Nascar Driver’s Spiritual Struggle


Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Wrapped in tefillin and standing before the Western Wall, race-car driver Jon Denning said he found inspiration he had never known on any track.

“I’ve never been a very spiritual person, but here I have had many spiritual experiences,” said Denning, 20. “I’m definitely coming back here for my entire life.”

As a Jew from Springfield, N.J., Denning is an anomaly in the world of Nascar, a sport based in the American South. He speaks openly about soldiering through antisemitic barbs, calls to accept Jesus and even what he describes as discrimination within the Nascar organization.

In Israel for 10 days on a Birthright Israel tour, Denning says he has acquired a sense of pride in learning more about Israel and Jewish history.

“After spending time with soldiers and talking with people on street, to be honest I’m jealous of how much respect they have for where they come from,” he said. “They have inspired me to stay strong to my Jewish roots.”

Denning, who attended a Conservative synagogue while growing up, said that moving to Virginia to train and race was a culture shock. Suddenly he was thrust from the more liberal Northeast suburbs to working mostly with Southern Baptists who were ardent about their religion.

“People, even those I was working with and tightly associated with, kept trying to force Jesus on me,” Denning said.

The proselytizing comes amid an atmosphere on the racing circuit that Denning describes as rife with racism and bigotry.

“People would curse Jews and put down minorities,” he said. “Their putting down people, including my people, made me want to come on this trip.”

Nascar official Andrew Giangola said that the organization had no knowledge of any misconduct among its drivers and is trying to make the sport more multicultural.

Toward that end, Nascar, which is dominated by white male drivers, recently instituted a diversity program that encourages acceptance of minorities and women into the upper leagues of the sport.

Denning says he applied for the program three times but was turned down after being told in official letters that the minorities program applied only to women, Hispanics and blacks.

Giangola, who is Nascar’s director of business communications and is involved in communications for the multicultural program, said that Nascar is “fully committed” to diversifying.

“Nascar is a mainstream American sport, and we want to look more like all of America,” he said. “Diversity is our top corporate priority.” According to Giangola, the minority program has brought in 21 new drivers.

Denning, who competes in the lower-echelon Whelen All-American Series, believes that the Nascar establishment is in no rush to embrace a Jewish racer in one of the upper leagues.

He started 15 races and finished in the top five three times and in the top 10 seven times. He finished 498th among 5,000 drivers in last year’s standings. Denning says he is uncertain about his future in racing and thus has begun an internship on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

He says his first trip to Israel has given him new momentum.

“It’s definitely the emotional lift I’ve needed,” he said.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.