ROAD TO REDEMPTION

Jason Lawrence began the prayer in his customary fashion.

Dear Lord, he said, help us to use clear judgment on the track tonight.

It was Sept. 23, 2006 — a night when the divine guidance Lawrence prayed for took a back seat to free will, when retaliation trumped reconciliation.

A night that would change his life.

Be with the drivers and officials and fans, Lawrence continued. Keep everyone safe.

Huddled around Lawrence for the prayer were a few dozen drivers, crew members and track officials at Motor Mile Speedway in Pulaski County. They were gathered, hats off and heads bowed, in the inspection area.

Lawrence, 28, was a natural fit to lead this pre-race ritual. Few drivers at Motor Mile were as candid about their faith. Plus, his reputation as a family man who didn’t drink, smoke or curse made him a favorite among the other drivers, track regulars and fans.

And this night was particularly special.

It was the final points race of the season and probably the most anticipated race in the speedway’s 20-year history. For Philip Morris, a three-time track champion, a first place finish would not only give him his fourth track title, but also the Dodge Weekly Series national championship — the crown jewel of NASCAR’s grass-roots racing circuit.

The track was primed for celebration. A national champion would be a first for Motor Mile and would bring the rural speedway unprecedented recognition.

Yet, mixed with the anticipated celebration was an unsettling tension as the drivers prayed. Rumors had been circulating about Lawrence, who had engaged in an intense rivalry with Morris all season. Some competitors feared that Lawrence might go too far to ruin his rival’s title hopes.

But Lawrence displayed no signs of bad intent as the start of the race drew near.

He concluded the prayer with a few final words of inspiration.

Help us keep our tempers in check, he said.

The first 21 laps of the 100-lap race had been relatively uneventful.

Morris was running fourth. Lawrence, fifth.

Then as the field roared past the start-finish line in front of the grandstand, Lawrence in his No. 54 Ford Taurus shot to the outside. He next took aim at Morris.

Not to pass him.

Instead, Lawrence deliberately rammed him in the right rear panel, spinning the Chevrolet Monte Carlo sideways and sending Morris — at about 100 mph — into the concrete wall.

Watching from pit road, Lawrence’s pit crew, which included his mom and dad and several cousins, celebrated with handshakes, clapped hands and high-fives.

To Lawrence, all he did was spin Morris out.

“Same thing he’d done to me a couple times in the year, no difference,” he said.

Motor Mile officials and NASCAR disagreed.

Almost immediately, Lawrence was disqualified from the race and escorted along with his crew to the track exit. Three days later, speedway officials punished him with an indefinite suspension from racing at their track again. The same day, NASCAR issued its own penalties, including a $1,000 fine and a separate indefinite suspension from competing at all 60 NASCAR-sanctioned local tracks across North America. Lawrence later appealed the NASCAR penalty, which was upheld.

The wreck and suspensions were the boiling point to a feud that started when Lawrence and Morris collided in the second race of the 2006 season. It escalated from there into a bitter, personal rivalry that extended beyond racing.

Lawrence criticized Morris for his aggressive driving, claiming that Morris had wrecked him one night in the middle of the season and bumped him unnecessarily on several other occasions.

Morris, who won 10 Motor Mile races, countered that Lawrence complained because he was losing.

Lawrence also charged that track officials gave Morris preferential treatment, a point that fueled his frustration and anger. Morris would be eligible for the national title only if he first won the track championship.

Lawrence contended that the track failed to penalize Morris for rough driving.

“I felt like we’d just been getting stepped on at the racetrack all year long,” he said. “Every time the call could go either way, it was going his way and not ours.”

About Jason Lawrence

  • Age: 28
  • Home and hometown: Pilot
  • Wife: Amanda
  • Children: Matthew and Devan
  • Education: Floyd County High School class of 1996
  • Occupation: School bus mechanic for Montgomery County Schools
  • Racing career: 14 years in go-karts, three years in Late Model Trucks, three years in Late Model Stock cars, one year in Late Model Dirt cars
  • Accomplishments: Two Virginia state go-kart titles, four Late Model Stock wins, second in Motor Mile Speedway points standings in 2006

Timeline

April 15

  • Philip Morris bumps Jason Lawrence going for the win on the next-to-last lap, ruining both drivers’ shot at victory. Lawrence says he won’t forget the contact. Morris calls it “just racing.”

