NASCAR Racing and Religion

 by Adam Sewell
January 18, 2001

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My father and I were attending the 1999 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Just after the National Anthem was played by a trumpeter from the local Army Reserve, I began to check the frequencies I had programmed into my scanner. I stopped at Mark Martin’s radio frequency and noticed that he was leading his team in a prayer over the radio prior to the command to start the engines. Since that day, I have become more and more aware of the closeness between auto racing and religion. 

Many people know that prior to each Sunday race, the drivers and team members assemble to have a church service before the driver’s meeting. Prior to the National Anthem, Rev. Hal Marchman gives the invocation over the track’s announcement system. It is sometimes inspiring that before the 3400 pound beasts come to life and tear along the asphalt, that drivers, teams and fans take part in this racing ritual. 

But why is NASCAR one of the few professional sports that embraces religion so much? One could argue that it is because the drivers know that each time they make a lap, they are putting their life on the line, or that NASCAR was born in the deep south, where the Bible Belt runs strong. The character of Harry Hogg, played by Robert Duvall in the movie Days of Thunder, said that “drivers can’t stand to be reminded of what can happen to them in a racecar.” It is because of this unspoken phobia, that I believe the drivers turn to their religion for security and peace of mind. 

Most of the drivers and teams have their own unique ways of showing their faith. Before Ernie Irvan retired from racing, he wore a guardian angel pin on his driver’s suit. On the TV Panel of Bobby Labonte’s #18, just below the right tail light decal, there is a decal that simply says “John 3:16.”  Also, during the 2000 Winston Cup Awards Banquet, Joe Gibbs, the owner of the #18 and #20 teams, said at the beginning of his speech, “I hope there is some way that we can use this championship to honor God.” 

The spiritual beliefs of the racing family were tested several times during the 2000 season with the tragic losses of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper, but still, NASCAR, the teams, and the fans all supported each other through what was the hardest season since 1993 when we lost the defending Winston Cup Champion, Alan Kulwicki, and Davey Allison to separate aviation accidents. The NASCAR family also lost two of the sport’s founding fathers, Herb Thomas and Lee Petty during the 2000 season. It is often said that loss makes the heart stronger. NASCAR has suffered many losses through its 52 years of existence, but the spiritual beliefs continually get stronger and more influential. 

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my race, I have kept the faith. 
2 Timothy 4:7

The author can be contacted at dougb@autoracing1.com

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