The first thing you notice is the skull ring.

Shiny and macabre, it's not the sort of charm you'd expect to see on a pastor's hand.

Less visible are the tattoos -- colorful images of skulls wrapped around his bulging biceps.

Even among the most colorful clergy, Mike Haseltine is a rare bird. When he's not preaching from the pulpit at Maranatha Assembly of God in Forest Lake, he's out racing cars or riding his Harley.

"The Rev," as he's known on the racetrack, enjoys living at full-throttle speed. He also likes to irritate religious people with his bad-boy image, challenging people to take a second look and think more critically about their faith.

"I love it when people say, 'You don't look like a pastor,' " he says, grinning mischievously. "Everyone has a stereotype of what it means to be a Christian and I want to break those stereotypes."

Rebel without a cause

As a child, Haseltine developed a taste for fast cars by watching his uncle race cars. He and his father would often visit the racetrack, and there, he would dream of someday driving his own race car around the dirt track.

The oldest of four boys, Haseltine grew up in South St. Paul with parents who were like Ward and June Cleaver, he says. They were straight-laced, church-going people and Haseltine attended parochial school through the eighth grade.

Shortly after that, he started drinking and then smoking hash and eventually doing speed. It wasn't long before he became an addict.

While he was still in high school, he and his family moved north, and his addiction grew worse. He was at the height of his drug addiction when his mother became a born-again Christian. The next year, his dad did too.

"By this time, I had heard a Gospel message like I'd never heard before and, in my heart, I was convinced that it was true," Haseltine said. "So I was now torn between two worlds -- I knew in my heart that what is right to do is give your life to Christ. But I was partying so much. So it was really a conflicted time in my life."

The summer after his junior year in high school, Haseltine went to an evangelist meeting. "It was at one of those meetings that I went forward and asked the Lord to be my savior and my life changed," he said.

Later, while in college at North Central University in Minneapolis, he felt called to preach, and went on to become a minister.

A need for speed

About three years ago, Haseltine started going out to the racetrack just like he did when he was a kid. Only this time, he sat behind the wheel. A Maranatha member was involved in racing modified stock cars at a track about 30 minutes away in Centuria, Wis., and the preacher decided to try it.

He had given up motorcycle racing, because the weekend racing schedule interfered with his Sunday duties. But the modified car races took place on Friday nights, so there was no conflict. This spring, the Rev and his race team, made up of other men from church, will start their fourth season.

For Haseltine, zooming around the track is not just a rush -- it's therapy.

"My job is so intense and it occupies so much of my thoughts 24/7 that the only way to forget it is to do something that requires my total focused attention," he said.

Racing bikes gave him the same release.

"When I'm on my motorcycle, especially racing, I'm not thinking about my wife, I'm not thinking about my kids, I'm not thinking about my job, I'm thinking about surviving. I mean life literally at over 140 miles per hour," Haseltine said.

The racetrack is also a place where he can do what congregants say he does best -- reach out to people who have been turned off by church.

Brian Collins met the Rev at a racetrack in Brainerd. Haseltine was giving a Sunday sermon before the races. Collins didn't go to Maranatha or any church at the time. He and Haseltine became friends, and today Collins is the crew chief of the church's racing team.

"I started going to church at Maranatha because I could relate to Pastor Mike as a guy," he said. "He definitely can relate to a lot of things that guys like, guns, cars, things that are loud, things that are fast."

It was refreshing after growing up in a church that Collins says was always telling men they need to calm down.

Not everyone is thrilled with Haseltine's thrill-seeking side.

"There have been people who felt that he had a duty to God and the church and were angry that he was racing," said Travis Abrahamson, former associate pastor at Maranatha. "They questioned why he would risk his life."

Collins says the Rev is the same on the racetrack as he is at the pulpit.

"There's a certain amount of a conservative side to him," he said. "You see that from the pulpit. He speaks very openly from the pulpit but he draws the line. He's that way on the racetrack. He'll be aggressive, he drives hard, but he's not reckless."

Not all agree with his style

His brash opinions and style have won him some enemies.

Haseltine says he's received a couple of death threats. One memorable threat came from someone upset about the church's float in the city's annual July Fourth parade when Maranatha had a paper mache image of Jesus in its float.

"Well the Bible says not to have any graven images, and one particular person really thought that I was corrupting the community by having a graven image of Jesus and I was against the Word of God and threatened to kill me," Haseltine said.

It's that same kind of Pavlovian thinking that some critics use to denounce his love of skull imagery, he says.

"They've associated the skulls with something bad," he said. He likes to respond by asking his critics if they know that St. Francis of Assisi used to sign all his letters with a skull and crossbones. "It was to remind us of our mortality and that we're going to die," Haseltine said.

The tough guy has a soft side, too.

"You also won't see a person break down and weep like Pastor Mike will when he talks about someone dying or someone dealing with cancer or some other difficult situation," Abrahamson said.

Allie Shah • 651-298-1550