June 17

  • A mid-race duel for the lead turns ugly when Lawrence spins after contact with Morris. Morris wins and Lawrence’s car is later demolished in a separate accident with Keven Wood. Morris is booed in Victory Lane.

July 22

  • Morris earns finishes of first and second in Twin 50-lap races to swipe the points lead. Lawrence protests, prompting officials to tear down Morris’ motor in post-race inspection. The win stands.

Aug. 20

  • Kelly Kingery and Robert Johnson, a crew member for Morris, exchange heated words on pit road. Lawrence says Morris deserves to be suspended if Johnson threw a punch. Videotape later confirmed that no punch was thrown, and Morris was not suspended. Morris hints that Kingery might have wrecked him as a favor for Lawrence.

Sept. 1

  • Lawrence’s car owner, Tim Harris, leaks word to the media that Morris had been accused of public records forgery in his hometown of Ruckersville. Morris denies the accusations and says his rivals are just trying to eliminate him as their competition. Morris is later found guilty in Greene County General District Court on four charges of improper use of an inspection sticker.

Sept. 23

  • Lawrence deliberately wrecks Morris and admits it, temporarily foiling Morris’ shot at the national title. Lawrence is disqualified and escorted with his team out of the track. Lawrence says he crashed Morris to deliver a message that he refused to be pushed around anymore.

‘Strong convictions’

Lawrence grew up in the Pilot community of Floyd County. He began racing when he was 8.

He started small, in go-karts, racing with his father, Dale Lawrence.

Dale Lawrence had his own career in racing before Jason was born, competing at a track in Glen Lyn, near the West Virginia line in Giles County.

He quit racing to help his son get started.

Jason Lawrence won two Virginia state championships in go-karts. He competed at different tracks along the East Coast for 14 years. Today, his father serves as his crew chief and his mother and cousins give up their Saturdays to assist with his racing ventures.

“It’s kind of like a part of life after you do it so long,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence races mostly out of pure passion for the sport. He loves the rush of turning left at blistering speeds. And racing gives Lawrence more time with family. His cars are prepared during the week at his parents’ home garage.

In 2001, he jumped to the Late Model Truck division at Motor Mile, which was then named New River Valley Speedway. Two years later, Lawrence teamed up with truck owner Tim Harris.

The timing was perfect for both parties. Lawrence was about to quit racing because of inadequate sponsorship. Harris needed a driver. In Lawrence’s first start in his new ride with Harris, he qualified first and finished second.

“The rest is history,” he said.

About the time Lawrence started truck racing, he began dating his future wife, Amanda, who led him to Christianity. The two began attending Riner Grace Brethren Church together. Lawrence had not previously been a churchgoer.

“When you fall for somebody you follow them around like a little puppy,” Lawrence said. “It didn’t take too long for me being in church with her to realize I was on the wrong path.”

They married in 2001. Two sons followed, Matthew, now 4, and Devan, 1. Lawrence works as a school bus mechanic for Montgomery County Schools. His wife is an operations manager at First National Bank in Riner.

For the last 4 1/2 years, the Lawrences have been regulars at Moores Chapel Baptist Church in Elliston. The family is active in the church, said pastor Eddie Booth. Two years ago, Lawrence helped build Moores Chapel a new sanctuary. Even the morning after being ejected from Motor Mile, he was in the pew.

“He has strong convictions about living for the Lord,” Booth said.

Rising star

Success came quickly for Lawrence at Motor Mile Speedway.

In his first season in 2001, he was named rookie of the year in the Late Model Truck division and placed in the top five of the final points standings. The next two campaigns, Lawrence also scored top-five points finishes.

His debut in the more competitive Late Model Stock class in 2004 generated an immediate buzz when he finished fourth in the standings and won a race.

Lawrence recorded a third-place points finish in 2005, and 2006 was his breakout season. He won three races, set a new track record and led the standings. Harris and Lawrence at one point even discussed moving Lawrence to the more elite Hooters Pro Cup Series in 2007.

It also became clear as the season wore on that he would be Morris’ only legitimate threat for the track title.

The rivalry intensified on June 17 when Lawrence spun after a nudge from Morris. Lawrence charged that he had been intentionally wrecked. Morris called the claim “ludicrous.”

