Mark and Dawn Merical serve the spiritual needs of America’s motorcycle racing community
I was covering the first-ever MotoAmerica event at Pittsburgh International Race Complex in 2017 when I first met Rev. Mark Merical. We had a brief conversation, and as I walked away, I asked myself, “I wonder what he does at a racing event? Does he do an invocation and then just hang out for the rest of the weekend?”
Two years later, I was on assignment at the WERA Grand National Finals and saw Merical aboard a racer’s motorcycle — ferrying it across the paddock with a rear wheel stand strewn across the tail section. That scene re-sparked an interest in learning what a typical weekend is like for him.
I first reached out to Merical about doing an interview in January 2020. The subsequent conversations taught me that Mark Merical and his wife, Dawn, are long-time motorcycling enthusiasts who also steadfastly minister to the spiritual needs of America’s motorcycle racers.
In the beginning…
Motorcycles and ministry have long been part of Mark Merical’s life and aspirations. He said he got his first minibike when he was 10 and was hooked right away.
Something that helped fuel Merical’s interest in motorcycles was his childhood friendship with now-American Flat Track Chief Competition Officer Kevin Crowther. According to Merical, Crowther was already a “motorcycle nut” by the time the two met in junior high school. Friends like Crowther would invite him over to their houses or on trips to ride motorcycles, but Merical didn’t buy his first bike until he was in his 20s.
The son of a pastor, Merical said he knew he wanted to enter the ministry when he was in junior high. He also had an interest in music and did a minor in the subject while completing a major in theology at a Bible school. Merical’s time in Bible school also is where he met Dawn, and Mark started his ministry career as a worship pastor in 1985.
Mark had finished Bible school and married Dawn by the time he was 21 and thought he’d reached a point where he could get a motorcycle.
There was just one obstacle: Dawn.
Mark said she was raised in a family that hated motorcycles — a small detail that they hadn’t talked about until then. She refused to give her assent to a motorcycle purchase but, about a year later, she relented and allowed Mark to follow through on his dream.
Mark said he then went to a nearby dealership, where he bought a leftover new 1982 Yamaha Vision 550. He began racking up road riding miles while serving as a worship pastor at churches in California and Ohio.
From the sanctuary to the paddock
The Mericals’ decision to start RaceLine Ministry was sparked during an Iron Butt Association ride Mark completed — but took several years to come to fruition.
Mark Merical had lots of time to think when he was doing a 48 States Challenge (ride in all 48 contiguous United States within 10 days) for a California charity. During the eight days Merical said it took him to accomplish the feat, he began pondering the idea of mixing ministry and motor sports. He quickly dismissed the idea, though, thinking it wasn’t financially viable.
In 2009, Merical said he got re-connected with his childhood friend Crowther, who invited him to attend the FIM MotoGP round at Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Merical said that’s when the idea that he’d so quickly dismissed on the open road came back to him.
“I remember standing in the middle of the paddock at Laguna [Seca] looking at all the racers, pit crew, rigs and families….” he said. “[I] thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could take my love for motorcycles, my love for people and my love for God and take it the racetrack?’ Then, I laughed. What person with a hobby wouldn’t want to make his hobby his livelihood?”
When he got home, Mark told Dawn about his idea. To his utter shock, the love of his life who’d told him 24 years earlier that he was only buying a motorcycle, “…over her dead body,” said she really liked the idea. Mark said he and Dawn kept the new ministry in their prayers, though Mark wasn’t sure how he could make it work with his church commitments on weekends.
From 2009 to when they formally started RaceLine Ministry in 2012, Mark found himself losing his passion to remain in the music ministry. A road trip from Akron, Ohio, to Bakersfield, Calif., in 2011 gave Mark and Dawn lots of time to map out how a dedicated motor sports chaplaincy could work.
When they decided it was time to take the plunge into full-time chaplaincy, they began looking for series to begin their ministry with. Mark Merical said AMA Pro Racing — which sanctioned nearly all professional motorcycle competition at the time — already had a chaplain. So, the ministry got kicked off with a partnership with WERA Motorcycle Roadracing Inc.
In March 2012, the Mericals hit the road and have been serving the motorcycle racing community ever since.
OK… so what exactly does a motor sports chaplain do?
I had figured a chaplaincy was primarily about serving certain ceremonial functions at race weekends. Mark Merical has helped me realize it’s a lot more about building relationships with his paddock congregation, one racer at a time.
