PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — An article in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated features a local race car driver and the seeming culture clash he faces as a gay dirt track competitor.
“I’m just an old country boy from West Virginia who happens to be openly gay,” said Dustin Sprouse, 35, of Parkersburg.
The article, “Out on the Track,” was featured last week as a daily cover story at si.com. In it, Sprouse discusses his re-entry into racing last year and the uphill battle he faces in an expensive sport without as many sponsors, and the accompanying financial backing, as some of his opponents.
“I’ve actually had an awesome reaction from people,” he said, noting he received messages of support from as far away as Arizona and Florida after the article was published.
Sprouse started racing in 1999 but got out of the sport in 2010 because it was just too expensive. He dove back in earlier this year and earned Rookie of the Year honors for the Steel Block Late Model Series in which he competes at tracks in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
Sponsors are needed to help him maintain his No. 43 car and “move to the next level of my dream come true,” Sprouse said. Gas for the car is $11 a gallon and he burns at least 20 gallons per race. He goes through about six $180 tires in a night.
But he’s had trouble finding sponsors. The article posits that could be related to his sexuality in a sport whose fans tend to lean conservative. Sprouse said he’s not sure of the reason, whether it’s due to economics, the pandemic, his sexuality or his own trepidation about such a reaction.
The article came about with the help of a family friend, former Parkersburg City Councilman Eric Barber.
Barber said he was approached for an interview for a West Virginia PBS documentary about the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol. He is scheduled to enter a plea agreement on Dec. 16 after being charged with multiple misdemeanors after he allegedly entered the building with a group of people protesting and attempting to interrupt the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
Barber said he suggested a feature about Sprouse as something more positive but agreed to do the interview if someone would look into his friend’s story. The interviewer passed the idea along, and it eventually wound up in front of Jon Wertheim, who wrote the piece for Sports Illustrated.
“I didn’t even know Eric did it,” Sprouse said.
The friendship between the two is highlighted in the article as another contrast.
Barber was elected to Parkersburg City Council in 2016 as a Democrat but eventually left the party, in part over disagreements about a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance that was rejected by council in 2017. He became outspoken on a variety of conservative topics.
Barber also faced a defamation lawsuit in 2018 after a Facebook comment he made about a local resident in a disagreement over a post about a boy participating in a drag show. It was later dismissed, with a judge saying the matters had been settled.
Barber contends his issues are with “liberals,” not LGBTQ individuals.
“Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like you as a person,” he said.
Sprouse said he and Barber have known each other for years and they focus on racing, not politics or lifestyles.
“Racing brings people together as families, no matter who you are,” Sprouse said, noting Barber helps out at times on his crew, which also includes two women.
Barber said he’s focused much more on racing than politics these days and it’s “had a really tremendous impact on my mental health.”
Sprouse is looking forward to the next racing season and trying to raise enough money to attend a week-long competition in Florida in February for a week of racing with the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series.
“(It’s) like taking a high school team against an NFL team,” he said.