A stereotype of chaplains is that they are always serious and deal only with illness, injury and death. But Mark Merical, Raceline Ministry chaplain who serves club and pro motorcycle racing, breaks that stereotype.
“I’m … a black belt in the martial arts,” he said. “So I will get people to Jesus one way or the other!”
Merical said on his first day as a chaplain 10 years ago he didn’t know what to expect. Wearing his Raceline shirt with “Chaplain” on it, he introduced himself to the riders.
“They said, ‘So, what are you doing here?’’’ Merical recalled. “This happened time and time again. I said, ‘I’m the new chaplain for WERA [Motorcycle Road Racing].’ They looked at me, puzzled. They would ask me, ‘Well, what is a chaplain?’”
Merical said he then asked what they thought a chaplain was. Answers ranged from a racing official to someone who removed dead bodies from the track to having no idea. Over the next month at races around the country, Merical heard this repeatedly. He couldn’t believe how many racers had no knowledge of God or hadn’t been to church.
Quickly Merical realized, “OK. Now I know why God for the last two years has been trying to get me and my wife to go this direction.”
Part of the group
After finishing 10 seasons of ministering to the riders for WERA and MotoAmerica, the pro motorcycle road-racing series, chaplains now part of the fabric of the events.
“I would say a very high percentage of people at least appreciate and are happy that we are there,” Merical said. “We have a very good relationship with the racing community.”
His ministry is both predictable and unpredictable, he noted — schedules for practices, qualifiers and races are tight and strictly followed.
But the reason Merical is there constantly changes. People come to him with problems, questions and a need for encouragement. It could be a day of horrific crashes or no injuries at all.
He has presided over about 40 weddings and led many people to Christ, baptizing some. Unless needed elsewhere, Merical is always at the exit point of a race to applaud, hug or high-five the riders.
“I’ve had several who stopped, full gear, still sitting on their motorcycle, lean over and give me a hug and start sobbing; grown men that you would not want to see in a back alley, just sobbing on your shoulder, not saying a word. But you know exactly why they’re sobbing. It’s the coolest thing.”
The difficult part
The “stereotypical” portion of a chaplain’s role is most difficult — though motorcycle racing is safer than people think, there is still a high chance for injury or death. Sometimes Merical accompanies an injured or dying rider to the hospital and other times he stays back to help deal with other riders’ emotions.
“Unfortunately, that’s just part of it and all the riders know,” Merical said. “We don’t talk about it unless someone asks me, but everybody knows. They literally are seconds, inches, away from death. Their top speeds are 160 to 180 mph; they are going around corners 100 to 120 mph on a tiny piece of tread on the edge of their tires.
“They all know it, but they are so passionate about their sport that they do it anyway.”
Merical’s hope is for the riders and their families to be as passionate about Jesus, he said, quoting Acts 20:24.
“I have to say, there is no question … that God gave us this ministry. That’s what we want people to know — about the love and the grace of God and what Jesus did for them in dying on the cross for their sins so they might have life eternal. That verse seems to really sum up what our hope and desires are for our track family,” Merical said.
He and his wife Dawn left full-time ministry to become “missionaries” to the motorcycle world, and are dependent on donations. In the offseason Merical holds Facebook chapel services and records a now-top-20-ranked podcast called, “Raceline Podcast,” suggested by his daughter Brittany. For more information visit RacelineMinistry.com.