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Guided by Faith

ugoff’s Donnie Levister prepared to make his Camping World Truck Series debut in Martinsville

Posted: March 31, 2016 11:58 a.m.
Updated: April 1, 2016 1:00 a.m.
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DONNIE LEVISTER

Everyone loves an underdog. But wanting to be the underdog? That is something entirely different. That is, unless your name is Donnie Levister.

Since jumping behind the wheel of a race car and taking his ride over the dirt surface at the Sumter Speedway as a teenager, the Lugoff resident has been a driver who has embraced the role of being a “have not” in a world sometimes dominated by the “haves.”

This weekend, Levister will take his small fish in a big pond to the ocean which is NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. Working on a shoestring budget, as compared to some of the heavyweights in the sport, Levister will try to qualify his number 62 Faith Motorsports Toyota Tundra into Saturday’s Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville Speedway.

Levister, who raced in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series for modified cars last season, will make his first qualifying attempt in the truck series this afternoon. Included in the field of drivers for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. start is defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch.

You talk about a well-heeled, experienced organization with a stable of trucks going against one which is trying to find its way in the series and has one race-ready truck while still working on the back-up ride. While some would shrink at such a challenge, this is an opportunity which Levister had waited his whole life to take on.

“I love being an underdog,” Levister said, “because that way when we succeed and we do well, people will say, ‘Where did he come from?’ 

“That’s where we can share our story. If you go in and think that you’re at the top of the mountain and think that you’re better than what you are, you get humbled real fast.”

If you get a sense that racing is more than just driving and trying to get into victory lane for Levister, you would be correct.

Faith Motorsports is exactly what it implies. The operation which includes Levister, a 1994 graduate of Fairfield Central High School, and fellow team owner Shane Lamb have their priorities in place and they include something other than top 10 finishes and competing with the best drivers in the world’s best truck series. The Christian-based operation focuses on fostering positive outreach in the racing community while embracing strong family values.

The team name and the responsibility which goes with it is something which Levister does not take lightly.

“We know the odds are stacked against us but our main mission is not just racing. Our main mission is to be an outreach,” he said. “We’ve said it time and time again that if we can change one person or, give somebody hope or, be a connection for a person who is going through a tough time and they can relate to us and if we can help that one person, then our goal is met.”

Levister cut his racing teeth on the dirt bull rings such as the Sumter Speedway, where he ran stock cars for better than four years. He would move on to late models and then to open-wheel modified dirt racing at I-20 Speedway and I-77 Speedway in Batesburg and Chester, respectively, as well at tracks in Georgia and North Carolina before stepping out of the car and getting out of racing. 

All that changed when Lamb, his longtime friend who had since moved to Kansas, got the itch to go racing again. Lamb called Levister and shortly thereafter, Levister was back behind the wheel and racing again.

In 2015, Levister was nomiated for NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series rookie of the year in a series which competed on asphalt short tracks. The transition from driving on clay and dirt surfaces to paved was one which took some time for Levister to adjust to.

 “It was a night and day different,” the 39-year-old driver said with a laugh. “It took me about half a year. Driving on dirt, you turn right to go left. 

“The first time I went on the asphalt track and tried that, I put on a good show for everybody but I wasn’t going anywhere. Everybody was like, ‘Well, that was cool but just don’t do that again.’

“You have to finesse it a lot more and I’m not talking just about steering. I’m talking about your posture in the car. You have to be a little more conservative on your arm movement. Your break control and your throttle control has to be a lot smoother on asphalt than it is on dirt. There is no give and take as far as sliding the car.”

Moving to the Camping World Truck Series takes Levister and Lamb into the big leagues, even if their operation might not be housed in a fancy building in Mooresville, N.C., where most NASCAR teams are based. Instead, Faith Motorsports’ garage sits behind Levister’s home. He is, however, in negotiations to move into a warehouse in Camden in the near future. 

“We’re committed to staying here locally. We’re not moving to Mooresville. That’s what we’ve told all the people who are supporting us,” he said. “We’re not going to turn our back on them. We’re home and we’re going to stay here. We’re going to prove to people that it can work and we’re going to represent Camden and Lugoff the best that we can.”

For now, Levister’s home base actually is his home. While the heavy hitters in the truck series make their living solely as drivers, Levister goes to work each day in Columbia where he is employed as body shop manufacturer for a leading car dealership. His schedule is much different than that of defending series champion Erik Jones, never mind someone like a Kyle Busch.

