The thunder you hear rolling in the distance may not be an approaching storm, but the roar of high-powered race cars firing up for another NASCAR race. From Daytona Beach, Fla. to Fontana, Calif., from Fort Worth, Texas to Loudon, N.H., the cry of "Gentlemen, start your engines!" is sounding and motors respond in revving to an ear drum-rattling pitch.
Almost every Saturday and Sunday from February to November, brightly colored stock cars virtually fly around steep-banked tracks one-half mile to 2.66 miles long, hurtling their drivers at nearly three times normal highway speeds. Competitors strain minds, muscles, nerves and reflexes to the maximum, defying disaster at every turn.
While the drivers cope with adrenaline overload, swelling legions of NASCAR fans cheer on their favoritesEarnhardt, Gordon, Jarrett, Labonte (Terry or Bobby), Wallace, Martin, Elliott, and dozens of others. They reveal their drivers of choice with T-shirts, caps, decals, flags waving from cars and motor homes, even sunglasses. Once viewed as entertainment with only regional appeal, NASCAR now markets its apparel and collectibles as successfully in Seattle, Wash. as in Charlotte, N.C.
Zero to 50Years
Born on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) 50 years later has evolved into a multibillion dollar industry. The fastest-growing spectator sport in America, it has long since torn from its roots as a weekend pastime for moonshine peddlers. Today, corporate sponsors such as Kodak, Kelloggs, Texaco, McDonalds, Cartoon Network, General Mills and Interstate Batteries eagerly sign up at a cost of several million dollars each to have product names emblazoned on the hoods of race cars.
NASCAR may be a sport, but it is hardly a hobby. With the high costs of building and maintaining a stable of cars customized for short and intermediate tracks, superspeedways and road courses, it is no place for the faint-heartedor the short-funded.
Bill Amick of Batesburg, S.C., whose son, Lyndon, is in his second year driving the No. 35 SCANA Pontiac on the Busch Grand National circuit, notes, "When you reach this level, you have to take a business approach. Otherwise you will never obtain the professional experience and personnel it takes to succeed."
Fielding a winning race program, such as the "Rainbow Warriors" team for Jeff Gordons No. 24 DuPont Refinishes car, costs upwards of $9 million a year. With $5$6 million you might assemble a team capable of running in the middle of the pack, occasionally contending for a win. Much less than that and about the best you can hope for is to be one of 43 cars to qualify for a raceand with more than 50 teams vying for positions on the starting grid each weekend, that is increasingly hard to do.
NASCAR is literally a traveling road show, as drivers, teams and their families caravan from one part of the country to another. It becomes a tough business when you fail to make a race, or when a wreck or blown engine forces a car to make an early exit. The stakes are increasingly high, but part of NASCARs magic is that in addition to being a sport and a business, its also a community.
Factors that breed competition also build camaraderie. Going bumper to bumper (or fender to fender) with fellow drivers week after week, knowing a careless move can result in a horrendous crash, develops trust. Rivalries between the Ford, Chevy and Pontiac teams may be intense, but for the most part a healthy respect prevails. Wives and children form friendships as fellow citizens in the moving NASCAR neighborhood.
However, perhaps the greatest factor in forging this sense of community is the Christian influence that seems to pervade NASCAR. In sports, it has become common for athletes to credit God for their achievements, but when winning drivers in the Winston Cup and Grand National circuits thank the Lord, there typically is substance behind the words.
One might ask, "If these drivers and teams are on the road nine months out of the year, when do they go to church?" The answer is, they dont. The church goes to them. Specifically, their "church" is Motor Racing Outreach (MRO), a ministry founded by Max Helton in 1988 with the support of three Winston Cup drivers and their wives, Bobby and Kim Hillin, Lake and Rice Speed, and Darrell and Stevie Waltrip.
Waltrip, bold, brash and controversial early in his NASCAR career, later became an overt witness for Christ in the sport, while Speed and Hillin, not as outspoken nor as successful, worked quietly behind the scenes.
Smoothing Out the Bumps
Today many of the top drivers and families participate in a variety of activities sponsored by MRO, including Bible studies, childrens programs, chapels before each race, and personal counseling. A common sight on the starting "grid" before drivers climb into their cars is MRO chaplains quietly praying with drivers and their wives, not asking for victory, but for safety and guidance.
