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Racing Toward a Dream

For Randy and Tiffanie Tolsma, staying close is a high-speed affair

Randy Tolsma was driving back from the airport. He'd been out of town on business, and all he could think about was how good it would feel to finally get home to his wife, Tiffanie.

That's when he was pulled over for doing 78 in a 70 mile-per-hour zone. But 78 isn't even half as fast as he drives when he's on the job. Randy races a Chevrolet pick-up at speeds up to 178 miles per hour in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Tiffanie says she doesn't worry about her husband's high-speed laps around a track. It's his off-hours driving that makes her nervous. "When brake lights come on in front of us," she says, "he doesn't slow down." Randy gauges the distance between his vehicle and the one in front of him before deciding whether to slow down. And that holds true whether he's racing or driving to the grocery store.

Tiffanie has missed only one of her husband's 150 races during their ten-year marriage. Their involvement in motor sports has given the Tolsmas something marriage counselors recommend for all couples: a shared dream.

High-Octane Dreams

Racing has been a lifelong passion for both Randy and Tiffanie. Tiffanie's mother used to write for a racing magazine, and her grandparents owned a speedway in southeastern Idaho. Randy saw his first auto race when he was just a few weeks old, too young to know he was watching his dad and his uncles compete against other drivers on an oval track. But it didn't take him long to claim the sport as his own.

"As a kid, everything was racing to me," he recalls. "I raced my friends on bikes. I was involved in all the sports, but racing was my passion."

At age nine, Randy started racing go-karts.

"I remember going to the first race and looking at the trophies," he says. "I found the first-place trophy and figured that's the one I would take home." He competed against two other drivers, finishing third. But he won a championship the second season and claimed 100 go-kart victories before he was old enough to get a driver's license.

He moved up to midget racers—small, open-wheeled cars—by age 15. When Tiffanie Myers, a teenage go-kart racer, first heard about Randy, he was already a well-known driver around Boise, Idaho. They finally met, at a race track, and Randy asked her out the next day.

On their first date, they went to a movie—Stroker Ace, starring Burt Reynolds as a champion race driver. Afterward, Tiffanie accompanied Randy to a friend's house where she watched the guys get ready to take their cars to Oregon for a race. Give Randy credit for single-minded devotion to racing, but subtract a few points in the romance department.

"Racing was the number-one thing in my life," he says. "I told Tiffanie that racing came first and she came second. That's how focused I was on that dream."

Randy was Tiffanie's first boyfriend, and here he was telling her she ranked behind a midget race car. How'd she react to that news?

"Racing was important to me, too, so I really didn't think anything about it," she says. "That's just the way it was in the sport."

But that doesn't mean there was never any conflict between Randy's devotion to racing and their fledgling romance.

"I was trying to make Randy like me, and I was controlling," Tiffanie says. "There would be situations where he'd need to do things without me, and I'd resort to manipulation to try to get my way. Randy finally said, 'You know what? This is not the way I'm going to spend the rest of my life.'

"We had a six-week break-up, and it gave me a lot of time to think. I decided that a relationship with Randy was more important than having my way, and it changed my life." Even though she wasn't a Christian at the time, Tiffanie believes God used that break-up to help shape her character. "That was the start of the person I am now," she says.

Racing toward God

When the Tolsmas married in 1988, they both had "normal" jobs—Randy as a self-employed sign painter and Tiffanie as a secretary. But most of their weekends were devoted to racing. In 1990, Randy started driving for a midget car owner based in Fresno, California. He and Tiffanie would leave home on Friday afternoon and arrive in Fresno at three o'clock Saturday morning. They'd race on Saturday and then drive 12 hours back on Sunday.

"At first, Tiffanie had a little Nissan with no air conditioning," Randy says. "We'd vibrate for two days after driving in that. But when you're in a car for 24 hours a weekend, you learn to get along and communicate."

While the Tolsmas were communicating with each other, God was beginning to talk to them. The owners of their race car had a three-year-old daughter who would ride with them to races.

"She'd sing songs and tell stories about Jesus," Tiffanie recalls. "And I'd tell Randy, 'It's amazing that she knows so much about Jesus, and I don't know anything.'"

Meanwhile, Randy accepted a co-worker's invitation to attend her church, and the following week the pastor came for a visit.

"He explained that to receive eternal life, we'd have to accept Jesus as our Savior," Randy says. "We were both ready to do it. We just had a void; we knew there was more."

Randy expected his new faith to translate into greater success on the race track. When that didn't happen, Christian friends advised him "to release it to the Lord," which confused him even more. After their pastor expected more church involvement than their weekend racing schedule would allow, the Tolsmas switched to a much larger church. Randy says, "If we wanted to sleep in, we'd sleep in. That's where we were when we moved to Indy in 1994."

After 19 years of racing, Randy was about to fulfill a lifelong dream—the opportunity to earn his living as a race car driver.

