Braylen Dion @braylendion (L-R) Justin Allgaier and Zach Herrin
Just after achieving his dream of becoming a professional motorcycle racer by the time he was 16 years old, Zach Herrin made the decision to leave it behind.
"I felt something holding me back," the 26-year-old of Greenville, South Carolina, tells PEOPLE in this week's Pride issue.
While the decision may have been surprising for some, for Herrin, he says his years in the hypermasculine environment of the motorcycle circuit — one where racers were often expected to date the women at the track — made him feel he could never come out as gay.
The weight of the secret took its toll and caused Herrin to lose focus on the track. He knew that when racing at speeds in the triple digits, a racer who couldn't give their full attention to their motorcycle shouldn't be riding it.
"It was more important to me to enjoy who I was, find myself, and identify myself as a gay person," Herrin recalls of his decision to walk away nearly a decade ago when he was 17.
"I understood the risk and how dangerous it can be when you put your leg over a bike that goes 185 miles an hour, and I've had my fair share of wounds," he says.
Over the next few years, Herrin raced cars part-time while working as a real estate agent. But the time away from motorcycles also gave him clarity on his identity, and he came out to his family in 2016 after meeting his now-fiancé, Matt Moulton.
"I was able to focus on me and experience what it was like not to have my entire life go to racing," Herrin says. "I was able to come to terms and figure out how to express myself, how I wanted to, and how I wanted to be perceived by people once they met me."
Though he came out privately, Herrin didn't publicly announce he was gay until last December in a message to social media. In the post, Herrin also said he was making a return to racing. This time, with dreams of racing in NASCAR.
In January, Herrin says he followed his intuition and reached out to Justin Allgaier, a NASCAR star he met in 2017, for his help finding a place in the sport.
"I think he's been met with more open arms of people in the industry than he would've ever have imagined, supporting him and being there," says Allgaier, who helped Herrin secure a license for NASCAR's ARCA Menards Series. "People are what makes our sport."
Allgaier has also given Herrin added confidence that he'll be accepted into the high-speed world of NASCAR.
"It's reassuring for me," Herrin says of his friendship with Allgaier, who he sees as an ally. "It just makes me feel like there are allies everywhere. And when you find the right ones, they'll run the whole race with you."
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Herrin is now racing in the ARCA Menards Series with his sights set on reaching the upper tiers of NASCAR. He and his team hope to secure much-needed sponsorships in order to help further his journey in NASCAR.
And while Herrin felt alone years ago as a young motorcycle racer, he hopes to become an example for others in the LGBTQ community who want to succeed in motorsports.
"This is the dream we want to live, and we're all going to fight together for it," says Herrin. "I think that will continue building the sport and take NASCAR into the directions that I believe it's moving in."
He adds: "We're all the same at 200 miles per hour."