"When we first started, we were able to pray with about four of the drivers," Helton comments. "Now we pray with all but a few of them."
One reason MRO staff members have been able to win the confidence of the drivers and teams is because they are not NASCAR "groupies." Helton admits to not being an ardent fan of the sport. Dick Mason, a businessman who last year assumed the presidency of MRO, had never attended a full race until 1997.
Reflecting on the 10 years since MRO was started, Lake Speed noted, "People get along much better with each other as a group. You dont see the bitter rivalries and confrontations that we used to see. MRO has served as a nucleus for bringing competitors together to build relationships and discover common interests and concerns.
"We still have rivalries, but off the track, I often see adults getting together and their children playing together in a real family atmosphere. And we have seen relationships that were really strained become healed through MROs ministry."
A number of drivers, including reigning Winston Cup champion Gordon, and runners-up Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin, can be heard thanking God for their successes in post-race interviews. But evidence of deep Christian commitment is not restricted to Victory Lane. Members of the NASCAR family in various roles demonstrate a sincere faithand a desire to serve and represent Jesus Christ through the unique platform they have been given.
Joe Gibbs, owner of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac (see related insert), and Norm Miller, Chairman of Interstate, formed a partnership because of a common commitment to winningand their desire to be strong, fruitful witnesses for Christ.
"When we got together, we agreed we should strive to do our bestto win," Miller says. "At the same time, we wanted to do it within a context of seeking to introduce people to Christ and help people to grow in their faith."
A by-product of this has been the creation of Racing Fans Outreach, a sister ministry to MRO, backed by Gibbs and Miller to reach out to the throngs who follow their NASCAR favorites from race to race. Dennis McGowan, a former marketing executive with BellSouth, is heading up RFO with an estimated "market" of 4.5 million fans, 40 percent of those being women.
"Just as MRO is Mr. Inside to people in NASCAR, we intend to be Mr. Outside to the fans, particularly those who camp at the tracks, traveling in a community of their own," McGowan explains.
However, it is the lives of people most directly involved with NASCAR that God seems to be having the most dramatic impact. For instance, Mickey Barry, manager of the hospitality trailer for Joe Gibbs Racing, is a firsthand beneficiary of the dedication of men who want to win people for Christ as much as they want to win races.
"For three years I had worked in a souvenir trailer at the tracks, selling NASCAR memorabilia, and became acquainted with Norm Miller and other people with Gibbs Racing," Barry says. "On Dec. 20, 1994, Norm and I were going together to have our pictures taken for our racing credentials and he started talking to me about Jesus Christ. I had appreciated the Christian and family atmosphere I observed in their company, and after we talked for a while, Norm led me to Christ."
More than three years later, Barry feels blessed to be a part of the Gibbs team, attending weekly Bible studies and receiving mentoring and encouragement to grow in his faith.
"Many people dont take their faith seriously, but for Joe, its a way of life," Barry comments. "Being with Joe Gibbs Racing has been the greatest experience my wife, Susan, and I have ever had. I wish everybody could have it."
Down to Business
Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., was captured deep in prayer by a TV shot earlier this year as the legendary Earnhardt was driving the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet to his first Daytona 500 victory in 20 tries. A Christian since high school, Hawk appreciates race day as much as anyone, but is firmly entrenched in the business side of NASCAR. He sees the challenges of applying his faith there the same as in any other sport or business.
"If you treat people as they like to be treated, they will come back. If you compromise your integrity, your credibility, your ethics, your morals, youre going to lose it allwhether youre a NASCAR Winston Cup driver, an accountant, a doctor or a homemaker," Hawk says.
Yet even with high standards, carrying them out is not always easy, he points out in Wheels of Thunder, a collection of profiles about Christians in auto racing. "The Christian life is not an oval. Its a road course. Its hills, right-hand turns, left-hand turns, long straightaways, short straightaways. If all we did was keep going in circles, it would be easyanybody could do it. But you have to have the ability to sometimes turn leftand quickly turn right. You must have the ability to brake and go down the hill and all of a sudden accelerate and go up the hill."
Success, in terms of victories and top-five finishes, is not necessary criteria for being a strong witness for Christ in the sport. Lyndon Amick, an up-and-coming driver who had much success in go-cart racing and NASCARs Goodys Dash series, hasnt found the going easy in his first full year of Grand National racing. The 21-year-old failed to qualify his No. 35 Pontiac in two of the first three races in 1998 and finished 26th in the other, but keeping a balanced perspective helps.
