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They race on faith

For top drivers in the Indy 500, religion helps them navigate the risks and uncertainties of the racing life.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2006


Sam Hornish Jr. is a man with an edge. By tearing up the 2-1/2 miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at an average speed of nearly 229 miles per hour, he won the coveted pole position for this Sunday's "greatest spectacle in racing": the Indianapolis 500.

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Mr. Hornish is also a man dealing with stress - and not just because of the dangers of open-wheel racing. Persistent rain kept drivers from regular practice, and he experienced a personal loss: the death of a cherished grandmother. One of his biggest fans, she was also "instrumental in instilling the faith" that supports him during the challenges of racing life, he says.

For amid the glory and the glamour of the Indy Racing League (IRL), Hornish and other celebrity drivers are also men of faith. They take religion seriously and count on it to keep their lives on course.

"There are lots of challenges in racing that test one's faith," says Scott Sharp, originally of Norwalk, Conn., the fifth-ranked IRL driver in 2005. "Whether it's risks on the track, the politics off the track, or job security issues, I find myself really leaning hard on my relationship with God."

While the 500 is the big prize, IRL drivers and their teams travel to 14 races in the United States and Japan each year. The IRL Ministry, headed by chaplain Bob Hills, travels with them, ensuring that nondenominational chapel services and Catholic mass are each provided twice on race days, and prayer and counseling are available whenever needed.

"In all the craziness and chaos, Bob's services provide a calm for many people," Mr. Sharp says. "It helps you keep life in perspective and get focused."

And focused they must be. Standing in the pit behind stacks of tires as cars roar past in a blur on qualifying day, one wonders how drivers stay in control at such speeds. The keys are exceptional driving skills, total concentration, and trust in a team of engineers that monitors the car and strategizes adjustments as conditions change.

Driving 220 m.p.h. "is like being on a high-speed roller-coaster ride, but you're in control," Sharp says. "You have to be comfortable at that speed so you can give the team valuable feedback on how the car is handling, assess situations around you, plan for passes. You have to be fairly relaxed."

Before a race, he spends 45 minutes to an hour of quiet time, in prayer, getting focused, and listening to music.

Drivers develop their skills and confidence over many years, most starting as youngsters in go-karting. Hornish's dad traveled all over with him so he could compete in go-karting, even up to the world level. His faith grew in the same way.

"My parents made sure we got to church, even though it was 30 miles away from my childhood home," says the Ohio native. "I was really interested in it and considered pursuing [ministry] as a career."

But he took another route, like other young people who love the speed and competition and learn they have the reflexes and concentration required of top-notch drivers.

Some 25,000 people came out last Saturday to watch the racers compete for 33 starting spots (11 rows of three across), including the pole position Hornish won.

"The 30 seconds to start this race is the most exciting in sports - such a tumult, no one knows what's going to happen," says Michael Hollander, editor of Racing Information Systems. A 670-horsepower Indy Car can accelerate from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in less than three seconds.

The only thing scarier is the first turn. Brian Brown, a cabinet designer who's been coming for 39 years, recalls one legendary driver saying it's "like traveling a six-lane highway and turning into a closet." A trove of knowledge on the sport, Mr. Brown says, "I need IndyCar racing like I need oxygen."

Despite the risks on the racetrack, off-track demands can be just as challenging, drivers say. The life is full of uncertainties, with drivers beholden to team owners and sponsors, and dependent on the quality of the cars provided.

"Making sure they have 'a ride' on a team and maintaining sponsorship and funding is always an issue for race-car drivers," says Chaplain Hill.

Helio Castroneves, the ebullient Brazilian star who has twice won the Indy 500 and just missed winning the pole this year, is on the same team as Hornish - that of renowned owner Roger Penske. But Mr. Castroneves recalls difficult times when he almost gave up.