By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
LAKE STEVENS — On most weekends of the racing season, Jeff Knight goes from the noisy chaos of the Saturday race track to the quiet reverence of Sunday church. From the thunderous roar of a dozen or so late model stock cars to the soothing sounds of worship and praise.
He goes from being a man trying to win races to a man trying to win souls.
The 44-year-old Knight is a racecar driver and a pastor, and he has a genuine love for both. As a boy growing up in Monroe, he spent his weekends going first to Evergreen Speedway and then to church, accompanied by his father, who was both a racing fan and a pastor. From as far back as Knight can remember, those were the worlds he knew.
The funny thing is, he never set out to be either a driver or a pastor himself. Through college and even into marriage he had other interests and career plans. But in life, as in racing, there are sometimes unexpected turns, often due to setbacks and hardships.
“(Adversity) is what happens in life,” Knight said. “And it’s the story of my life.”
He graduated from Monroe High School in 1988, and then headed off to Central Washington University to study construction management. But in the summer before his senior year, and shortly after his marriage, he became the youth pastor at The Rock Church in Monroe, a church founded by his father and mother, Joseph and Linda Knight.
Six years later, Jeff Knight became a head pastor in the most tragic of ways. On Jan. 31, 2000, his parents were returning from a mission trip to Mexico when their plane — Alaska Airlines Flight 261, bound for San Francisco and then Seattle — crashed in the Pacific Ocean of the southern California coast, killing everyone on board.
Two days later, church board members asked Knight to replace his father as head pastor. Difficult as it was, Knight agreed.
It was the trauma of losing his parents that helped get him started in racing. “It was a season of my life when I really needed something,” he explained. “Life was confusing, it was trying and it was hard. I was 29 at the time and I really needed an outlet.”
When a friend approached him about co-owning a racecar, Knight decided to buy in. For the first five years he was also a low-level crew member. But when his friend, who was also the driver, decided to move on, the replacement driver turned out to be Knight himself.
On Labor Day weekend of 2006, he took the green flag to begin a late model race for the first time. He had never competed in a hornet, street stock or go-kart, or any of the other classes where novice racers typically get their starts.
There were 13 other cars in his debut race and Knight finished 12th. “One guy crashed and couldn’t finish, but I passed one other guy,” he said, smiling at the memory.
The next year he won for the first time. It was then, and remains now, a moment almost too special for words.
“When you win at Evergreen Speedway, you’ve beaten some of the best in the Northwest,” he said. “It’s a prominent race track, so (winning) is not easy.”
The feeling of victory that night “was pretty exhilarating,” he added. “It was fists to the sky.”
For Knight, the joy of racing has never diminished, even on his non-winning nights. But as much as he loves to compete, he has always approached the sport with a higher purpose.
“A lot of guys race for the podium, but I race for the people,” he said. His days at the track are “a chance to blend the pastor Jeff with the racer Jeff. I want to connect with these people … and to give my life to a (racing) community in a way that’s not only good for my mission of being a pastor and being a man of God, but also a heck of a lot of fun.”
Moreover, his pastoral witness “is a little more authentic because of my racing experience. Because when you strap the helmet on, people listen to you differently than when you’re just a (crew) member.”
Though Knight tries to be “the same person on and off the track,” emotions sometimes overflow. In an Aug. 16 race, he started from back in the field and began working his way to the front, picking off one car after another. Everything seemed to be working perfectly, right up until the late-race moment when another driver made an ill-advised move, lost control, and took out Knight and some other cars.
Back in the pits, “I lost my cool,” he admitted. “I was mad. I was yelling. But those guys are my friends, and they’d yell at me, too (if the situation was reversed). We’re racing, it’s very intense … and I’m as passionate as anybody else.”
“Jeff is definitely passionate about his racing,” said Doni Wanat of Woodinville, who has raced against Knight for three years and calls him a friend. “In the racecar, he’s really no different than any of the rest of us. If you drive him clean, he’ll drive you clean. And if you don’t drive him clean, then he’s going to rough you up, too.”
Once the green flag drops, Wanat added, “I’m just another racer to him and he’s just another racer to me. I’ve run into him and he’s run into me. … We can all shake hands after the race, but during the race we’re going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Said Knight: “I don’t ever want to be the token racecar driver, the pastor guy. I want to be treated like a racecar driver. And the downside of that is that sometimes I whup on the friends who attend my church.”
Yes, the ministry that began at the speedway is bearing fruit. Though Knight tries not to be pushy about his faith, he is always willing to listen and confide. It begins with the members of his own crew — “I’ve got guys on my team that know Christ and guys that don’t,” he said — and it extends to the broader Evergreen Speedway family, including some of his late model rivals.
“For a lot of them, I’m their pastor,” he said. “I sit with them when they’re going through trouble and conflict in life. I’ve buried their kids. I’ve married their kids. … I’ve had church services with nine or 10 of my competitors at the service with their whole families. Some of these are people who’d never set foot in a church their whole life. And some I pastored at the track for years before they ever set foot in church.”
A few late model drivers had close family members die in recent years “and Jeff has been there for those people,” said Wanat, who has attended The Rock Church with his wife for two years. “And some of those guys didn’t even talk to Jeff before. … He’s always been there in a time of need. His pastoring absolutely overflows into the racetrack.”
One of Knight’s crew members recently sent him a heartfelt and deeply personal text message. “He said, ‘Thank you for teaching me to be a man. I had no idea. I thought I was just supposed to provide shelter and food for my sons, and you’ve taught me that I’m supposed to help them find their way.’ This guy has been on my team for two years and he’s just now coming across that finish line. I can’t replace that kind of stuff.”
Between racing and preaching, weekends are often the busiest two days of Knight’s week, at least during the Evergreen Speedway season. He spends much of Saturday at the track for testing and qualifying, followed by an evening race. Then he heads to his Lake Stevens home to sleep, though “sometimes you lay awake until 3 o’clock, your eyes open, staring at the ceiling, replaying the events of the day and wondering what you could’ve done differently.” Or to put it another way, “sometimes I have to detoxify,” he said.
But a few hours later he is in the car and on his way to church with his wife Melinda and their young daughter Seven. And for all the thrills that come with Saturday racing, his Sunday mornings in church are no less exciting.
“My weekend is never finished until church is over,” he said. “I run on energy drinks and just passion because I love what I do. It’s not hard to motivate me. It’s never just a sermon. I’m trying to impart something that’ll change lives, in the same way it changed my life and my family’s life.”
And whether he is racing at Evergreen Speedway or facing his congregation from the pulpit, “I’m the same guy,” he said. “I’m trying to be authentic and win people for Christ.”