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|Matthew Pattison, left, and his father John share a love of NASCAR that runs three generations deep.|
From the time he was a small child, NASCAR official Matthew Pattison knew two things for certain: NASCAR would be his life's passion, and he is gay.
"I knew I was gay when I was 5 years old," Pattison, 30, said with a chuckle. "It's a funny thing, but you have those inklings. When the guy is better looking than the girl, you start putting it all together."
Following the powerful Sports Illustrated article by NBA veteran Jason Collins, in which he announced publicly that he is gay and detailed the exhaustion of concealment and the liberation of admission, I thought of Pattison. He is the only openly gay man I know in a sport I've covered for more than 15 seasons.
I wondered what that must be like for Pattison. I wondered what it must be like to be gay in the good ol' boy arena. I wondered how he negotiates that dynamic and what challenges, if any, he faces that I never considered.
I wondered if he is treated well -- truly well, genuinely well.
And I was somewhat ashamed that I never really considered this before now.
"I have no problem," Pattison said. "Just don't walk through there skipping through the garage, and don't hit on anybody. Do my job. As long as I do my job, I have no problems. You build friendships with people that you see on a weekly basis, and when they find out, they're like, 'Oh ... cool ... whatever.' And they move on about their business."
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A 15-year industry veteran -- 10 full-time -- Pattison works as one of NASCAR's main operators in the Timing and Scoring Department. His position is notably important, as it helps ensure that on-track data collected by NASCAR's scoring system is accurately submitted to network television partners, teams and media. He monitors practices, qualifying sessions and races, and if there's any glitch, he's there to fix it.
For example, if a car slides through the infield grass, the scoring loop implanted underneath the racetrack may not pick up the scoring sensor on the car. So Pattison must listen to direction from the official tower and manually input the required information so that team's position in the lineup is properly assigned and accurate data is disseminated.
Personal pride comes easily these days for Pattison. In 2013, he is professionally successful, living his childhood dream as a NASCAR official. He is Type A: outgoing, happy, quick-witted, knows no stranger. We've shared many laughs over the years.
So when NASCAR and its marquee stars came under some fire this week in a New York Times contributor's blog post for what was considered a benign reaction to Collins' landmark piece, I wondered what Pattison thought of the piece, of NASCAR's reaction to it and of homosexuality in general within the industry.
So I asked.
Pattison understands NASCAR's decision not to jump headfirst into open support and appreciation for Collins, as many other professional sports leagues, commissioners and marquee athletes and celebrities -- President Barack and Michelle Obama, former president Bill Clinton and Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant included -- did.
"We've already dealt with this issue, with Brad Keselowski coming out in support of anyone and everyone who's gay, as long as they do their job," Pattison said. "So for [NASCAR], biting their tongue is the best thing, because they don't want negative publicity."
Keselowski's statement, made in March to NASCAR blog Queers4Gears.com, was in reference to whether the sport would welcome a gay driver. His answer: "I don't think anyone cares [if a driver is gay]. If you can win, you'll have a ride in NASCAR."
Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR vice president of public affairs and multicultural development, made things even more clear on Tuesday.
"We want our athletes and our sport to look like America, and exclusion or intolerance of any kind, whether behind the wheel, on pit road or in the garage, is not part of that formula," Jadotte said.
Keselowski's statement riled up the Westboro Baptist Church picketers, who showed up at Kansas Speedway to protest a NASCAR event.
Collins' SI piece, Pattison said, sheds further positive light for the gay community in the sporting landscape.
"Everyone thinks we're nellies running around. No. We're just everyday individuals who like sports, who love sports," Pattison said. "He loves basketball. I love racing. I've grown up in it.
"We can have that one-on-one camaraderie with others, because you're there to do one thing and one thing only -- your job. You're not there to run around with a sign over your head that says, 'I'm gay! Woo-hoo!' No. You're there because you love the sport and you want to play it."
Growing up, NASCAR was always Pattison's dream. While his friends and brothers aspired to be baseball players, football players or soccer players, all Matthew ever wanted to be was NASCAR's chief flagman.
"That was his whole ambition in life," said Matthew's father, John. "He's never been a sports kind of guy, but he always loved what we do in NASCAR. That's what drives him. He's always had that drive."
The NASCAR culture weaves tightly through the Pattison family fabric. Matthew's grandfather, Pat, was a NASCAR West Series official. Pat Pattison was killed at the 1973 Labor Day race in Monroe, Wash., after he ran to assist legendary West team owner George Jefferson, who had been struck by a car during the race. While Pat Pattison was tending to Jefferson's many injuries, he was struck by another car and killed.
