Saturday, February 24, 2007


The world of stock car racing is not exactly the first place you would look to find a nice Jewish boy. After all, NASCAR grew out of a bunch of hillbillies running moonshine through the Carolina Mountains to avoid the revenuers. From there it grew into a bigger bunch of good ole boys testing their cars and their manhood against each other in dirt tracks around the South. It was decades before it became the logo filled spectacle we can't seem to avoid today. Not exactly a locale in which you would expect to find many young refugees from a BBYO convention - until now.

Meet Jon Denning, the first Jewish NASCAR driver in at least 20 years, and surprisingly, Jon is not a Southerner. He is, however, from a family with roots in the auto business. His family owns and operates Dobbs Autobody in Springfield, New Jersey. Denning is racing for Sellers Racing at the South Boston Speedway in southern Virginia, which has gained a reputation as one of the best places to race and is becoming the short track on which to develop as a driver. Denning is off to a good start, having won twice in 2006 and finishing sixth overall for the year. South Boston has a history of turning out Nextel Cup stars too, with such NASCAR luminaries as Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Benny Parsons and both Earnhardts winning there. It's a great place to get your start.

It's also a good place to get used to the fact that "you're not in Kansas" anymore. New Jersey, this isn't and Denning has had to adjust to life in southern Virginia and on a stock circuit that still starts each race with a prayer- stipulated by the television contract with Fox. There are cars sponsored by Christian groups and several Christian organizations with strong ties among the drivers conduct services along backside. It only makes Denning stand out more and has helped him rediscover his Jewish roots.

“I’m not extremely religious, but I have a strong value for Jewish religion,” Denning said. “Antisemitism has made me want to defend those traditions.”

NASCAR's business plan for the 21st century involves conquering new markets and diversifying its audience. That included broadening the ranks of drivers by including minorities and women, as well as geographic expansion into areas not previously believed to be pockets of closed wheel racing fans such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis and Las Vegas. As Jon Denning rises through the ranks, it will be interesting to see if NASCAR reaches a new demographic not previously believed to be interested in auto racing - Jewish sports fans.

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