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BOB ABERNETHY, host: As baseball’s World Series is played out in New York, another major American sport is also coming to the end of its season: NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Nowhere in sports, not in baseball or even football, is there more unselfconscious expression of religion as there is at NASCAR races. Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times talked with NASCAR chaplains and drivers, some of them big names not only on the speedway, but also you may recognize from television commercials.
DALE BEAVER (NASCAR Chaplain): Father, thank you that, in the midst of the heat and amidst of the tiredness that each of us feel, that there is rest in you.
ROBERT LIPSYTE: Sounds like just another weekend prayer meeting…
Chaplain BEAVER: …our needs in our own lives, as well as thankfulness from our hearts that we want to give the Lord today. So let’s just pause a moment…
LIPSYTE: …until the faithful start their engines. This is NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit, the major-league of a multibillion-dollar-a-year sport. It entertains more than six million spectators and millions more on television.
Chaplain BEAVER: There’s a growing number of folks that realize that at this level of the sport, which is Winston Cup racing, that they’ve reached the brass ring. And I think at this level, they’re really starting to ask the question: ‘Is this all there is?’ Because if this is the brass ring, and as great as it is, you’re still not fulfilled. There’s still got to be something more.
LIPSYTE: It might not seem like a Godly place. After all, tobacco and beer pay for the gas, and drivers risk their lives for gold and glory.
DARRELL WALTRIP (3-Time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion): [The] dangerous, commercialized, helter-skelter lifestyle that we kind of lead is a perfect place for the Lord to be. I mean, if you don’t have God in your life in this kind of environment, you’ll go nuts.
LIPSYTE: A three-time NASCAR champion, Darrell Waltrip, with his wife Stevie, helped found the Motor Racing Outreach program, MRO, 12 years ago.
Mr. WALTRIP: We want some stability in our life, and the only way we could get it was to bring it to the track, bring it with us. So like so many other things that we do, we have our own motor home, which we live in; we got our own trainers and doctors and everything else. We needed our own ministry.
Racing Outreach has done wonders in this — they’re not just here for Sunday service. They’re here for counseling. They’re here when people get hurt. They go to hospitals. They spend hours and hours and hours with families.
Mrs. STEVIE WALTRIP (Darrell Waltrip’s Wife): There is always the possibility that your husband, or your son or whoever is racing, could be injured or killed. Motor Racing Outreach is always there in those circumstances, and because of Motor Racing Outreach, there is a reaching out on the wives’ part to help other wives.
JEFF GORDON (3-Time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion): Because our sport is so dangerous, I think that probably even strengthens all of our faith in God.
LIPSYTE: Jeff Gordon is a NASCAR superstar.
Mr. GORDON: I think it’s made me a better driver, a better-focused race car driver, and I think that it also helps me have a lot more patience and understanding of, you know, putting my priorities in order. You know, I think that racing means a tremendous amount to me, but I also recognize now that it is what I do; it’s not who I am.
Chaplain BEAVER: I’ve never had a guy ask me to pray for victory or to pray that his car will be faster than everybody else’s. That’s not it at all. They — most of these men, if not all of these men, and on these teams as well, are deeper than that.
(To pit crew) How are you doing? Am I missing the good ones?
LIPSYTE: Chaplain Dale Beaver is a 21st century circuit driver, traveling from race to race to minister to his fast-moving flock.
Chaplain BEAVER: Good luck, Larry. Hey, buddy. Hey, man.
When I pray with these guys — and I’m privileged to pray with them before they get in the car at every race — I make sure that we pray that God will be glorified, and that’s all I ask. If it’s through a victory for these guys, fine. If it’s through them coming through this race without being killed, fine. In whatever way that God can glorify themselves through that race team’s life, that’s what I try to get these guys to see the significance for.
LIPSYTE: From the pits to the Super Bowl, religion has become increasingly public in our sporting life. Why? Is it a reflection of a larger society, or is it yet another way for jocks to find a competitive edge?
Professor BILL BAKER (History, University of Maine): Back in my day athletes — I think Christian athletes thought that religion gave us an edge in that it kept us straight and disciplined and focused.
LIPSYTE: As a quarterback at Furman University, Bill Baker, a pre-seminary student, was known as the passing preacher. Now he’s a history professor at the University of Maine. He writes about religion and sports.
Prof. BAKER: I think there’s a logic of evangelical Christianity and bigtime sport in having this kind of cozy relationship because I think, in many ways, they’re similar. Both are win-loss mentalities. In evangelical Christianity, you’re either saved or lost. You’re going to heaven; you’re going to hell. You either win or you lose, and that’s what sport is about.
LIPSYTE: That cozy relationship sometimes plays out in national arenas and locker rooms.
KURT WARNER (St. Louis Rams Quarterback): And I realized where my strength comes from, and that’s, you know, from the Lord.
RANDALL CUNNINGHAM (Dallas Cowboys Quarterback): And God is in my life and matured me as a man and as a person. Christianity first.
Prof. BAKER: Many of the people who are the demonstrative Jesus athletes, demonstrative in Jesus, come from Southern backgrounds, and many of these happen to be black. They come from homes that are religious homes; from a culture that is bathed in a fundamentalist, evangelical tradition. And in many ways, I assume that to acclaim Jesus, believe in Jesus, to extol Jesus on the field especially is one way that these athletes reconnect with their roots, with their culture.
LIPSYTE: Joe Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl championships. Now he’s a top race car owner. He huddles in prayer with his NASCAR team before every race.
JOE GIBBS (NFL Hall of Famer; NASCAR Team Owner): We pray for Jimmy, we pray for Bobby. We just pray we’re all going to be at our absolute best, and we give you the glory for it. We pray for that motor to be perfect. Father, we just thank you for all the ways you’ve blessed us this year. In thy precious name, we pray. Come on, let’s go get us one. One more test tonight.
I’ve never asked somebody here, you know, “What’s your personal relationship with Christ?” I’ve never not hired somebody, I’ve never kept somebody on a football team, I’ve never even asked that question. If you ask me personally — are we better performers, knowing that we have a personal relationship with Christ, I think I am.
Chaplain BEAVER: And it is through that that we plan. It is through that that we strap into it and to constantly…
LIPSYTE: Chaplain Beaver is obviously a true believer in drivers as Christian role models.
Chaplain BEAVER: I think God is using people in these higher-profile positions, whether they are the drivers of these race cars or whether they’re the men that make it happen. See, God is using them in his own time to remind people that, “Hey, I’m still here, and I’m not silent, and I still care about you.”
Mr. GORDON: I think I’ve been put on the platform to be able to — you know, to show other people what God has done for me in my life, and I hope that, in some way, that influences others. And I think that that’s what God wants all of us to be able to do — is to just, you know, spread that Word and, you know, be able to influence others so that, you know, they can live a better life. Every race I have a message from the Bible in my race car with me. My wife writes it down every race and — different scriptures. One of my favorites is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” And, you know, it’s nice to have that positive message inside the car with me every lap.
LIPSYTE: Jeff Gordon doesn’t always win, but he wins often enough to qualify as a top preacher with a pedal. For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Robert Lipsyte.