Danny Watts spoke to Sky Sports ahead of the Rainbow Laces Summit in Manchester
“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.
Danny Watts and rugby league's Keegan Hirst both spoke to Sky Sports News HQ at the Rainbow Laces Summit Danny Watts and rugby league’s Keegan Hirst both spoke to Sky Sports News HQ at the Rainbow Laces Summit
“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.”
Watts at the wheel of the Strakka Racing Gibson Nissan during the FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of Silverstone race in April 2016
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.