Committed to the Race

by Matt Ramsey

Bill Okell has stood on the gas pedal with the best racing talent on the west coast. As a Canadian race car driver for over 25 years, he’s felt his adrenaline surge at major events such as the prestigious Vancouver Molson Indy, where he raced seven times and placed second — a career highlight. Still involved in as many as 10 races annually, he and his team have achieved a level of success in the sport that few Canadians have ever enjoyed.

With his presentation Adventures and Lessons from the NASCAR Circuit, Okell, a gifted speaker and storyteller, draws his audiences directly into the behind-the-scenes drama of the North American auto racing culture. In one of his favourite speeches, 'This Is What I Do: A Changed Way of Life', he seasons inspirational advice with gripping anecdotes especially from his race against Indy champion Paul Tracy of Toronto.

Okell, a well known local race and sports broadcaster, always talks eloquently about lessons learned—lessons of patience, perseverance, teamwork, trust and leadership. Speaking with courage about his setbacks and disappointments both on the track and off, he explains how he used those setbacks to overcome adversity and to succeed in business and in life.

Okell casts a long shadow across the concrete track at Western Speedway in Victoria as he brushes away small mangled car bits left behind from the programmed demolition derby the night before. It's a chilly October morning but 46-year-old Okell is chipper. His 1964 convertible MG race car is capable of reaching speeds of 135 miles per hour and gleans in the morning sun. Okell, a motor sports broadcaster and businessman, is clearly itching to climb behind the wheel to show exactly what the car can do. Okell motor sports teammates Ian Mackie, Leigh Urquhart and Dale Taylor sweep away the debris.

With his sandy brown hair, cut moustache and relective sunglasses Okell looks every bit the part of the proto-typical race-car driver, the kind you see every Sunday on TV; sharp, tanned and taut, and covered in advertisers logos. Okell bought his car in June of 1974 and insists the purchase has nothing to do with women but rather came from his desire to get into the racing business. "When my friends were at the newsstands reading Playboy I was in another aisle reading Road and Track Magazine," recalls Bill.

The hot car became hotter one night when thieves absconded with the vehicle. Unable to negotiate the standard manual transmission the engine was virtually destroyed. Okell completely rebuilt the engine and it was then and there that he decided to get into the racing game. The custom rebuilt car was not unlike his passion for rebuilding old bicycles but infinitely more expensive. The 1800 cc, four-cylinder engine growls with 165 horsepower. Okell admits that he has spend more than $500,000 on the MG over the past 25 years. The budget is considerably lower now, as he gets older, depending on how many races he drives.

He will spend between $5000 and $6000 this year. Racing the National circuit in the US, as Okell had hoped to do would be even more costly, approximately $5000 per race. "I think if I decided that an event wasn't worth it, I would probably get depressed," states Okell, the man with an obvious passion for the sport. "But the effort is by no means simply a man and his car. It's about teamwork," he says. "our team approach is paying off."

"In the first race of 1999 Okell Motor sports smashed it's own record at Mission Speedway. "It's a question of balancing accomplishment with doing something that means something" Okell notes. Once that balance is found and Okell says he has only been able to find it in the past few years, anything is possible. Before 1990 Okell did not push the car as hard as he could. He did not see the point. Now when he climbs into the cockpit of the MG he drives lap after lap, his arms burning from the pressure, he has his friends, his team in mind.

And then there's faith. In 1990 Okell was contemplating suicide when leading what he describes a selfish, stealing and marauding lifestyle. "Finding God changed all of that," declares Mr. Okell with the conviction of a man saved. Like many other athletes on various playing fields across the globe, Okell believes that he has God on his side. Now the race car serves not only as a vehicle to get him around an expressway built for speed but also it is a way for him to bring a positive message to his friends, his team and to auto racing fans in general. Emblazoned on the rear of his car is the quote "Run with Endurance, the Race" Hebrews 12:1. "This is a reminder from the Bible, every single race, every single day," Okell says, "I have faith that God put me here to do this job of auto racing and from that I get to be a role model for other people," says Okell. "If God were to slam me up against a wall at 175 km/hr then I have to accept that as part of the risk of being human. It is part of religion and sport. Religion and sport is not a new phenomenon," Okell points out. "Some arm-chair quarterbacks can make a persuasive argument that racing is its own religion. Coaches often use religion to create cohesion among team members."

In the video Driving Force produced by Athletes in Action, NASCAR drivers declare that God is a tangible force and partner behind their race car teams and their professed faith in Jesus Christ is a smoothing edge that helps them risk life and limb in every race. Okell is reminded each and every time he gets in the car that the Lord sits with him.

For Okell faith was a way to change his life for the better. He says he is not trying to make any converts "I am just trying to show what is possible," he says "I drive a vehicle and I am a vehicle."

Driving home a message for the Lord - that's Bill Okell.