"My only reason for racing is to glorify God," he says. "The Lord has blessed me with the desire and talent to do this, and more than anything, I want to put Him first."
Even as a relative unknown, being a part of NASCAR has opened doors for Amick to share his faith. "Last year at Rockingham, MRO arranged for me to speak to 6,000 teenagers about Jesus Christ, and I often get to talk with people about the Lord on a one-to-one basis."
As business manager for Johnny Benson Enterprises, Rob Albrights job is to pursue income-producing opportunities, such as the sale of souvenirs and trading cards, as well as securing endorsements and paid commercial opportunities for Johnny Benson Jr., who this year drives the No. 26 Cheeries Ford owned by Roush Racing. Like many in management roles in NASCAR, Albright arrived with an extensive background in racing and understands the demands of the sportand the struggles of living consistently for Christ.
"Just because you are in a high-profile sport does not mean you dont face the same challenges and temptations that others haveeven though the public tends to hold you to a higher standard of accountability," he states. "I tend to be more outspoken about my faith than other people, but ultimately the best testimony is the way we live our lives.
"As in any other business, in NASCAR there are a number of opportunities to go outside the rules, but what helps is every morning I have to look myself in the face when I shaveand knowing the Holy Spirit is in me, I know Who is looking back."
Robert Pressley, who this year is driving full-time in both Winston Cup and Busch Grand National, has the good fortune to drive for Christian owners on both circuits. In Winston Cup, Pressley drives for Doug Bawel, who also is president of Jasper Engines and Transmissions, primary sponsor of the No. 77 car. Tad Geschickter owns the No. 59 car Pressley drives in the Grand National series.
"Racing is all I have done for about 37 years of my life," Pressley says, noting that even in elementary school, while other boys were playing ball, he was wrapped up in cars.
"God has given me a gift to race; maybe not as good as the gift He gave Dale Earnhardt, but I feel my calling is to race," he admits. "He gave me the talent to do it, and it provides opportunities for me to share my testimony with others."
Both Bawel and Geschickter echo Pressleys sentiments. Jasper, Ind. isnt exactly at the heart of NASCAR country, but Bawel has been involved in motor racing for 10 years, starting as a temporary sponsor in 1989. The sport/business soon got into his blood, however, and his company has been a full-time participant since 1991.
After employing two other Christian drivers, Hillin and Morgan Shepherd, Bawel began his association with Pressley late in 1997. While being a follower of Christ does not necessarily make a good race driver, its important to Jaspers overall mission.
"Our statement of principles says we want to be known as a good corporate, Christian race team," Bawel points out. "I dont think that means we have to hire only Christian people, because part of the work we all should be doing is making it possible for others to see Christ through our lives. But you will gravitate toward people who share views of faith.
"In addition, the driver is our most visible representative. People really dont know or care who the owners are, but they do know the drivers. They need to be good role models, especially when in our society we have so many poor role models."
Geschickter began his NASCAR involvement on, of all places, a youth baseball field. There he met Steve Plattenberger, who had worked with Winston Cup teams much of his life. They starte?d talking about forming a team, since Steve understood the racing side and Tad, with his background in sales with Proctor & Gamble, had a grasp of the sales and marketing dimension that would be needed.
"Even though we knew it would take a lot of money, we felt the Lord tugging at us to give this a try," Geschickter says. "We knew we couldnt do it without our own sponsorships, so we started with a business plan and formed a marketing team to help sponsors for other teamspraying as hard as we could all along the way."
Meeting Pressley and discovering "we could not have found a better match for us as a team" was another piece of the puzzle to fielding an entry on the slightly less financially demanding Grand National series.
In an environment that can be "tremendously exhilarating and humbling all the same day," Geschickter says he and other members of his team have found many situations that tested their faith. "In this business, prayer is the key."
Without question, whether in the drivers seat, in the pits, or in the garage, God is on the move in NASCARsometimes at 190 miles per hour.
Robert J. Tamasy is National Director of Publications for the Christian Business Mens Committee of USA in Chattanooga, Tenn. Reprinted with permission from The Christian Businessman magazine.