NASCAR driver Michael McDowell will get what some might call the shot of a lifetime this weekend at the Iowa Speedway when he climbs into the No. 18 Pizza Ranch Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). He’ll compete in the Nationwide Series in a car that Kyle Busch has dominated the series in over the last three and a half seasons, racking up 34 wins.
A win by the 26-year-old McDowell would send nominal race fans scrambling to Google to find out more about him. Beyond all the stats about his career – which include four wins in the ARCA Series and a Rookie of the Year award in 2007 – hopefully they’ll read about a guy who has been steadily paying his dues, who loves God and trusts Him even when times are difficult.
He’s best known for the terrifying accident he had in 2008 while qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway. His car slammed head first into the wall, rolled several times and caught on fire before finally coming to a stop. He survived without any major injuries.
Over the past couple of seasons, he’s driven for start-and-park teams (underfunded teams that can only afford to run a small portion of the laps), still feeling like he was doing what God called him to do. To cut costs, he drives himself and his family to most of the races in a motor home that he maintains himself.
Through it all, he’s been attending a weekly Bible study with other drivers, including Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier. And he and his wife, Jami, have been trying to adopt after learning about the work that Back2Back Ministries is doing to help orphans.
Finally though, after the 2010 season, with his personal life moving forward and his career feeling like it was stuck in neutral, he began to wonder if he should find another profession. That’s when he and Jami went on a mission trip with Back2Back to Monterrey, Mexico.
“I really felt like that chapter of my life (his racing career) was kind of closed,” McDowell told The Christian Post on Thursday. On the third or fourth day of the trip they stopped at an orphanage in a squatter village. He saw people living in shacks and many of the children didn’t have shoes – some were completely naked – and he couldn’t help but wonder if he was supposed to be on the mission field.
“We fed the kids and the community and as I was walking around handing out food and talking to people, I was praying at the same time, saying, ‘God, where do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? Do you want me in racing? Do you want me on the mission field?’ I felt like the doors were being closed a little bit.
“I didn’t hear a trumpet or a microphone or a speaker, but what I heard, I know I heard and what I heard was, I just needed to do what I doing and God would take care of the rest.”
McDowell didn’t fully understand it, but he says he had peace after that. He had no way of knowing God was about to give him a completely new perspective after being immersed in the results-driven racing culture for so long.
The mission team, which also included 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, stopped into an orphanage that housed children from ages three through ten. It was close to Christmas and the children were setting up and decorating a tree. Using a translator, the team spoke briefly about racing, showed a few videos – including one of McDowell’s nasty accident at Texas – and they shared their faith.
After they were finished, in a divine twist, the children wanted to pray for the mission team. A girl who looked to be about seven years old, prayed for them in Spanish.
“We didn’t really know what she said, nobody was translating at the moment,” McDowell said. After the prayer, the translator told McDowell, “She just prayed that you would be safe and protected so that Trace (his young son) would never have to grow up without a dad.”
McDowell gets choked up now as he recalls it.
“Here’s a kid who was probably abandoned, you know what I mean?” McDowell said. “They know their situation. They know what they’re up against. So, it was humbling.”
They went to another orphanage where there weren’t enough adult helpers to take care of all the children.
“Babies would stay in their cribs the majority of the day, except to be changed and fed,” McDowell said. “My wife and I had another couple with us. You know, everybody is a sucker for babies, so we picked the babies up and loved them. But when you leave, you have to put them back and they haven’t been held in a while and when you put them back in their crib, that’s where they’ll stay until they need a change or another meal. They’re just babies, you know. They just want affection.”
“Seeing such hardship firsthand makes you want to be pro-active,” McDowell added. “How do you get involved? How do you save the world? You don’t, but you can make the difference in somebody’s life.”
By losing himself in the arms of orphans, McDowell found perspective. Struggling in non-competitive racing equipment hardly seemed to be a hardship anymore. He’d seen real hardship and it broke his heart.
Besides, God had promised to take care of him.
After McDowell returned home, he got a call from Whitney Motorsports – the team he drove for last season – and he and the team parted ways. That same day, the phone rang again. This time it was from JGR. They wanted to know if he would be interested in driving the No. 18 car in the Nationwide Series for a handful of races in 2011, including two races at Iowa, one in Indianapolis, and maybe a couple of road-course events.
“As exciting as that was, it was an extremely emotional and humble experience for me because, while [driving] the 18 would be a dream come true, it’s not about that. It’s about God saying He’d take care of the rest.”
In addition to signing with JGR for the Nationwide Series, McDowell has mostly been starting and parking for HP Racing in the Sprint Cup Series this season. As his opportunity to race for JGR approaches this weekend, he says he doesn’t have a bit of anxiety. And it’s easy to understand why. He has orphans on his mind.
He and Jami are currently seeking to adopt a child from Honduras.