In the blink of an eye, Trevor Bayne went from rising star with no sponsorship to youngest Daytona 500 champion in NASCAR history. Since then, he’s dealt with an unidentified illness caused by an insect bite that forced him to sit out for nearly two months and the growing pains of going full-time in the Sprint Cup series. Still, the unflappable Roush Fenway Racing driver has kept his faith amid the incredible highs and unexplainable lows.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Bayne talks about his early days in the sport, his family’s consistent support, how he maintains his composure on the track, and why NASCAR is so unique to the sports world:
Chad Bonham: How did your racing career get started?
Trevor Bayne: I started when I was five years old in go-carts. I’ve been doing it a long time. And before that I was riding around on dirt bikes with training wheels when I was three years old. When I turned four, they took the training wheels off and my parents thought I was going to kill myself on the dirt bikes. They figured four wheels were safer so they found me a go-cart. I went to the racetrack the first time when I was five years old and I just fell in love with it. I got into cars when I was 12 years old.
Bonham: Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, were you always a NASCAR fan?
Bayne: Definitely. I was a Jeff Gordon fan growing up. Everything in my room was Jeff Gordon #24, my coloring box at kindergarten, everything.
Bonham: How has your family been involved over the past few years?
Bayne: Everything I drove up until the Camping World East series was owned by my family. My dad always owned the teams and found the right teams and he was my crew chief all the way up until I was in the Hooters Pro Cup at the age of 15. My family’s been very supportive and that’s key in this sport. It’s not football or baseball or basketball where you can do it yourself. If you’re good in high school, you just shine. (But in racing) you have to have a family behind you. A five-year old can’t pick up a go-cart and take it to the racetrack himself. It was all family driven. My dad’s dad used to race. My dad never raced, but in the same token they never pushed it on me. They’ve supported me in everything I’ve wanted to do and I had the option to play football, if I wanted to race or whatever I wanted to do. They were going to support me, and that’s important.”
Bonham: After you won the 2011 Daytona 500, your life turned into quite a whirlwind including the illness that you dealt with a couple months later. How would describe your emotions during that time?
Bayne: Yeah well there’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and they kind of balance each other out to somewhere in the middle. A lot of things have changed since then, but it’s been really cool to watch it unfold and take parts of it in and block some of it out. It’s hard to put into words. We never expected any of this, from winning (the Daytona 500) to being sick or anything. If you would’ve wrote the story, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.
Bonham: How does your faith help you keep the right perspective?
Bayne: If I was doing this not for a purpose but just to race, then this year I would’ve been a disaster. I would’ve been going to the top and getting a big head and then getting completely deflated and being down. But when you have a purpose to work for something—it’s not just for me, it’s for the platform and I know God’s going to do something with it—it changes your whole perspective. When I got sick, I was like, “Man, I don’t like this, but what’s going on here?” You look at it differently. I knew God was going to use. It was tough at times. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to say I didn’t break down a couple of times, but having that perspective is definitely what helped me get through the year without having a heart attack.
Bonham: How important is it for young people to see a story like yours where, like Job in the Bible, life is full of both blessings and hard times?
Bayne: (The story of) Job was on my heart right around the time of the (Daytona) 500 and I didn’t know what has about to happen. Just reading how he ripped off his robe and was willing to surrender to God right after He lost everything was like, wow, that’s true faith right there. Of course later on he struggled with it like we all will at some point, but we’re all going to have struggles. If life was rosy all the time, we wouldn’t need God. We wouldn’t need Jesus. We wouldn’t need anything. Our lives would be perfect, so what would we need Him for? But He’s created these voids for Him to fill. That’s where we have to let Him come in and fill that void and not try to do it with other things. That’s what so tempting in the world. It’s easy to get wrapped up in things or money or girlfriends or whatever and let them fill that void. But until you let Him do it, it’s not going to be as fulfilling. That’s something I’ve been working on for myself. What are the things that I’ve replaced God with? What have I tried to get joy out of? But at the end of the day, you have to realize that God is the only place your joy can come from, and when He gives you things to enjoy, you can.
Bonham: What kind of feedback do you get from people when you have the opportunity to live our your faith on a very public stage?
Bayne: You get opposite ends. I’ve never wanted to be that guy that stands on the middle ground. In a sense, you get the Kyle Busch reaction. You get the people that love you and you get the people that don’t like you at all. But when people see Christ—and I’m not saying I reflect Him all the time, and I’m probably not as clear of a window as I should be for Him to shine through sometimes—they can’t help but like it, and that’s not me. That’s Him. When I see people around me that are true believers and followers and they live it out, I’m attracted to those people. It’s like Jonathan and David. They became close friends because of their relationship with God. It bonded them. But I don’t want to be legalistic and just surround myself with Christian people. That’s not what we’re called to do. For me, I’m called to be in the racing community where the majority of the people aren’t believers and we’re supposed to share with them. You can go too far one way or go too far the other way. I try to keep a good mixture of being sharpened by followers and going out and trying to reach out to other people.
Bonham: How do you deal with the negative feedback you get from people who don’t think athletes should be vocal about their faith?
