The year was 2011 and it was Memorial Day weekend when I first heard the name of JR Hildebrand. I had preached at FBC earlier on that Sunday morning and had gotten home in time to watch the last 50 laps or so of the Indy 500. At just 23 years old and a Rookie in Indy Car Racing, Hildebrand finished 2nd in the Indy 500 and brought home a nice little check of $1,054,895…not bad for a few hours work on a Sunday morning (Preachers do not usually make that much for their efforts on Sunday mornings! Ha! Ha!) One does not have to be a fan of Indy Car Racing or of any sport to give the young man a polite little golf clap for a job well done. The accomplishment was impressive and would make great a story for his future grandkids.
Sadly, the race turned out to be one of those moments a person might describe as “too painful to watch.” The sports world knows the expression well as it has many of those moments every calendar year. For example in 1989, I watched Scott Hoch miss a two foot putt in a sudden-death playoff with Nick Faldo at Augusta to lose The Masters. Even now, I can barely watch it on YouTube…simply because it is painful to watch. In 1991, I watched Scott Norwood miss a 47 yard field goal with 8 seconds left in the game to lose Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants and “wide right” became an expression we humans are still using. In 2017, I watched the Satanic Florida Gators throw a Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Tennessee on the last play of the game in the Swamp. I am still taking medication for the pain it caused me. (I never have watched it again…can’t do it) Every team in the world has those types of moments. Take Kentucky, for example…I could mention the “Bluegrass Miracle” in 2002 against LSU…or maybe I could just say the name Christian Laettner. Stings doesn’t it? But rest assured, I am not going to mention either of them…I’m a class act and would never dream of rubbing painful memories into your fragile psyche!!
But let’s return to Hildebrand for a moment. As good as everything looked in the opening paragraph, a truly sad thing happened in the race and it’s still one of the most painful sporting moments I have ever seen. When the final lap started, Hildebrand was in the lead. Truth is, he had a big lead. The race was all but over…As the white flag waved, signaling the final lap, the announcers were already talking about this young Rookie winning the race. In 4 simple left turns, his name was going down in history. As the camera followed his car around turns 1 and 2, his lead appeared insurmountable. He came down the backstretch with such a lead it almost looked like he could have gotten out and pushed his car the rest of the way for the win. He zipped through turn 3 looking as poised as a 10 year veteran of the sport. But as he approached turn 4…the final turn on the final lap…a much slower car was in his way and had “the line” where much of the track’s “grip” was. Hildebrand decided to go around the slower car. Doing this meant his car would have to leave the safety of the gripped area…and JR could only pray his car would not betray him with the finish line in sight. I’m sure you can guess what happened. His car could not make the turn and he hit the wall, damaging his car. The drivers often refer to the debris outside of “the line” as “marbles.” The rookie’s car got into the marbles and could not find any grip. The only thing it could do is hit the wall. The 2nd place car, driven by Dan Wheldon, was going full throttle and appeared faster than Maverick and Goose’s F-14 Tomcat when compared to Hildebrand’s now significantly damaged car. Young JR kept his foot on the gas and gave it all he had…but it was not to be. Wheldon blew by the Rookie and grabbed one of the most prestigious trophies to be given out on American soil as Hildebrand’s car left a trail of debris down the final stretch and crawled across the line for 2nd place. Respectable in every way to be sure where his efforts that day…and yet what might have been still hangs over his head as I sit here typing. Driver Dan Wheldon snagged the checkered flag, drank the milk, and got a check for $2,567,225 and his name was added to the hallowed list of Indy 500 winners.
Hildebrand owned up to his mistake. He admitted he had left his racing line…got into loose gravel and debris (marbles) on the 9 degree banking corner where there was no grip…and he crashed. To this day, people still insist Wheldon did not win the Indy 500 that day…rather JR Hildebrand gave it to him. Had he simply stayed on the racing line through the corner he then could have safely passed the slower car and would have won the race with ease. To be honest, I felt sick for the young man. The race was “his.” Wheldon’s car was so far back, Hildebrand would have needed binoculars to see him. To wreck on the last turn of the last lap with a humongous lead was a painful thing to witness.
