Ia Hidden Star:/I Lonnie Clouse

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You’ve heard all the names before. Schrader. Spencer. McReynolds. Wallace. Pressley. Andrews.

But you probably don’t know their first names. No, it’s not the drivers or crew chiefs, it’s their kids. Dorothy Schrader, Katrina Spencer, Brandon McReynolds, Stephen Wallace, Coleman Pressley, Tim Andrews.

There are others, of course, plenty of others. And when NASCAR Winston Cup’s traveling circus goes on the road, the kids go with it. What in the world do all those kids do when their dads are off tackling this country’s racetracks?

That’s where Lonnie Clouse comes in. Clouse is an assistant chaplain with Motor Racing Outreach, a non-denominational traveling ministry that works with NASCAR drivers, crewmen, owners, officials and anyone else who works in the sport. Clouse is MRO’s youth minister, and he leads a program called “Cross Trainers,” which is for kids from fifth grade and up.

And he’s perfect for the job, said MRO Winston Cup chaplain Dale Beaver.

“Lonnie’s hit his niche, big-time,” Beaver said. “He loves youth ministry, and he’s good at it.”

The parents approve, too.

“What he and his wife, Angela, does with our kids and what they’ve taught them, there’s almost a part of me that envies them a little bit,” said Larry McReynolds, whose two children Brooke, 12, and Brandon, 10, are involved with Cross Trainers. “It’s been miraculous what they’ve done with those kids.

“When you’re at that age, religion and learning about God and Jesus – to keep them from getting bored with it – you have to put some fun into it. That’s what Lonnie and Angela have done an awesome job at doing. To watch how Brooke and Brandon have grown spiritually – and I know so much is attributed to what Lonnie and Angela and the whole MRO group has done with them – it is pretty rewarding.”

Clouse is a PK – a preacher’s kid – who has lived in several places in his youth. His father helped start churches all over the country and was in Hawaii when Lonnie was born. Max Helton, the founder of MRO, visited Lonnie in the hospital when he was born.

In college, Clouse was a rebel. Well, as rebellious as a born-again Christian can be.

“I’m a firm believer that for this ministry, you need to find the biggest rebels in bible college to come do it because they’re the guys that are gonna fit here,” Beaver said. “Lonnie is by no means a bad dude, he was just a rebel in Bible college.”

Yeah, he was so wild: played soccer, wore his hair long, “things you aren’t supposed to do in Bible college,” Beaver said.

Appalachian Bible College in West Virginia must have wanted him kicked out for such fiendish deeds.

“I went to a pretty conservative school,” Clouse said. “It’s not like I was doing drugs and getting drunk. I just really didn’t fit the mold too much. I’m a youth pastor: I’ve got my hair dyed. I played four years of soccer, and I had dreadlocks. Nothing too wild.”

“A lot of times the ones they say aren’t going to amount to anything, the rebels, are usually the ones who are gung-ho and end up doing something.”

Later, Clouse worked as a counselor at a youth home started by Joe Gibbs in Washington, D.C. So when the opportunity came to lead NASCAR’s youth, Clouse jumped at the chance.

“It’s a pilot program,” said Clouse, who added that the youth came up with the name “Cross Trainers.” “Right now, this is the only series that we have a youth program. They want to take my philosophy and what I’m doing here and implement them into our other different series.

“This (position) was the most challenging because our motto at MRO is we’re here to give to those that want our help, and those that don’t, we’re here to love. There’s so many people who come into this community who want so much from these drivers and their families that it bursts their heads: ‘What does this person want?’

“We’re starting to see some results now. It’s taken about three years to break down that barrier.”

Results aren’t measured in laps led. They’re measured in the number of youth who have come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And Clouse said three have done so, in addition to the other kids who are growing in that relationship.

The Cross Trainers program hosts about a dozen or so youth every week, sometimes more. The majority of children are in the fifth to the eighth grade, but some teen-agers come. Lonnie and Angela hold the program in their motorcoach, singing songs, praying, reading the Bible.

But the program goes beyond that. They’ll do things like go to a rodeo near Darlington, S.C., go-kart tracks, or anything that’s fun. Clouse tows a van to drive the kids around when they leave the racetrack.

Clouse and the youth also spent a week at an adventure camp in the Pocono mountains.

“These kids are so spoiled,” Clouse said with a smile. “We sleep out on teepees at camp, and we rough it. We have to go to a porta-potty. There’s no air conditioning. It’s very hot. (Steven Wallace) started whining about no air conditioning. He said next year he was going to have his dad make it so they could bring a big truck with a huge generator so we could have air conditioning in our teepees.”

Clouse just laughed.

“These kids have no clue,” Clouse said. “Another one didn’t want to ride eight hours on our 15-passenger van, so they were going to charter a plane to fly them to camp. Things like that really crack me up. I’m like, ‘Listen, you guys need to rough it like every other kid.’”

Clouse is simply poking fun. Youth ministry is serious work, most of the time.

“He’s all about having fun with them,” Beaver said. “At the same time, he’s building a relationship with them by playing with, shooting hoops, roller skating and getting their confidence.

“In doing that, it gives him credibility to speak to their lives. You’ll never find him on a weekend that he’s not getting them in the scriptures and really grounding them in their faith.”

“This is a critical time in those teen-agers’ lives. I’ve got a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, and he’s the kind of guy that I’m going to want my sons to spend time with.”

Part of the program is a year-long “competition,” where youth get points for Bible memory, attendance or bringing friends to youth activities. The winner, Katrina Spencer, got a $100 gift certificate.

“You wouldn’t think $100 would be much to these kids, but they strive for it,” Clouse said.

There are other kids who are deeply involved. Dorothy Schrader quoted an entire chapter from the book of James in MRO’s weekly chapel service at Atlanta, bringing cheers from the assembled audience of drivers and their families.

Coleman Pressley gave his testimony to 10,000 people at Darlington last year. Brandon McReynolds shared his testimony at a church the youth attended.

“I’m trying to get these kids ready for when they’re older and driving Winston Cup,” Clouse said. “A lot of my kids are racing right now. When they’re older and driving Winston Cup, my goal is for them to continue to do the same thing they’re doing now, like going out and sharing their faith.”

Clouse wants them to be “bold about their faith,” saying Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte are good role models.

“People might talk bad about them, saying, ‘They’re spoiled, they’re dad’s so-and-so, they get everything they want,’” Clouse said. “The ones that attend are there because they want to come, not because they’re parents make them come.

“They’re really good kids. They have good hearts, and they really care a lot about people. They’re more than willing to help out. I’m not just saying it. They really are a good group of kids.

“They realize what their dads do and who they are, but they just want to be accepted as regular kids. I see that so much. They know all about it. They know what they have compared to other kids. They see their dads getting mobbed by fans.

“They just want a normal lifestyle. They want to go to school, hang out, be treated like everybody else. They want to be able to go the mall, go to the arcade, go bowling and have fun. They want to be accepted for who they are.

“A lot of them don’t even care to be mentioned by their last name. It’s the first name. They don’t want to live off their dad’s publicity. They want to be accepted for who they are. We treat them each as if they were like any other child.”

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2001

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