Their riff heated up again two months later when Lawrence and Harris lobbied the track to suspend Morris for an altercation between one of his crew members and driver Kelly Kingery. Videotape later cleared the crew member of wrongdoing, and Morris was not suspended.

The rivalry turned personal in August when Morris was accused of public records forgery in his hometown of Ruckersville. Harris took the opportunity to question Morris’ integrity. Morris fired back in disgust at Harris and Lawrence for publicizing the charges.

“They’ll go to any length to try to eliminate me as their competition,” he said at the time.

All the while, Morris was racking up victories on the racetrack and Lawrence was losing ground. As the season wore on, Lawrence also become more vocal in his criticism of the officiating, which, he said, catered to Morris.

By Sept. 23, Lawrence’s prayer for the drivers to keep their tempers in check wasn’t enough to stop him from retaliating. Other competitors even sensed before the race that Lawrence might do something out of character.

“It was just a feeling that was going around the pits,” said Tink Reedy.

Another driver, Jason Mitcham, was more direct.

“Philip knew what was coming,” he said.

Entering the race, Lawrence had a small, but mathematical, shot at the track title. Morris needed to finish only 16th or better to clinch.

Morris’ car sustained only minor damage when Lawrence knocked it into the wall on lap 22, and Morris recovered to finish fourth and win the track title. The next weekend at Caraway Speedway in North Carolina, Morris won the race — and the national championship came with it.

Lawrence’s attempt at payback had failed.

“As it turns out, it was all in vain,” Motor Mile Speedway owner David Hagan said.

The return

Faced with a possible lifetime ban from Motor Mile and NASCAR, Lawrence had a life-changing decision to make at the end of 2006. He could race at a non-NASCAR sanctioned track.

Or he could quit.

“It never crossed my mind,” he said.

So Lawrence and Harris sold their two Late Model Stock cars and on the day after Christmas bought a Dirt Late Model car from a business in Indiana.

This season, Lawrence is racing on the dirt track circuit.

Dirt track racing is considered lower in purse and prestige than asphalt racing. Unlike NASCAR-sanctioned asphalt tracks where Nextel Cup developmental drivers flock on any given week, non NASCAR-sanctioned dirt tracks don’t traditionally attract big-name drivers with prominent affiliations.

Some races are as short as 25 laps and pay only $600 to the winner. Motor Mile, by comparison, awards $5,000 to the winner of a traditional 150-lap feature. But Lawrence doesn’t view the endeavor as a step down.

He sees it as a challenge. He’s had to adapt to the Dirt Late Models’ lighter weight, which makes the cars harder to steer and quicker to accelerate. Lawrence is also learning the nuances of seven dirt tracks where he is competing this season.

Most weekends, he races at Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat. On June 16, Lawrence recorded his best finish this year on the half-mile clay oval by placing third. He matched that result on June 23.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in a race car in several years,” Lawrence said. “We’re just doing it for fun. That’s what racing’s all about. We’re not going to go out here and make any money. … There’s no pressure.”

The next chapter

Lawrence has ambitions of being reinstated by NASCAR one day.

He can reapply for a NASCAR license at the end of the year.

Hagan has softened his stance on Lawrence. The speedway suspension is no longer independent of NASCAR’s suspension as it was originally. If Lawrence is allowed to race in NASCAR again, he’s welcome back at Motor Mile, Hagan said.

“I think he’s one of the nicest young men I’ve ever met,” Hagan said. “I just think he made a bad mistake that night.”

Lawrence isn’t sure about returning to his old track, even if given the opportunity. He’d have to sell his Dirt Late Model car and repurchase an asphalt car. And Lawrence isn’t certain that Motor Mile — despite its proximity to his Pilot home — is where God would want him to be. The memory of last season’s bitter ending is still fresh to Lawrence.

“I feel like if NASCAR lifts their penalty and we ever go back to asphalt racing we’d probably go somewhere else to race,” he said. “I would rather drive five hours to race somewhere that all the rules are the same than drive 45 minutes somewhere they’re not.”

Returning to the dirt ranks next season is another option.

“If this is all I ever get to do I’m happy with that,” Lawrence said. “If I get a chance to move up and run something else, I’ll be happy with that, too. I’m just happy to get to race.”

He still makes no excuses for wrecking his rival.

“All you can do as a Christian is ask God for forgiveness for your mistakes,” Lawrence said. “I’m not perfect.”

This article was originally published at Roanoke.com on July 7, 2007.

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