No ordinary Joe: Local 19-year-old races for glory of God

PHOTOS SUBMITTED Joe Lusk, of Linden, has been racing since he was a child and has hopes of one day reaching the NASCAR circuit. “I always try to think of the future, then Dad says, ‘stop, bring it back, we’ll focus on today and the Lord will get us through. When it’s your time, the circumstance will set you up, and it won’t be just circumstance; it will be a guiding hand,’ ” Lusk said. “My five-year plan, I can imagine things, but realistically we just have to wait for opportunities to arise.

Joe Lusk, of Linden, is not your typical 19-year-old. In addition to studying web and interactive media at Pennsylvania College of Technology, he is a paid intern in the technology department of the Jersey Shore Area School District. But his passion is racing cars, and he does it for the glory of God.

“I’ve been obsessed with racing for as long as I can remember. I was introduced to speed at a very young age,” Lusk said on his website, that he developed and maintains.

“My dad (Hal) had always loved watching NASCAR on Sundays, and something about it drew me in. I wouldn’t miss a single race, and by age 3, I could name off many of my favorite drivers. The Christmas when I was 3 years old was the Christmas that changed my life,” Lusk said.

He continued, “My dad brought home a go-kart with a NASCAR body. Dad installed a car seat and 2-by-4s so I could reach the pedals. First, he taught me how to drive with me on his lap steering. Soon after I would begin driving myself around our development. In retrospect, it was probably crazy of my mom to let my dad teach me to drive so young, but it happened and I can’t complain.

“As I was exploring the kart and our development, I noticed that I could slide if I put the rear tires in the loose gravel alongside the road. At first it freaked my Dad out, but then he realized that I was controlling the slide. I was turning into a racer.

“(When I was) 5 years old, my dad bought a pavement racing go-kart in hopes that I would compete that year. The pavement track closed before I could compete there (Hughesville Raceway). Instead, we took our kart to dirt tracks. I finished second in my first-ever race and had great success the rest of the year. I raced for five years in go-karts, and I won 50-plus races

including a track championship, and a championship in the three-day Dirt Series event.

“At age 10 I moved up to 125cc (cubic centimeters) micro sprint cars. The first was a developmental class. Once we had enough cars, we started racing. I won a few races in the 125s, and moved into 270cc micro sprints a few years later. After many wins in micro sprints, my next opportunity came,” Lusk said.

“As a team, we have been extremely fortunate to move up as fast as we have. It always seems like we can move up to a bigger, faster car without much initial overhead. After micro sprints, I moved into a full-size dirt stock car.

“At age 16 I won the first race I ever competed in. Stock cars were good to me, as I gained seven wins and a track championship in the two years I ran them. In 2016, I moved up into a steel-block 358 late model. I led plenty of laps, and had great performance (not reflected in our finishes),” he said.

“When we first started, we (his family) didn’t go to church. Then Dad went through a depression and we quit racing for a year. I thought my career was going to be over for racing,” Joe recalled.

But God stepped in and brought new life.

“One Christmas he (Hal) came to the Lord and that woke up everybody. I remember that the same night in the same church I accepted Jesus as my personal savior at the same time as (dad) got out of his depression and had a big reversal. Since then, we put the Lord first.

“If I win a race, (God) is the first I thank because without Him my career would be over.”

“The second I get in the car, pretty much everything else disappears. I become unified with the car as one thing. It’s a unique experience.

“(Racing) is like a really fast game of chess and you have to be 110 percent focused on it.”

Life has its ups and downs for everyone. But for those involved with racing even more so.

After finishing second, his career-best in limited late model racing at Clinton County Motor Speedway in his first race this season May 12, things took a turn the other way a week later, something Lusk sees as a developing pattern, as he penned in a blog:

“One week on, one week off. We started with bug day, when we broke the rear end of the car. Then we went to the first race, and had our best (late model stock) finish of all time. Then, one week later, we break an engine. The hard work pays off, but it never seems to end.

“… One week you are on top, the next you’re at the lowest low. Our season has felt a lot like that.

“We found out over the week what was wrong. Judging by the holes in the oil pan, we were left with no choice but to remove the engine. As we removed it, we found the problem. The camshaft was hanging out, snapped in three pieces. We found, however, that the engine is still usable. We have two engines, but our backup is a pro stock motor. The pro stock motor, we decided, would best be sold. Without the extra money, we simply couldn’t race.

“It’s pretty melancholy when we break something this big. It also means that we will be unable to race for a few weeks, (but) when we come back, our goal is to be better than ever,” said Lusk, whose No. 20 car (Tony Stewart’s original NASCAR number) is powered by a 350 Chevy small block engine that produces about 600 horsepower.

“A lot of times the Lord comes into it where He will help out and show Dad or me the way to get things done. There are a lot of times where divine intervention comes into it where we are thinking we are going to go one way and then another solution presents itself. That gets us through week-to-week,” he said.

In addition to potential mechanical problems, each week the dirt track presents challenges of its own.

“(Everything) evolves so quickly. The crew chief and I set up the car, but as soon as you get out there the track changes and you constantly have to be thinking about the track,” Lusk said. “The competitors might be an enemy, but especially in dirt racing you have to race against the track.”

Team support is important to a successful team and Lusk gets that from his father, who serves as crew chief, and, this season, Nathan Ilinski. Lusk also mentioned Chuck Roan, C.W. Smith and Smith’s son, Jason, who provide occasional help.

“Honestly, I don’t think I could go through the pits and not find somebody who wouldn’t be willing to offer a hand if we needed help. It’s like a big family,” he said.

“We always have a prayer before a race, and Jesus is always my passenger,” Lusk said, fully aware that sometimes in racing things go terribly wrong.

Although he said there is no timetable, Lusk’s ultimate goal is to compete on the NASCAR circuit.

“I always try to think of the future, then Dad says, ‘stop, bring it back, we’ll focus on today and the Lord will get us through. When it’s your time, the circumstance will set you up, and it won’t be just circumstance; it will be a guiding hand.’

“My five-year plan, I can imagine things, but realistically we just have to wait for opportunities to arise.

“It’s all about sponsors. My goal with the website and social media is attracting people to get support. … It’s a tough sport and it costs money. We scrape by every week just to make it to the track,” he said.

Lusk’s current sponsors include: PMF Industries Inc., C&E Containers Inc., Antiques and Moore, K&W Transmissions, K&S Music Center, Cindy Bee Floral, Mechtly Commercial Door LLC, Express Beverage, Rod Fry Trucking Inc., Hard Rock Trucking and Champion.

But that is just the start. It takes big bucks to compete at the top level. According to a 2012 article in the Jacksonville Times-Union, it costs up to $400,000 a week — and that doesn’t take in start-up costs. Engines alone run about $100,000. Top teams have annual budgets of $20 million-plus a year, according to a 2008 story in the Washington Post.

“We’ll see where opportunity and the Lord take us next,” he said, hoping to build on continued success at Clinton County and racing on tracks at Selinsgrove, Port Royal and Hagerstown, Maryland. “The success determines where we go.”