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Fear Spins Out : Stock Car Driver Burdett Overcomes Stigma and Reveals He Has HIV


When Steve Burdett coasted his sportsman stock car into the pits midway through the second of two 50-lap main events one recent Saturday night at Saugus Speedway, his exit from the race officially was blamed on a flat tire.

Truth be told, he had run out of gas.

Burdett climbed from his orange and white Chevrolet Lumina "and just dropped on the spot," said Henry Miles, the car's owner.

For Burdett, 30, a popular 10-year Saugus veteran, the evening had been an incredible strain, physically and emotionally.

Physically, because nearly every task in his life is a strain. Emotionally, because throughout the evening, friends, fans and assorted well-wishers had approached Burdett in the pits, many of them embracing the driver with tears in their eyes.

Burdett wept along with them.

The truth finally had been told, relieving Burdett of a tremendous burden.

Earlier in the evening, in a full-page, open letter in the Saugus Speedway racing program, Burdett told the crowd of more than 4,600 that more than two years ago he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And although it was not mentioned in the letter, Burdett recently had begun to acknowledge to his racing competitors that he is gay.

Finally, he felt at peace.

"I went home and I laid awake and cried all night," said Burdett, who does not have AIDS but is often fatigued by the virus. "But it was kind of a happy cry because I had finally taken the bull by the horns. I just wanted to square up the issue. It was all going around in a rumor. I wanted to say: 'Yeah, it's true. Does anybody have a problem with that? Please let me know.' "

Burdett, son of a Saugus Speedway driver, anguished for nearly three seasons about whether to go public. A man wrestling with his sexual identity isn't likely to find comfort in an arena that encourages winners to pose for photographs with young women called trophy queens.

Putting it more bluntly, sportsman points leader Pat Mintey Jr. of Quartz Hill said: "The racing world pretty much is made up of a bunch of rednecks."

Track officials and paramedics had known that Burdett had tested positive almost from the time Burdett himself learned in the spring of 1991. But Burdett, who said he had engaged in "a few" homosexual activities, had not yet admitted even to himself that he was gay. He intended to maintain his privacy.

"There were always rumors going around about the illness and this and that," said Miles, who has been friends with Burdett since 1982. "One day he pretty much broke down and told me everything. But the majority of the people out there didn't know."

As time passed, Burdett, who lives in West Hollywood with a male companion, realized he was losing the battle. But he wanted to do his part in the fight against AIDS. He decided to write the letter, then approached Ray Wilkings, the promoter at Saugus.

"I want to stress that I didn't do this to clear up the rumors--even though that was satisfied by doing it," Burdett said. "The real reason is that I live in a neighborhood where there is a lot of AIDS and a lot of people dying.

"They're gay, they're straight, they're black, they're yellow. They're human beings. And they're dying because they weren't educated to avoid this.

"I care about people. I've seen too many straight people at the doctor's office. I see a lot of girls. I see a lot of babies. There's a 60-year-old Chinese lady. There's a Marine. They look to me like ordinary people, the same people I see at Saugus Speedway."

Burdett says he has encountered no hostility at the track.

"None," he said, emphatically.

And the warm reception he received the night the letter was published overwhelmed him.

Loren Spangler of Northridge, who raced against Bob Burdett, Steve's father, in the 1970s, said he learned of Steve Burdett's situation "through the grapevine." Burdett soon came to confide in Spangler.

"I think he was a little surprised that everybody kind of treated him like nothing was different," said Spangler, whose son, Keith, had been a sportsman competitor before joining the NASCAR Southwest Tour this season. "I could understand his fears and thoughts and his being very afraid."

Wilkings had had similar apprehensions about the reaction Burdett might encounter at the track.

"Frankly, I was a little surprised--because of the egos in the sportsman division--that he didn't encounter more prejudice," Wilkings said. "It's nice to know that he didn't. It didn't matter to some people. And if it did to others, they didn't say anything."

Said Burdett: "I had to find out for myself. I took a chance and I didn't know if it would work. I didn't have a guarantee that everyone was going to accept me. These people are my friends and I didn't want to lose the relationship I had with the racing community."

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