MotorGospel Ministries’ Aaron Schwartzbart partners with local law enforcement and NASA SoCal to create a winning anti-street-racing campaign.
Angel Rodriguez was in handcuffs in police custody after being arrested for doing donuts in a Los Angeles intersection while a police officer looked on. It was the second time he’d been arrested for a traffic infraction. The first time he was arrested was for racing on a freeway at speeds in excess of 140 mph.
Rodriguez’s mother then got in touch with Sgt. Jesse Garcia, the leader of the Central Traffic Division Street Racing Task Force, at the time the most vigorous anti-street-racing task force in LAPD. Garcia introduced Rodriguez to Aaron Schwartzbart and the MotorGospel anti-street-racing program.
The next month, Rodriguez had a wrench in hand, helping to keep the stable of cars running under the MotorGospel Ministries banner at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Rather than being fined $1,400 and having his car impounded for a month or more, Rodriguez was sentenced to pay $65 and perform 80 hours of community service. He worked on MotorGospel cars, helped clean the MotorGospel Youth Center, anything to fulfill his community service requirements. By the time they added up all the time he had spent in the program, Rodriguez had served more than 120 hours in all.
“He was having such a great time with us and we were having such a good time with him, we didn’t even notice that he blew by his requirement,” said Pastor Aaron Schwartzbart, the founder of MotorGospel Ministries. “He must have done 80 hours in the first month. He was so on fire for the program.”
Rodriguez’s community service ended about 13 months ago, but he’s still coming to the track with the MotorGospel team, helping out, serving as an ambassador to the program and, of course, having a blast learning to drive quickly on a proper racetrack in NASA’s HPDE program.
Rodriguez was sort of the control in the experiment for MotorGospel Ministries’ anti-street-racing efforts. He was the first student in the program to be court-ordered, and Schwartzbart is currently working with law enforcement agencies in the Los Angeles area to expand the program and help other at-risk youth.
Before Schwartzbart committed to full time ministry, he worked as a physicist in the space program. He also admits engaging in risky street racing before being born-again and finding a safer outlet for his need for speed with NASA. It helps fuel his passion for his anti-street-racing campaign, which is part of MotorGospel Ministries, and yet distinct from the church aspect. Schwartzbart explains.
“I’m totally unashamed as a Christian and evangelist to shout the name of Jesus from the rooftops in a clearly evangelistic setting,” Schwartzbart said. “On the other hand, as a Christian, I believe I serve a God that’s passionate about sincerity, so when we’re doing nonreligious benevolence, such as our anti-street racing campaign, I’m extremely careful to not have the kids feel any pressure whatsoever to be involved in our Christian activities. When they’re here for anti-street-racing education, that’s the only thing we discuss. I neither implicitly or explicitly try to slide anything else in there.”
Schwartzbart’s background in engineering and physics is serving him well as he puts together a more formal version of his anti-street-racing curriculum, which will involve physics, calculus, racing, law and liability. He’s preparing that curriculum for a major government agency he can’t yet name. It’s part of his effort to broaden the program, which doesn’t create any expense to the taxpayer or the law enforcement agencies he works with.
In addition to the regular program of community service, MotorGospel also does outreach at MB2, a local indoor karting facility the second Thursday of every month. MotorGospel also stages a “Beat the Heat” night at Irwindale Drag Strip the last Thursday of every month, when anyone can race against the off-duty officers on an eighth-mile drag strip. Rodriguez faced off against Garcia, the very same officer who got him involved with MotorGospel in the first place.
There’s a YouTube video about “Beat the Heat” night here.
Angel Rodriguez races against Sgt. Jesse Garcia on “Beat the Heat” night at Irwindale Drag Strip.
Schwartzbart knows that the program will work for lots of other people, too. He witnessed first-hand one of the turning points Rodriguez experienced. They arrived at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif., while an enduro was going on. Schwartzbart took him up the Omega, a tricky turn where the cars squirm around quite a bit to rotate around the corner. It also overlooks the whole track.
“He sees these cars blasting around the Omega from the Bud balcony, and he grabs his cell phone, and he starts broadcasting, ‘Guys, you don’t know what you’re missing.’ He totally lost his cool. He said, ‘I can’t believe what I’ve been missing all this time. I’m never going to street race again,’” Schwartzbart said. “The next day he’s on that track, driving around the Omega in the car in which he got arrested. If he thought it was amazing the night before, that was a whole other level.”
Schwartzbart also points to Jerry Warner Baxter as proof that one doesn’t have to be arrested to receive the benefit of MotorGospel’s anti-street-racing campaign. He was referred to Schwartzbart before he even got a driver’s license. His tendencies with a steering wheel could have turned deadly without the proper guidance. Many wins and podiums later, he has been with MotorGospel for seven years, is a sought-after driving instructor with NASA and is in talks with Pirelli World Challenge about going pro.
Another student who became in the program is a young man named Justin DeShield, who also was arrested for doing donuts in an intersection. Now DeShield is following in Rodriguez’s footsteps, putting in his hours of community service, learning the perils of street racing and finding out just how much safer it is to race on a track with a professional organization.
“Without NASA, we would not have a place for Justin DeShield to come from handcuffs to riding shotgun with a qualified instructor to get his feet wet,” Schwartzbart said. “NASA gives us a weekend-long captive audience. It’s one thing to hand a kid a flier or to blast him or her with a message on social media, but it’s another thing to spend a whole weekend with a kid seeing how they roll in various settings. And they get to see how we roll. NASA provides that opportunity for an entire weekend of quality time. We couldn’t do any of that without NASA.”