“Did you hear about Danny?”
In auto racing, it’s the kind of question that causes your heart to sink. Anthony Hieatt, owner of Britain’s Double R Racing team had just arrived at Heathrow after a track visit in the U.S. when he got the text. He assumed his old pal, who he calls one of the top ten drivers in England, had been killed in a crash.
“Shit, what’s happened to him?” Hieatt said to himself before Googling. It was everywhere: Watts had come out as gay earlier that day. Relieved, Hieatt read the heart-wrenching announcement letter.
“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain. I felt I needed to lie and womanize just to keep up the front,” Watts’ letter read, sparking headlines due to his being the first high level pro racer in the Europe or the U.K. to come out. It was a shock precisely because the racing world is a retrograde hold out, defined by old concepts of “manliness” and track-side cleavage. “I felt like if I lifted my head out of the trenches, I’d be immediately annihilated,” the letter continued.
The spectre of death always looms over auto racing—even with recent technological advancements. Watts fell in love with motorsports, as it’s known in Britain, as a child attending races with his dad at Silverstone Circuit, 90 minutes North of London. His hero was Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver still revered as the best of all time, who would die in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.
Watts’ own brush with death came when he went airborne at 140 mph on the notoriously treacherous Druid’s Corner turn at Oulton Park in 2001. The crash is a YouTube mainstay with millions of views: His car’s on-board camera is tracking turns as he tries to get the jump on the driver in front of him, and before a viewer can understand what is going on, the world just warps as we leave the ground with Watts. Cut to the track cams and we see the race car fly, tumble, and then shred its tires, engine, and everything else. Only the core containing the driver remains by the time it ricochets off the wall.
“I walked away with nothing but a bruised ankle,” says Watts.
But Hieatt thinks it was a turning point.
“Once you have a crash like that, you tend to walk a little closer to the edge. He became able to go closer to the line of survival than most drivers.”
“Every racing driver, every human being, has a survival instinct,” Hieatt says. “Once you have a crash like that, you tend to walk a little closer to the edge. He became able to go closer to the line of survival than most drivers.”
Watts thinks it’s funny that he’s won races all over the world, including the 24 Hours at Le Mans twice, and that this video clip is how most people know him. But late last February, tabloids that barely gave him a couple of lines for winning some of racing’s most prestigious titles before retiring last June at age 37, gave multiple pages over multiple weeks to Watts’ coming out. Perhaps their interest was driven by the fact that they’d been easily duped by his straight guy ruse. England’s notorious tabloid The Sun had bought into it, going so far as to print photos of him with three busty women at the track with the headline, “Girls Give Danny Watts That Extra Spark.”
“I was good at hiding it,” he says about nights out with teammates and sponsors from Dubai to Singapore to Japan. “I’m a man’s man anyways. If you met me on the street you’d think I was the straightest bloke you ever met. But there were some very, very dark times. After races, everyone goes out clubbing and picking up women. I couldn’t tell anyone that I wanted a man to hold me, rather than a woman to chase.”
In fact, he was accidentally so good with the ladies that he wound up with a wife, another racer who eventually accepted the truth about his sexuality. The two split but remain great friends, raising their now 8-year-old son together.
Unlike most successful drivers at his level, Watts did not come from money. Hieatt, who’s known him since he was in his late teens, says it’s rare for a driver to rise as far as Watts without significant backing of his own. Watts started in karting, moved to a class called Formula Renault (where his teammate, Kimi Räikkönen, went on to become a Formula 1 super-star), and then on to Formula 3, the Porsche Carrera Cup, and Le Mans.
“For his motor racing career not to have a huge benefactor—well, he’s got where he’s got because of his personality,” Hieatt says. “ A lot of drivers are up themselves, but Danny doesn’t take himself too seriously. Not to mention he’s a bloody good driver, you know? In the right car, with the right team he’ll win for you. And he doesn’t crash….very much.”
Watts retired from racing after placing very well in the Le Mans last June—he had decided it was time to come out and start a new chapter of his life, but it took him time to actually do it. Like many people, he worried the most about coming out to his parents: “But I psyched myself out for nothing—they were completely loving and supportive.”