John Pattison has been a NASCAR West official for more than 40 years, the longest tenure in series history.
For his wife and five children, John's occupation was a family affair. He would load them all up and take them to the racetrack with him, on his own dime. As a result, John said, Matthew always viewed NASCAR as a family event. They were a tight-knit bunch.
So when his sexuality became public, Matthew's first concern was his family's reputation, specifically his father and his brother Patrick, who was also a NASCAR West official at the time. Especially the way it became public.
According to Matthew Pattison, his sexuality became public by way of an Internet article. The year, he said, was either 2000 or 2001 -- he can't recall specifically -- and Matthew was the flagman for the West Series. He explained that there was a team crew member who did not appreciate his sexual orientation and told a website.
The website wrote a piece, Pattison said. And in an instant, he was out.
"At first, for me, I was a little angry," Matthew Pattison said. "If an individual has a problem with me, you come see me personally. You don't run behind my back or go out on a website.
"Your first instinct is to fight. You want to fight back. Initially, I wanted to, but I got the better head of me and got with my superiors, and we talked about the whole thing. There's nothing you can do. Everyone's got their own opinions. But it was crazy. Let's put it that way. Just crazy.
"This is a good ol' sport from the South. And even though we were out on the West Coast, it still kind of followed the good ol' sport of the South rules. So being gay and being in racing was not OK at the time. Not. OK."
Rather than handle the matter personally, Pattison took the issue to his boss and NASCAR Human Resources. They backed him immediately and fully, he said, and the piece was removed from the website by its author.
"It was phenomenal support from the company itself," Pattison said. "I know that crew member got talked to the following race, telling him how NASCAR didn't appreciate that. We're not about negative light. We're about positive light. And he was asked to apologize to me, whether he agreed with it or not.
"He thought if they drew attention to it, he would push me out of the sport. Well, he was wrong."
As for the Pattison family, his father, mother, brothers and sister never wavered.
"It is one of those deals where you think, 'What's everybody going to say? What's everybody going to think?'" John Pattison said. "But it all comes back to being the parent. You do what's in your heart -- and what was in my heart was, while I don't need to run around with a band saying my son just announced he's gay, I didn't need to hide it either.
"I can't speak for any other parent, but me and his mother, we were right there. He's our son. You do whatever you got to do to support them and make sure everything goes forward. And you try to protect them as much as you can."
Comments were made, and questions asked. Truth was always the answer.
"I just answered them appropriately," John said. "I'd say, 'Yes, he is gay. And he's not any different today than the guy you knew yesterday. It affects us in that way only. No other way. And if you have an issue with it, I'm sorry, but you need to deal with it. It's always been here whether you want to see it or not.'
"For the most part, they were all supportive. But like anything else, there's a few that weren't. He gets frustrated. And it was pretty frustrating for him, and he used to get pretty upset, and he'd vent to me and his mother. And we'd just tell him, 'Look, nothing's going to change you, and nothing's going to change them. Life can be cruel, and it can be great. And you have to deal with it as it comes.'"
John said it took Matthew some 18 months to move past the anger.
"It hasn't always been a smooth ride for him, even in NASCAR, with people's feelings and statements and whatnot," John said. "We, again, worked it out and tried to make sure he had as much support as possible.
"And he's worked through it very well. He's a great kid. He's outspoken. But he'll do anything for anybody at anytime, out of the goodness of his heart. That's just the kind of guy he is."
"At some point you have to go, 'Screw it -- you are who you are,'" Matthew added. "They either accept you or they don't accept you."
Matthew said he's well accepted today. He said he rarely experiences any level of discrimination in the NASCAR garage. There is the occasional "evil eye" from folks who don't accept his sexual orientation, but those instances, he said, are a dying breed.
"I do know there is a handful of gay individuals in the garage," he said. "I am one of them, but there is a handful of them.
"There's more acceptance now. Ninety percent of the teams and crews know and don't care. Most of the older people who have been around for a long time have pretty much come to accept it. And most crew members now are younger, and all have a different thought process. So you've gone away from being around the old era, and now you're in a new era where everyone is pretty much accepting. As long as you don't hit on them, you're good to go."
And Pattison is good. NASCAR is his passion, and he gets to live it.
And he will continue to live it.
"NASCAR is my life," he said. "Being a third-generation employee with the company, I've grown up around it. This is what I know. This is what I love. This is what I eat and breathe. I just love it, and I could see doing it for the rest of my life."