"Life was good," he says, "but we weren't going to church. We began to not pray, and we'd walked so far away from God that finally he said, 'Okay, I'll mess your world up a little bit to where you'll come crawling back to me and I can mend you.'"

A rumor got around that Randy was planning to switch to a different team. It wasn't true, but the team owners decided to fire him the next weekend before he had a chance to quit.

"We went to God that week because there was nobody else for us to go to," says Randy. "We were praying hard and reading the Bible every day to find out why our little world had fallen apart."

The Tolsmas went to the race at week's end, expecting it to be Randy's last. But it didn't turn out that way.

"I had a very successful run on a track that I should never be good on—it just wasn't my expertise," he says. "It was a 100-mile event on a dirt track with the high cushion, which means there's a wall of dirt about a foot high, and you run the car up against that for traction. I was competing against the best of the best, and we finished third."

The strong finish meant Randy's job was secure. "And we got serious about finding a church," says Tiffanie.

Two years later, Randy's career took another unexpected turn. The head of IWX Motor Freight, a Missouri-based trucking company, said he'd finance a team to compete in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series if the Tolsmas would pull it all together. So Randy and Tiffanie moved again—this time to North Carolina. Building a racing team wasn't easy, but a bigger challenge was qualifying for races. In his first six attempts, Randy qualified for only two races.

He and Tiffanie were both working for the racing team and living above the shop where the team's trucks are built and maintained. They didn't have many friends in North Carolina, and it seemed the sport that had brought them together was now dragging them down.

"We were failing to qualify for races," Randy says, "which means our future was in jeopardy. You can only fail so long before you get replaced. We had no money stored away, and if that job ended, we had no place to live. We were both tired, and neither of us could pep the other one up."

Adding to the job stress was a team member who tried to get Randy fired. But instead of letting Randy go, the team owner replaced the dissatisfied crew member. Several others left.

Life and Limb

With a new team behind him, Randy won his first NASCAR truck race last October. After the first eight races of the current season, he was running eighth in points, with a second-place finish in April and three top-10 finishes. Finishing high in the field means he takes home more prize money, which pays the rent and puts food on the table.

But to most racing fans, a driver's concerns about work stress and uncertain finances seem insignificant compared to the physical danger.

"I get asked a lot if it makes me nervous," says Tiffanie, "and I always say I wouldn't know anything different. It's been part of my whole life."

Every time Randy begins a race there are 29 other trucks roaring around the track in packs, maneuvering for position and often bumping one another. The high speeds and the heavy traffic leave no room for mistakes. And that doesn't even take into account the health threats posed by extreme heat. If the outside air temperature is 90 degrees, it can reach 168 degrees in the cab of a racing truck.

Randy's biggest race-day scare came last year in Kansas, when the outside temperature reached 116 degrees. Well into the race, as Randy talked to his crew over the radio, Tiffanie could tell something was wrong. After the race, when crew members helped him out of his truck, they found that he was overheated and dehydrated, with extremely low blood pressure. It wasn't until later that they realized Randy was suffering from more than heat exhaustion.

A panel at the bottom of Randy's truck was damaged, allowing exhaust fumes to leak into the cab. He was suffering the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. His truck is now vented for better air circulation to guard against a similar problem happening again.

With Randy's NASCAR career becoming more successful, he's well aware that racing is a feast-and-famine profession. You might win one week, and fail even to qualify for the very next race. Or you might lead the pack through most of a race and then, in a late lap, blow an engine or hit the wall.

"I used to constantly go through, 'Okay, does God want me in racing?' " Randy says. "Every time there was a problem, I'd wonder, 'Is this it? Is it over?' But now, even when we're struggling, we know we're right where God wants us."

After he won a 150-mile event in California last October—only his 13th race in the Craftsman series—he started receiving more invitations to speak. Randy visits schools, makes promotional appearances and speaks on race weekends to fans and to other drivers and their families. Having greater ministry opportunities has changed Randy's attitude toward racing.

"I used to speak [to groups] knowing God would use racing as my ministry," he says. "I wanted to do public speaking so God would let me continue to race. But now it's more that I keep racing so I can have the opportunity to speak."

Chasing New Goals

When asked about future plans, the Tolsmas don't at first mention racing.

"I see kids in our near future," says Randy. "And we need to get a house."

Anything else?

"The goal for this year would be a top-five finish for the season," he adds. And beyond that, he's gunning for a Craftsman series championship.

The pressures become greater the higher Randy moves in the ranks of NASCAR racing. But it's a high-stress career that the Tolsmas credit with strengthening their marriage.

"So many of our friends in two-career families get so involved with their careers that they end up kind of separate," says Tiffanie. "Racing has kept us growing in the same direction. Looking back, I couldn't say that I'd change anything."

You could say racing is in their blood.

"Yeah," says Tiffanie.

"It has to be," says Randy. "We wouldn't do it otherwise.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Busyness; Marriage; Work
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

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