Bayne: I like it. It’s almost like Paul being thrown in prison. It’s not as intense, but he says it’s going to happen. Jesus was crucified for it. So a message board isn’t going to hurt me that bad. I care about what people think, which is probably one of my biggest downfalls. It’s a little bit of pride—building myself up on other people’s opinion. I’ve tried to get rid of that, but it’s still there. I care a lot about what other people think. I don’t just ignore it. But I remember this story. I was on Twitter right after I won the Daytona 500. Obviously I thanked God after the race and this one guy tweeted, “Yeah, it’s easy to thank God when things are good. What about when things are bad?” As soon as I got sick, I remembered that. And I thought this might be a chance to reach that one guy, because He’s still God. He’s still the same. Even at Phoenix, the week after Daytona, I wrecked during practice and I tweeted, “Well, He’s still the same.” I don’t know if that guy saw it or not, but you’ve just got to be consistent.
Bonham: You’ve got to believe that there are probably lots of people out there like that who are cynical about Christian athletes thanking God.
Bayne: Exactly. That’s probably why I’ve experienced such highs and lows. What are we made of? Are we just saying we trust Him because we’re winning? I think that’s how He’s used me.
Bonham: Are you pleased that’s there’s such a strong faith component within the NASCAR community?
Bayne: NASCAR has a Christian base in it but surprisingly there’s a lot of outreach that still needs to be done in this sport. I’ve been surprised about that because as an outsider looking in, that’s all I saw was the pre-race prayer and stuff like that. But people don’t see how much revival still needs to happen. I think that’s why God’s placed us here.
Bonham: How much do you rely on the ministry of Motor Racing Outreach?
Bayne: It’s awesome to have MRO here, to have believers and followers, most importantly followers. Guys like Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse, Justin Allgaier and myself. We started a Bible study with (MRO chaplain) Lonnie Klauss that we do every Saturday morning before we qualify. That’s been a core support for me because we’re not home on the weekends. A lot of times we get back late. We try to get back to church as much as we can, but the Cup races are on Sunday. It’s good to have that core support here with MRO and those guys.
Bonham: Did you grow up in a church going family?
Bayne: I’ve grown up in church for sure. I’ve been to First Methodist and Baptist where I attend when I’m in Knoxville. I live in Mooresville (North Carolina) part time and I attend a contemporary, non-denominational church there a lot just because I like the worship. They have good messages too
Bonham: What is your approach to living out your faith on and off the track?
Bayne: I want to be real. I don’t want to pose as anything. I don’t want to pose as a tough guy. I don’t want to pose as a nice guy. Whatever Trevor Bayne is, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m trying not to let that change me. Staying humble is the key to this. I try to let that shine through. This can be gone in a second. If it weren’t for God leading me through this, I’d be in trouble.
Bonham: You were in wreck with Justin (Allgaier) early in the 2010 season and you obviously weren’t happy with him.
Bayne: (Laughs) Yeah, we were in a Bible study together earlier that morning.
Bonham: So how do you deal with confrontation on the track and the aggressive nature of the sport when it comes to maintaining good relationships off the track?
Bayne: Growing up in the sport, I’ve been able to separate what happens on the track with what happens away from the track. That track is totally different. I’m not the same person when I put that helmet one. It’s not Trevor Bayne. It’s not Justin Allgaier. It’s not Ricky Stenhouse. There’s a race car and I want to beat it. That’s how I see it and that helps with the pressure. It’s just another car. If they crash me, I get upset, but I don’t bring it off the track.
Bonham: How have you managed to remain stable in a very unstable world with changing rides and other uncertainties that come with the NASCAR lifestyle?
Bayne: My faith is the biggest thing that helps me through it. I know there’s a plan for racing and even if I’m not in a race car, I have to be content with that. I probably wouldn’t be happy but I’d have to learn how to like it.
Bonham: Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility to be who you are as a Christian driver in this sport?
Bayne: It is a responsibility to be who you are and not let this sport change you and not let the good runs and success or the bad runs change you. You’ve got to be the same person all the time. The Bible talks about being firm on the rock. I try not to look like I’m on sand all the time. I try to be that same person. You’re going to have emotions. People are going to see that you’re upset. But that’s a good thing. They’re going to see that you’re passionate about it, but you’ve got to think about consequences a lot of times. You’ve got to think ahead from what you’re about to say. I might be mad at some guy but if I say what’s on my mind, it’s probably not going to be good.
Bonham: So when things happen on the track, especially with guys that maybe you’ve spent time with in a Bible study earlier that day, that makes it easier to forgive and move on from it?
Bayne: Yeah. People from the outside are like, “I can’t believe Justin did that! You’ve got to wreck him back! No. We’re good. We’re friends. At times it seems intense but that’s what happens on the racetrack. I wouldn’t retaliate on the track.
Bonham: How important is it that people at the highest levels of NASCAR support the strong faith element within the sport?
Bayne: This is such a great platform and it’s good to use it being used. They still do the prayer on TV. Not many times can you be on national TV giving God glory. We’ve got to use this platform and that’s what drives me to be successful here. He’s provided this so let’s make the best of it. That’s why I think He’ll continue to keep me here because it is a platform and we have the talent and the ability. So, we’d better use it.
(Photos: NASCAR Media; Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images; Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images; Tyler Barrick Autostock USA)