Merical is at pit-in every race he can be to give riders coming off the track an applause or a high-five. Some of the Mericals’ other services mirror those of a typical church pastor, such as putting on chapel services and counseling.
“We do quite a bit of counseling,” Mark Merical said, explaining that many sessions focus on helping racers and their families work through relationship, parenting and career challenges.
Other responsibilities include performing invocations and singing the national anthem. WERA events don’t have a formal invocation, so Merical offers to pray with racers individually at their paddock space before they go out on track.
One of the practices that keeps the couple busy at events is helping attend to racers who’ve crashed.
“When the paramedics roll, I roll,” Mark Merical said. “I go out on the track to crash [scenes] at most tracks and assist. I usually know the name of the rider, and my wife radios or texts me the information about the rider while I’m going out.”
He added that he can sometimes tell the paramedics about a rider’s injury history or if their behavior is unusual.
If a rider ends up having to go to a hospital, the Mericals will visit and stay with them — especially if the rider is at the track by themselves.
All the above services are made possible because of the Mericals’ strong relationships with members of the motorcycle racing community. Mark said he and Dawn often share meals with racers and try to have at least a couple cookouts each year at the events they attend.
Mark said he’s also worked as a pit-out official and a starting grid marshal, and Dawn has helped with registration and announcing races.
There also have been a fair share of odd moments for Mark Merical in his line of ministry. He said he’s sampled moonshine with racers and had to have his scooter brought back to the pits on the crash truck when it stopped running on track. He’s also put the fear of God into a hospitalized racer who was treating doctors and nurses disrespectfully.
Challenges and tragedy
In addition to learning what the Mericals typically do at a racing event, I’d also been wondering how they handle supporting racers of non-Christian faiths. Racers come from a wide range of backgrounds, and even Christianity has many iterations in the forms of denominations and theologies.
Both Mark and Dawn are devout Christians, and Mark said he handles working with individuals of other faiths, “carefully and respectfully.” He noted that he hasn’t had major conflicts in his nine years of motor sports ministry, and said he works through differences in belief systems on a case-by-case basis.
“The little I have had to do this it has gone well and smooth,” Mark Merical said. “We have people come to chapel [services] where I preach God’s Word who are of different faiths. I think they enjoy what they hear because they keep coming back.”
Perhaps the most challenging situation the Mericals deal with is when racers are seriously injured or pass away. Mark Merical reported the couple has been on-hand for seven fatalities since they started the ministry, including four within a one-year period (2016-2017).
“To have to let the families know and tell the officials and racers is more heartbreaking than you can imagine,” Mark said. “Death sucks. The Bible says death is our enemy, and that’s so true.”
He went on to recount what it was like being there for several of the incidents, including being with fallen racers in their final moments and spending time consoling their loved ones.
Plenty to do
Though there have been heart-wrenching times, the Mericals remain passionate about ministering to America’s motorcycle racing community. While peak riding season in much of the United States runs April through October, the Mericals’ ministry is nearly year-round. Mark Merical stated the ministry attends about 40 events each year, though he and Dawn work with riders and their families remotely throughout the year.
“Typically, our first event is sometime in mid-February and our last event each year is usually in early December,” he said.
Mark noted that RaceLine Ministry is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that is funded by the generosity of the motorcycle racing community.
“We are completely financially taken care of by individuals who give on a regular basis to our ministry,” he said. “…Dawn and I are grateful for the prayers and financial support of people all around our country. Without them, RaceLine Ministry is 100-percent not possible.
“For thirty-six years I have been in ministry. I have had the pleasure to do some really wonderful things in worship and in music. But I have to say, the ministry I am in now is more suitable to me than anything I have done. I love it with all my heart.”
Mark also pointed out that he and Dawn are just two of many chaplains who serve the motor sports community and that there’s space for more chaplains in paddocks across the nation.
“When we add up all the people who we have contact within the organizations we work with, it adds up to between 2,500 and 3,000 people,” he said. “It is a lot of people to try to watch over. You would have to be dedicated, patient, a lover of God and a lover of people. If that is the case, you would love this ministry.”
Ministering through a pandemic
With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Mark and Dawn had to find new ways to reach their parishioners when putting on chapel services simply wasn’t an option.
Though Mark was hesitant to expand the ministry via electronic communication, his adaptation to adverse circumstances resulted in the rapid growth of the ministry’s reach.
Merical said the last motor sports event he attended before the onset of the pandemic was the MotoAmerica tire test at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., on March 10-11, 2020.