My blog up to this point looks like something you might read in the sports page of a local paper. But believe it or not…I have a spiritual thought to share with you. I mentioned the racing line a few sentences back. If you’ve ever watched an Indy 500 race, you can clearly see where “most” of the cars go through the turns. The rubber from the tires discolors the track in the corners as the tires leave a little bit of themselves as the cars go through the corners at such high speed–leaving a visible line for the cars to use and adding extra grip for all the cars. The visible black line acts as a map for cars to safely get around the track. Driving outside of those lines comes at great risk. Outside of the black area…the track is usually gray…simply because very few cars ever go into those areas. The drivers try stay on that line for grip and stability. If you are a good driver, especially at Indianapolis, you will not want to deviate from those lines unless it is absolutely necessary. In many ways, the Christian has a “racing line” as well. God’s Word lays out what God wants to see in His people. Their lives, through obedience to Christ, tend to create a type of racing line in life, if you will. Things like Sunday School and church attendance get a lot of traffic. As you grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, you will begin to notice how older and more mature believers serve in the kingdom and you find yourself recognizing that you should be living your Christian life in a similar fashion. Prayer, missionary endeavors, discipleship efforts, and countless other norms also help to create the line as you are walking the walk. Throw in things like obedience, the fruit of the Spirit, a love for your brothers and sisters in Christ…toss in some mercy and grace, a forgiving spirit, a desire to see lost people come to Christ, and a sincere heart-felt concern for people…with all of this being fueled with the desire to glorify God…the Christian’s racing line becomes more visible than the discolored corners at the Indy.
Sticking with the racing analogy for just a few more sentences, we must also consider the on-track lesson of what happens when you leave the racing line. JR Hildebrand lost the Indy 500 by leaving the line and it cost him dearly. As sad as his story is, it is much worse when Christians choose to leave the path containing the commands and wisdom of God. Christians who willfully ignore that which God has asked of us in His Word need to realize what’s at stake…namely you are driving in a place where there is no grip. I am not talking about losing salvation…but I am talking about a very serious situation in our Christian walk. Our testimonies weaken as our spiritual strength weakens from poor choices. This era of Christianity in America is in an unprecedented state. Just this past week I saw in my news app that another Christian singer has come out saying he no longer believes in God. Countless Christians have bought in to the idea the things I discussed in the previous paragraph are not relevant, much less important. They spiritually “drive around the track”…but their cars are all over the place…no longer interested in staying in the lines and what’s really sad is that many believe and “feel” God is somehow ok with it. The paint is scratched from the constant brushes with the wall and an assortment of dents and dings decorate the car….(tired of the racing analogy yet?) 🙂
Hildebrand leaves us with a final thought I want to emphasize before I stop typing. When the reporters “got in his face” at the conclusion of the race, I am not certain anyone knew what the 23 year old would say or do. To his credit, he said it was his fault…he thanked his team that had given him a car good enough to win the race…but he had made a mistake. He looked sick from it all…but he remained humble and took ownership of his mistake. His stock went up that Sunday afternoon in the eyes of many for being such a classy guy. His approach is somewhat prescriptive for us. If we are out of line, we need to own it…and take steps to get back in line. This might require you to do some things you’ve not done in a long long time…and it might also require you to stop doing some things that have become a type of normal for you. JR Hildebrand wrecked because he willfully steered his car to a place on the track it wasn’t meant to be. Similarly Christians can find themselves in places and situations they were not intended to be when they ignore what God has asked of them. The same thing would have happened to every driver in the race whose car ventured up that far from the racing line. The car couldn’t stick…because it wasn’t possible. We cannot have an abundant and joyful Christian life if we have left our racing line. It’s simply not possible…for any us. God has laid out the track for us…and in His grace and mercy, He has promised to help us. In saving us, He worked on the engine. His Word and Holy Spirit provide a wonderful pit area to work on the car. And with every day being a “race day” He is also our spotter…guiding us through the traffic.
I think it’s a safe assumption none of us will ever race at Indy…but in Christ, we have already won the race we are in. Perhaps your Christian life is all out of sync and you know exactly how it feels to lose your grip. Repent…confess…get back in the racing line…and finish the race. In many ways our lives here are the victory laps of faith. We know how it’s gonna turn out. Christ won…and through faith in Him…we can win too. Countless Christians throughout history did their part to show us how get around the track. They left enough for us to keep our grip. Now it’s our turn…Let’s do our part to show others coming behind us where the Christian’s racing line is. God help us to be more than just people who talk about the racing line…let’s be the folks who the world sees driving around the track.
Blessings and thanks so much for taking time to read this. My longest blog yet…sorry bout that. 🙂