NASCAR driver brings faith along for the ride

Patrick Szabo, 26, has been at the track all day, just watching and waiting. The last race of the day will be his - the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.

Before he hops into his car, he'll pull a brown scapular around his neck and tuck it into his fire suit. The inside of the car will feel like a sauna and heat up even more once the race gets going. Some drivers wear air-conditioned helmets, but the rookie can't afford it - yet.

When the race begins, Szabo and the other drivers zoom around the donut-shaped track at 100 to 130 miles per hour, making anywhere from 50 to 200 laps. At the speeds they're going, the race wouldn't take very long if it weren't for the wrecks. "And there's always wrecks," said Szabo.

A spotter, in Szabo's case, his father, is positioned at the top of the stands to yell directions into his earpiece. Throughout the race, g-forces tug at his body as his mind fights to stay focused.

"It feels like running on a treadmill while taking the LSATs," said the ex-law school student turned NASCAR driver.

Beside low-riding cars emblazoned with colorful advertisements, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, popularly known as NASCAR, evokes images of the Bible Belt, country music, warm weather and cold beer. Compared to other drivers, Szabo is a little unorthodox.

"I don't want to assimilate to that culture; I want to bring my own things. … My (Catholic) faith is one of them," he said.

The native Northern Virginian enjoys electronic dance music and playing a violin much more than country music. In a sport dominated by family legacies, Szabo is the first in his family to race, though his family is very supportive. He graduated from George Mason University in Fairfax with a degree in English and journalism and still enjoys writing, especially screenplays.

Szabo first fell in love with racing while watching NASCAR on television as a child. He began driving a little more than five years ago, after receiving his competition license from the Sports Car Club of America.

He first started with road racing - driving on a course - and switched to the oval track of NASCAR in 2014. Szabo races a Chevrolet Impala, usually at Dominion Raceway in Thornburg, Va., as part of a three-car team out of Haymarket: B&B Racing. His goal is to advance to the Camping World Truck Series, the next level of the three tiers in NASCAR.

According to Szabo, the secret to being a good driver is consistency, and "not being stupid," he said. "It's all a mental game." Off track, the biggest challenge is finding sponsors. Most of his days are spent pounding the pavement and getting his name out into the community so that he can afford to the buy fuel, tires, injury fees and other racing expenses. "It all pays off when I'm actually on the track," he said.

Around the time Szabo started racing, he also rediscovered his faith. As a Leesburg native, he has been a parishioner of St. John the Apostle Church since his baptism. He was there when the community worshipped in the tiny chapel, then at the parish center and now in their newly built church.

During his high school years, Szabo fell away from the faith, but in college he began to attend Mass again. He read about Catholicism and grew to know his parish priests.

"That was the turning point of my life," he said. "I learned more about my faith in 2011 than I had my whole life."

As Szabo continues racing to the top of NASCAR, he knows his faith will stay with him. "Obviously, I want to make it in racing, (but my faith is) a huge thing in my life and I need that to follow me, wherever I go," he said.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016