“What was very interesting to me was that COVID put people in a very awkward state with work and racing,” Mark Merical said. “I’ll tell you, without exaggerating, I don’t think I went one day without many phone calls, texts or emails from people. That entire time, I stayed busy with people, but in a different way. It wasn’t face to face. It was through all the electronic ways we keep in touch with one another.”
As early as March 2020, Mark and Dawn realized that Facebook Live offered them a way to host socially-distanced chapel services to continue ministering to their racing flock.
Though Mark said in-person chapel attendance was way down when racing back underway in May 2020, the Facebook Live attendance has remained strong.
“I was getting about 1,500 to 2,000 views every week,” Mark Merical said. “So, we decided to keep doing that, and we’re still doing it.”
Mark also got started with podcasting in 2020. Though he said he was hesitant to start recording podcasts, he’s found they fill a gap in RaceLine Ministry’s repertoire.
“I’d been praying that I may have more of a spiritual effect on our community,” he said. “A lot of my conversations are short, and we don’t have time for long conversations. I’ve now done 274 podcasts. About two-thirds are spiritual in nature, and the other third are racing-related interviews.”
Keeping up with the Mericals
For 2021, the generosity of the Mericals’ parishioners has allowed them to upgrade their mobile living quarters, as well as Mark’s two-wheeled ride.
The ministry upgraded from a traditional tow-behind trailer to a 44-foot-long fifth wheel and a dual-wheeled pickup truck in July 2021. Though the upgrade gives the Mericals a larger living space, it also has allowed them to increase the capacity of their ministry.
“The [old] camper itself was just too small,” Mark said. “As our ministry has grown, the ways we minister to people has changed. One of the things we’ve been wanting to do is to be able to have couples — or two or three couples — over to talk about things or to counsel someone privately, and [the old] camper was too small to do that.”
Mark also said that the living space in the previous camper was awkward, as he and Dawn couldn’t sleep in the same bed when they were on the road.
As he was reaching out to the ministry’s supporters for help raising money for the new truck and camper, he was gifted a new motorcycle. He’d had a Yamaha FJR1300 for years, but the generosity of one of his parishioners gave him a chance to own his dream motorcycle. A, “very cool friend,” gifted Merical a used 2012 BMW K 1600.
“People were thinking that I purchased it,” Mark said. “I posted it on Facebook so that people knew that — as I’m trying to raise money for this dually and fifth wheel — I didn’t go out and buy a brand new motorcycle.”
Getting up to speed
While the Mericals’ ministry keeps them in the paddock for the most part, Mark also has had a couple opportunities to race a motorcycle during the last two years.
His foray into road racing started thanks to a friend, who’d heard one of Mark Merical’s bucket list items was to go racing once.
Merical said his friend worked with WERA Motorcycle Road Racing Inc. to get Merical out on track aboard a Suzuki SV650. The friend put on a dinner the Friday night before the Sept. 28-29, 2019, WERA weekend at Nelson Ledges Road Course in Garrettsville, Ohio.
“He told me he’d be unveiling something,” Mark Merical said. “About an hour into the meal, he pulls the covers off a beautiful SV650 and told me I was racing that tomorrow. My wife had snuck my [riding] gear into the camper. I went out and did my little school, then a mock race and a real race.”
Though Merical had spent a lot of time around racers, he said getting out on track dramatically changed his understanding of the sport.
“I went out on that track — thinking I was so awesome and fast — and people passed me like I was not even moving,” Mark Merical said. “It was the most amazing experience for me, and it gave me a new perspective on racing — one I will appreciate for the rest of my life.”
There also was some pomp and circumstance around the conclusion of his first race.
“My wife checkered the race, and when I came into the paddock after the last lap, there were about 40 or 50 people lined up to give me a high-five just like I do with the racers when they come off the track,” he said. “It was something I will never forget and brought tears to my eyes.”
After his first racing experience, another racer gifted Merical a 2009 Suzuki GSX-R600. Thanks to support from Sportbike Track Gear, Merical was able to race the GSX-R at Nelson Ledges in June 2020. Merical’s best finish so far on the GSX-R is a second place in WERA’s V8 Middleweight Class, though he said the GSX-R currently has a clutch problem that makes it unrideable.
Merical said he enjoys racing but also emphasized that he doesn’t want to let racing take too much time away from the ministry.
“Racing is a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of time,” he said. “I need to race more often, but I enjoy being a chaplain way more than I enjoy getting out and racing.”