“I get up at six in the morning and go into the shop and piddle around a little bit,” he said. “Then, I go to work and get off at five or, 5:30 (p.m.) then come straight home, change clothes, kiss me wife, grab a quick bite to eat on my way out the door  and then, I’m in the shop until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said of a typical day in his life.

Going from cars to driving trucks is not as great of a leap as it may seem. Levister did his homework on the trucks once Lamb said that switching from racing cars to trucks was his vision and next goal in the sport.

The truck, Levister said, is “twerkier” on the back end due to having less weight there than does a car. But the dynamics are still the same as a race car. “It’s a truck but it drives very similar to a car. There’s a little bit of difference but nothing that I haven’t been able to adjust to,” he said.

Due to being a rookie in the truck series and not having the experience at larger tracks, Faith Motorsports sat out the first two stops of the series in Daytona and Atlanta while biding their time and preparing their car for Martinsville. 

The .526-mile Martinsville paper clip layout fits Levister’s wheelhouse. He grew up driving on short tracks and knows what it takes to get around the track.

Patience, he said, plays a key role while having cool brakes and a cool temper are vital elements to a driver’s success. Anything less could result in overdriving the truck and finding oneself behind the wall before the end of the race.

Levister said he is ready for whatever comes his way and hardly sounds like a rookie when it comes to being prepared for what may happen this weekend

“I’ve been running the race in my head for the past three weeks,” Levister said of his truck series debut. “Every day, I’m thinking what will I do ifthis happens. I’ve been around racing long enough to know that I can’t predict what the other guy is going to do. I only know what I’m going to do.”

Levister said he is eager for race day to get here while, at the same time knowing that once it does he will have wished his team would have had more time to prepare. This, he said, is both the culmination and the beginning of a dream which has taken him from his family, which includes his wife, Elizabeth, and their two children. His family, Levister said, has been with him every step on this journey.

As for Lamb, traveling from Kansas to Lugoff last week took him away from home for two important events.

“We’re making a lot of sacrifices. Our families are making sacrifices,” he said. “Shane actually drove in from Kansas. His wife’s birthday is this week and he’s missing that. He missed Easter with his daughter. 

“We’re both giving up tremendous amounts of family time just to make this happen. Without our families, we couldn’t do this. They’ve been more supportive about this than even we thought they would.”

As for the racing at the track itself, Levister believes that Faith Motorsports and its mission will appeal to race fans. who can identify more closely with a team working its way from the ground up rather than one which receives everything its needs at the snap of their fingers.

Faith Motorsports, Levister said, is the team of the working person.

“The teams that we’re going up against, I feel, have lost reality and touch with the real world,” he said. “You’ve got million dollar sponsors, million dollar teams. Not to single them out but Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch have more money than they know what to do with and they don’t minding spending it if they think they can get ahead.

“To the average person, especially in the small towns like Lugoff and Camden, it’s easier to relate to us because we’re true, blue-collar workers. We don’t have things given to us on a daily basis. We don’t have sponsors lined up at the door or, vendors lined up at the door just giving you stuff. Everything that we’re doing is from our own blood, sweat and tears.”

Would Levister and Lamb like to win a Camping World Truck Series championship? Sure. But they are not going to throw away their blueprint for success to do that. They relish the thought of being the little team that could. One which is trying to build its way up the ladder one race, one day and one person at a time. 

“It’s not all about going out and being a championship team,” Levister said of the philosophy of Faith Motorsports. “We know the odds of being a championship team are going to be short but we’ve got the heart and the determination and if it’s our time, it’s our time. We’re going to do the best we can.

 “We feel like with our faith and what we believe that if we do it the right way, it’s going to work out. And so far, it has. The doors that we could not possibly have opened on our own are opening for us. That’s all a testament to our faith: We believe it, we’re living examples of it and the rest will take care of itself.

“Our philosophy is that we believe it and we’re going to prove to the world that this small team can do it.”

 

(Note: Practice for Saturday’s  NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville Speedway will be today from 10 a.m. until 10:55 a.m. with race qualifying set to begin at 3 p.m. Both events will be carried live on Fox Sports 1. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Alpha Energy Solutions 250 will take the green flag on Saturday, April 2 at 2:30 p.m. The race will be telecast live on Fox Sports 1.)

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