That over with, he next braced himself for attacks on the day of the announcement—and became physically sick with fear. Again, the worst didn’t happen. The racing community and even his old sponsors all rallied around him. The expected troll attack online was minimal. (On a few TV shows that old, barely veiled homophobic phrase did pop up: “I have no problem with gays but why do we have to hear about it?”)
“I’m overwhelmed by the support both in motor-sport and the LGBT community,” Watts says. “In the end, it’s been a totally positive experience. I feel a better person for it, much more relaxed, enjoying life much more. Even though it’s early days — I just see the future being so much rosier.”
“In the end, it’s been a totally positive experience. I feel a better person for it, much more relaxed, enjoying life much more. Even though it’s early days — I just see the future being so much rosier.”
Nothing he went through hurt his love for the sport—and he’s not really leaving it. He’s booked solid through the season 2017 mentoring younger drivers all over Europe. Hieatt says Watts is an especially talented teacher, by far the number one driver coach in the U.K.
“I work with them on driving skills and mental preparation, too,” Watts says. “ Over a three-day weekend, they might improve by a few seconds and that’s very rewarding. I can’t wait to see my drivers on the rostrum, spraying champagne. But I mainly want to make sure the young drivers I teach don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made.”
He’s thought constantly about whether one of those mistakes was not coming out sooner.
“I’m 100 percent confident I would not have had the opportunities I had though,” Watts says. “And when you’re racing someone at 160 mph around a turn, you can’t give them any psychological edge on you. I had to be ready.”
Hieatt disagrees. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the 1950s, and even ten years ago, sponsors would probably have ditched Watts for coming out. But he doesn’t believe life would have been different for Watts on the track, and thinks the reluctance was more internal.
“The racing mind is so focused on survival and lap time—they don’t have any spare capacity to worry about Danny’s sexuality,” Hieatt says. “People have the utmost respect for him. In any case, I can tell you now he’s not the only one. I think there’ll be some bigger names than Danny coming out soon. I’m sure of it.”
Just a few weeks after his announcement one young driver has already come to Watts for help. “He’s not in a great place, very closeted. He’s in his mid-20s and he’s just not ready to come out,” Watts says. “I gave him a ton of advice and he wrote me saying how much confidence it gave him, how much better he feels just having someone to talk to.”
That’s part of Watts’ prescription for the future: For starters, every sport should have people athletes can talk to anonymously for advice about these issues. He knows some sports do—but in European and U.K. motorsports, there is literally no one to talk to. The second thing speaks to the fear throughout his career that sponsors would find out and “drop him like a stone.” He praises Adidas for adding a clause to all of its endorsement contracts last year that guarantees it will not terminate any athlete that comes out. If more major companies would step up that way, it would give athletes strength to face all the other challenges that come with this kind of seismic life decision.
Despite his concerns about motorsports’ slow adaptation to modern times, Watts still loves and it and his hero remains the same: Senna.
“One of the qualities I most admired in Senna had to do with his famous rivalry against Alain Prost. They hated each other. They were so aggressive, they crashed into each other many times,” says Watts. “But they also had mutual respect for each other. When you drive against anyone at 200 mph, you don’t have to like them, but you have to have respect.”
That idea of respecting your opponents has helped him in big ways and small. In fact, he offers the same advice to daily drivers based on his experience on British roads (which he navigates in a stately Audi A8 sedan): Respect your opponents.
“Having an 8-year-old in my life, I’m a lot slower,” he says. “People get angry here—racing has taught me to laugh off aggressive situations on the road.”
Other adjustments to his new future are more fun. While he was always too scared to explore gay night-life while traveling the world as a racer, he has now had his first-ever night out as an openly gay man.
“Only last weekend I went with a very good friend of mine—a girl racer named Abbey Eaton,” Watts said. “We went to a gay club called Pink Punters in Milton Keynes and had a fantastic night. Lot’s of 90’s techno. We really let our hair down. I’m definitely lacking in the dance department but she showed me a few moves!”