In the high speed, high pressure world of auto racing there are always going to be ups and downs. No matter who the driver or what team that racer competes for, there are going to be moments of joy and moments of disappointment. For Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaigner Michael McDowell, those highs and lows are made easier to deal with by his deep faith in God’s plan for his life.
The Glendale, AZ native decided to make racing his profession at an early age. Then as a young adult he made the decision to follow Christ when he realized there was an emptiness that even his greatest passion could not fill. That’s when a racing mentor during his early days as a kart racing champion provided an example through his own life that the young racer wanted to emulate.
“I was late in my teen years and early twenties and just trying to figure out life,” McDowell explained in an interview with InsideDirtRacing.com. “I had always been racing and that had been all I had known, that’s all I had been passionate about. Really, it had been my god. It’s what I worshiped, it’s what I focused on, and what I put my identity in. That all changed basically in 2004 when a guy that was mentoring me and who I was working for was a great man of faith and lived a life that looked very different than most people I had been around. He was successful, but at the same time, was a humble and loving servant.”
The now 33-year-old McDowell lost his mentor but the man had left an indelible impression on his protege. It was at that point when members of his family offered an invitation that would forever change his life. However, the person who had devoted so much of himself to racing up to that point initially tried to make his faith fit into his life rather than having his life fit into his faith. But when that mentality changed, so did his view on his chosen profession.
“He passed away at a race track and it made me question who I was and who I wanted to be,” McDowell said. “My wife and I got invited to go to church with her aunt and uncle and the pastor was talking about how you could have a fresh start with a clean slate. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, you can’t work for it. God’s free gift of salvation through Christ was available for us to start out fresh. I didn’t know what that looked like but I knew I wanted it. That’s when I really became a believer in Christ. You know, it was probably four or five years after that before I was really willing to surrender everything. I sort of took the salvation and stuck it in my back pocket. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t pursuing God, but I wasn’t fully surrendered. Once I did get to that point of being fully surrendered to God and saying ‘Whatever you want to do with me and wherever you want me to be, I’ll be obedient’, that’s when racing took on a new purpose and a new meaning for me.”
During his career in NASCAR, McDowell has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. In 2016, the driver who cut his racing teeth on road courses won a NASCAR Xfinity Series event at Wisconsin’s Road America while driving in a one race deal for Richard Childress Racing. But on the flip side of that(literally), McDowell endured one of the scariest crashes in recent memory while attempting to qualify for a NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008 when his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota veered into the outside wall at over 200mph and began a series barrel rolls that left pieces and parts of the car strewn all over the track.
So, does McDowell’s faith help him deal with those ups and downs so often experienced by racing drivers?
“Not only does it help me deal with it but it shapes my character and who I am as a follower and as a man in general,” McDowell pointed out. “Through the struggles one of the things that really stood out to me in Scripture, and this may not be one that you would think you would choose to be your life verse because it’s a little bit daunting, comes from James 1:2 where it says ‘Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking in anything.’ That became my life verse because up until I got into NASCAR I always had a lot of success in racing by winning races, winning championships, and always being a contender. But then I got to NASCAR and it’s been a struggle for a long time.”
That struggle has caused the husband and father of three children to question God’s plan for his life at times. However, he then finds reassurance from his Bible.
“I had a lot of those moments where I asked, ‘God, what am I even doing here? This isn’t good, it’s not fun. Surely this isn’t where you want me to be.’ It was through those times that really shaped and molded who I am today,” he insisted. “Those verses in James 1 kept me on track and knowing that this is just a testing of our faith and it’s going to develop perseverance. God has a plan for you just as it says in Jeremiah that the Lord has a plan for you that is for good. Knowing those truths despite the trials is definitely a big part of my growth and my faith.”
Believing in that plan led McDowell to a relationship that has resulted in much needed sponsorship for his team through Christian-based radio network K-Love and its partners. That listener supported network has found an avenue to reach new audiences through their involvement in NASCAR as the primary backer of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Fords for five races in 2018. K-Love had also supported McDowell when he drove for Leavine Family Racing in previous seasons.
“I love K-Love and listen to it everyday,” McDowell said. “I met Mike Novak, the CEO of K-Love, and David Pierce(Chief of Ministry for K-Love) when they came out to a race and I built a friendship with them. They saw the amount of ministry that was taking place at the race track and the potential to reach a lot of people. It started out very small and fortunately there have been business owners out there who wanted to see K-Love on the car to get the message of Christ out through K-Love so we’ve been able to continue the partnership with people who want to see others come to know Christ. It’s been really powerful. We’ve seen a lot of lives changed and some crazy-awesome God stories that only God could do.”
McDowell is still in somewhat of an adjustment phase with his new team. But he believes the tools are in place to make a successful run with the Bob Jenkins-owned organization.
“It’s been great,” the 2007 ARCA Series Rookie of the Year said of the brief time spent with Front Row. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs already just like you do in any season and in any racing year. It’s been good to work with everybody at Front Row. They’ve shown a lot of speed an we’ve definitely had some mishaps and misfortune and just really some bad luck, but we feel really good about what the potential of the team is and what we can accomplish. The last four weeks have been really tough on us in not getting the finishes we hoped for because we ended up in crashes.”
Michael McDowell seems to be a very humble and well grounded individual. For some, the NASCAR lifestyle would serve as a trap that might draw them away from their faith and the things that keep them grounded. This racer has not fallen into that pitfall.
“I’ve never had an issue with seeing myself that way. Yeah, you sign autographs and people know who you are but I just see myself as a regular guy. The hard part about this sport is that I’m very competitive and I want to win races. I’m still passionate about that. When you go for so many years not being in position to do that at all, it’s very easy to allow yourself to be defined by your performance. The hardest thing is to just realize who you are and to know that who you are is not what you do but it’s who you are in Christ. Knowing that identity is a big part of having peace and joy among the years where you’re not having success.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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