a 24-hour endurance race in Belgium - another lucky escape. Yet learning how to handle that type of danger was common in his chosen career. In February, when weighing up whether to come out publicly in motorsport and how he might do it, he had to devise his own strategy.
"I wanted to do my homework," he says. "In some of the other sports, it seems to be much more accepting - athletics, hockey etc. But in motorsport - well, me being the first and only UK and European driver to come out says a lot really. There's nobody at the higher end of the sport, in the governing bodies, that you can go and speak to." After consulting with those he trusted, including some athletes he approached for advice, he spoke to a series of selected motorsport websites and blogs, plus the Huffington Post and Gay Times, and agreed a simultaneous publication on a Monday afternoon.
"I wanted to get it out there all in one go. I didn't want to go around repeating myself, to everyone at different circuits around the world that I'd be going to while coaching," he explains. "To get it out in one big hit, as it were, and then get on with it - people could take it or leave it.
I think the sport is slightly behind and needs to have a wake-up call, in terms of being more accepting and diverse.
Danny Watts on motorsport and inclusivity
"On the morning itself, I was sick as a dog, ill with stress and how it was going to be received. I feared that the people I work with - whether in coaching, or other team members - wouldn't be able to look me in the eye properly, or they'd refuse to shake my hand or whatever. But I was worrying over nothing. Everyone's been brilliant - they don't act any differently around me. It's made me so much happier. I was worried about turning up at the track and people not taking me for me anymore.
"I also thought I'd get trolls and stuff on social media, but it's been the total opposite. All the feedback, on Facebook and social media, was all massively positive. I've had loads of messages and emails, including quite a few from other sportspeople who are gay but not out. They say 'what you've done is really inspiring, we've been in the same boat as you, we're scared, not many people know...' It's been mindblowing how I've been able to help other people. It gives you a really good feeling."
The impact of his coming out has been unexpected in more ways than one - he's in higher demand than ever. "I thought I'd have more quiet weekends to spend at home, but it's just gone the opposite way. My main priority is the Formula 3 Euro Series this year, coaching for a Silverstone-based team called HiTech. In between that, I do work for McLaren, and then I've got a Hong Kong-based driver that races karts. It's been super busy and I've even had to turn some work down."
There's no chequered flag yet for Watts on his coming out story. By speaking at the Rainbow Laces Summit, he hopes to get senior leaders - especially those in motorsport - thinking about how inclusive their sports are for LGBT people. "I've had a couple of drivers come and tell me their stories, which are very similar," he says. "I'm not the only one - there are more out there, but they're scared to death of coming out and they've got no one to really speak to within motorsport. So I think the sport is slightly behind and needs to have a wake-up call, in terms of being more accepting and diverse.
"Having learnt my lesson, from what I've been through, I want to be an advocate going forward for all LGBT people. What I did was the wrong way of doing it. The best thing to do is talk to people. Don't fight it by yourself, keeping it in your head and stressing yourself out - it's not healthy, ultimately." And the message for any sportsmen and women who he might have inspired? "You've got to get advice and not worry that it'll be a bad thing. It's actually a really good experience."