Jon Denning was recently driving down Interstate 81 to Danville, Va., near the South Boston Speedway, to begin training for the first Nascar race of his second season, scheduled for March 10 at Orange County Speedway in North Carolina.
He is at home behind the wheel.
Denning spoke to me on his cell phone, with a Southern twang that was recently acquired and not bred. He was excited to be heading south, where he has become part of a new and promising, if sometimes uncomfortable and lonely, base.
Denning is the first Jewish Nascar driver in 20 years, according to the organization’s historian, Buzz McKim.
“I read the Tanach a lot now,” Denning said. “Just when I feel like it. I really like the Proverbs section, because they really make you think. It helps me remind myself of who I am in a world [where] you can easily get lost.”
Denning, 19, is fiercely determined to succeed in an industry of families and tradition. He has raced since the age of 10, placing in the top spots of several national and international competitions. At the end of 2005, he drew the attention of Sellers Racing Inc. crew chief H.C. Sellers when a spot opened on the team. A decision was made fairly quickly, and by the end of January 2006, Denning relocated to Virginia. He moved in with the Sellers and took leave from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., in the middle of his first year.
“It was too good of an opportunity to turn down,” Denning said. It turned out well: He placed sixth out of 58 in his first professional season.
“Moving was difficult,” Denning recalled. He felt lonely without his family or many friends. The Sellers are warm and hospitable, but very different from what Denning grew up with 465 miles away in Springfield, N.J.
His family owns and operates Dobbs Autobody, a Springfield business where his father nurtured Denning’s interest in cars. Young Jon attended public schools and an additional Hebrew high school program at Temple Beth Ahm, where he had his bar mitzvah. The theme, of course, was “Jonathan’s Daytona 500.” His corporate sponsor at the time, Sherwin-Williams, branded wind-up toy cars to give to guests in goodie bags.
“I was the first Jew [the Sellers] ever met,” Denning said. “They were extremely open” and would often ask Denning questions about Judaism and its history. But not everyone in the community has been as sensitive to Denning’s faith. The antisemitic remarks he has heard on the track, and the stigmas he has faced, “made me feel 2 feet tall,” he said.
Nascar has long been associated with its Southern Baptist fans and participants. Prayers are said before each race — a stipulation for its television contract with Fox.There are cars sponsored by Christian groups. Organizations such as Motor Racing Outreach and Racing With Jesus Ministries conduct religious services and Christian activities for races.
Isolated, Denning began reading Jewish texts and learning more about Judaism.
“I’m not extremely religious, but I have a strong value for Jewish religion,” Denning said. “Antisemitism has made me want to defend those traditions.”
The spirituality of those around him, and his sense of ostracization, pushed Denning to forge a stronger connection with his own faith — not only to be able to answer the questions of his new neighbors but also because he was a target. “It wouldn’t be bad for everyone to experience [antisemitism] in order for people to value what their ancestors gave to them,” Denning said.
Still, he often feels compelled to bite his tongue.
“I feel like every time I’m down there, I have to put on a little bit of an act,” he explained. “I have to kind of remind myself of where I am.”
“I’m still trying to make a name for myself and still working very hard to do what I want to do,” Denning said. “Not that I’m ashamed of it, but having added controversy over [being Jewish], I’m not trying to run from it, but I don’t know how everyone’s going to act.”
Riva Froymovich is a writer based in New York.