NBC News
From the low-key presence of chaplains to spontaneous moments of prayer on the infield, the NASCAR community is more than comfortable with religious expression.
By NBC News Producer
updated 5/6/2005 10:41:57 PM ET 2005-05-07T02:41:57

On any given Sunday morning during race season, it is not uncommon to see the likes of Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon and No. 6 Viagra driver Mark Martin repeating these words from the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.”

They may be at the racetrack, but it is Sunday morning, and that means setting aside time for worship, prayer and meditation on the word of God.

In fact, America’s No. 1 spectator sport, with 75 million fans coast to coast, is a growing community of faith. And the most prominent figures in the sport display their faith as proudly as they do their corporate logos.

For the unsuspecting, or neophyte, NASCAR fan, stepping onto the speedway may provide a glimpse of what faith looks like in the workplace, even an asphalt one.

Veteran driver Michael Waltrip is one of the most outspoken Christians in his sport.  Despite NASCAR’s heavy reliance on corporate sponsorship, Waltrip unabashedly carries his faith on and off the racetrack. “If you want to sponsor my car, you’re going to get the whole me, and a part of me is my faith in Jesus,” he says. “People want to know about their favorite driver. They want to get inside of their favorite sport and when you get inside of me, you’ll understand right away that the life I live is that that has God with me and Jesus walking with me.”

The NASCAR congregation
That drivers like Waltrip have such a missionary zeal is no accident.

“NASCAR is another community, another workplace ... and any workplace is a mission field. If you want to call us missionaries, sure, but we’re here amongst our friends. For us, it’s an opportunity for us to help our friends,” says Billy Mauldin, president of Motor Racing Outreach, a ministry based in Charlotte, N.C. The ministry spends nearly $ 2 million a year to spread the Gospel to spectators and fans. 

Motor Racing Outreach makes sure that NASCAR is served by Christian chaplains who are dedicated to shepherding this congregation. Maudlin’s clean-shaven spiritual warriors dress in polo shirts and khaki pants, and stand at the starting line before each race. Their mission includes gently and unobtrusively ministering to those who want a spiritual touch. Sometimes, it is just a friendly smile and a soft pat on the shoulder. More often than not, the drivers welcome the opportunity to receive prayer. The prayers are brief and discreet. They usually include just a few words asking God for protection, safety and a simple blessing. It is a sacred moment, the words whispered into the ear and intended for the soul.

The ministry is best known, however, for hosting Sunday morning chapels on race days. Chapel is held immediately following the traditional driver’s meeting. The 20- to 30-minute service has all the trappings of a traditional Protestant service: an invocation, guitar-strumming worship leaders and a sermon.

It is a version of church that could fit into any white-steepled Baptist church in America. This one just happens to be on the infield of a racetrack.

An integral part of life and work
At a recent service, the Rev. Tim Griffin spoke about finding the love of the heavenly Father as a solemn audience of drivers, crew and family members listened. Seated in the front row were Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon and his crew chief, Robbie Loomis.

Loomis directly attributes his success to his faith. “I don’t care what level of talent you have, you’re not going to get it without God blessing you to get it,”  he says.

Gordon's team is serious about obtaining God's blessing. Before each race, Gordon leads the group in prayer. “Jeff’s very private — we’re all very private — about faith, but before the race, we say a prayer as team in the trailer,” Loomis says.

For drivers like No. 22 Caterpillar driver Scott Wimmer, receiving spiritual care on the road is essential. “We’re a family that’s on the road 36 weekends out of the year, so we don’t have our normal congregations that we go to on Sundays,” he says. He also emphasizes the importance of pastoral care during the difficult days that inevitably come with the sport. “With all the tragedy we’ve had in it, if we didn’t have faith on our side, it would just be rough,” Wimmer says.         

And it’s not just the drivers who are carrying the message of the Gospel. Team owner J.D. Gibbs, a devout Christian and president of Joe Gibbs Racing, has a full-time chaplain on the payroll and offers weekly Bible studies at the office. Of his roughly 300 employees, approximately 40 to 60 people attend Bible study on a consistent basis.

“You are really out there risking your life, week in and week out, so you need to know you’ll have a chapel service," he says. "You might have a lot of guys that are serious in their faith, but there might be some guys that are there just for insurance.”

Whether it’s insurance or not, it’s difficult to miss the evidence of faith on the racetrack. Their jobs and their “work” might be televised, but for many drivers, it is nonetheless sacred ground.

Alice Rhee is an NBC news producer.

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