TEL AVIV (JTA) – 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, explaining that the moment at the Kotel was the first time he sensed a touch of the divine. “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 anti-Semitic 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. He says that pride will bring him strength when he returns to the next racing season.
“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 and his group have toured throughout Israel. They pitched tents in the Negev Desert, explored the Galilee, climbed Masada and took in views of the Mediterranean Sea from the shorefront in Tel Aviv.
His knowledge of Israel before his birthright visit was minimal, he said.
Denning, who attended a Conservative synagogue 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 with mostly Southern Baptists who are ardent about their religion.
“People, even those I was working with and tightly associated with, kept trying to force Jesus on me,” said Denning, whose road to NASCAR began after his father, the owner of an auto body shop, took him to a go-kart track.
Denning says people urged him to attend church and told him his racing career might take a positive turn if he accepted Jesus.
“‘Your luck would be better if you came to Jesus,” he said associates told him, suggesting that blown-out engines, flat tires and other failures would disappear once he converted.
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.”
A NASCAR official, Andrew Giangola, said 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 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, the director of business communications who also is involved in communications for the multicultural program, says 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.”
The minority program has brought in 21 new drivers, Giangola said.
Denning, who competes in the lower-echelon Whelen All-American Series, believes the NASCAR establishment is in no rush to embrace a Jewish racer in one of the upper leagues.
“Frankly, I don’t think [NASCAR] cares for one,” he said.
Denning started 15 races last year and finished in the top five three times and in the top 10 seven times. According to NASCAR.com, he finished 498th among the 500 racers ranked, despite not being able to finish the season due to a lack of sponsors. Thousands of racers participate on the circuit.
Denning has won seven races in his NASCAR career.
As to the trouble finding corporate sponsorship, Denning acknowledges that he wonders occasionally if it is because he is an outsider – as a northerner and a Jew.
Giangola says sponsors base their funding on performance and is unfamiliar with Denning’s situation.
As he searches for a new sponsor, 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.
(JTA staff writer Jacob Berkman in New York contributed to this report.)