During the first televised flag-to-flag NASCAR Sprint Cup event in 1979, CBS agreed for the first time to package an invocation, national anthem, and command to start the engines. The decision to combine the opening activities proved important to both NASCAR and the network. CBS executives reported that viewer comments in the week after airing the Daytona 500 focused almost exclusively on the invocation and were overwhelmingly positive. CBS and NASCAR had tapped into the deep vein of cultural Christianity in America. The network then decided that all future broadcasts—though televising every race would come several years later—would include the invocation. Today, NASCAR’s three major divisions are the only national sporting events to televise the invocation. While often generic in tone and content, many are deliberately evangelical. Preachers, however, have not always supported automobile racing.
Preachers and some civic leaders frequently raised objections to the use of Sunday for auto racing activities in the early part of the twentieth century. In this, there were two distinct fears at play. The most pressing issue for automobile usage in the early part of the century involved car-related deaths. Encouraging the use of cars for racing, so the logic went, would continue to increase death counts. There were concerns about the frivolity of automobile usage, particularly on the Sabbath. Jones Creek Baptist Church passed a resolution in 1917 calling on local Georgia officials to enforce Sunday laws that forbid “unchristian” activities on a day set aside for church. “Whereas, in this day of material prosperity, progress, and development of our country,” the resolution stated, “we find a sentiment to an alarming extent to disregard and desecrate the oldest sacred institution we have, ‘the Sabbath,’ most notably with the unchristian and—we believe—illegal use of automobiles for pleasure and profit and the keeping open of drug stores for the sale of cigars, cold drinks, etc.”1
More than thirty years later, a ministerial association in Macon, Georgia, called on local leaders to reject a proposed race track, which would host both horse and automobile racing in a largely rural area outside of the downtown area. The letter from the ministerial association affirmed an objection raised by residents who would be affected by the track and who had tried to thwart the planning commission’s attempt to rezone the area. The ministers agreed with the residents “that the operation of a race track there would seriously imperil the social and moral tone of their community.” They concluded with, “We believe that homes and a good environment for children ought to take priority over all other considerations.”2 But in the end, the Bibb County Commission rezoned the property for a race track. In light of the successful creation of more race tracks, Bill France Sr. had called a meeting of automobile racing promoters across the country to meet in Daytona, Florida.
Like the concerns raised by Jones Creek Church and the Macon Ministerial Association, auto racing’s wilder side worried ministers and lay leaders across the country. But something changed in the 1950s, and perhaps a little earlier. The allure of the automobile as a means for escape called to every kind of person; by the 1960s, the editors of the Christian Century would even joke that automobiles were an idol.3 Though families always attended the races, the perception of NASCAR races created an easy target for Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian preachers and their ministerial associations: it violated the trifecta of evangelical piety—Sabbath breaking, alcohol, and gambling. If Protestantism’s critical voice was so strong, we might ask how did we get from Baptist preachers condemning racing events in the 1940s to Pastor Joe Nelms’s now (in)famous invocation at Nashville Speedway for the opening of a Nationwide Series race in 2012:
Heavenly father, we thank you tonight for all your blessings you sent and in all things we give thanks. So we want to thank you tonight for these mighty machines that you brought before us. Thank you for the Dodges and the Toyotas. Thank you for the Fords. Most of all we thank you for Roush and Yates partnering to give us the power that we see before us tonight. Thank you for GM performance technology and RO7 engines. Thank you for Sunoco racing fuel and Goodyear tires that bring performance and power to the track. Lord, I want to thank you for my smokin’ hot wife tonight, Lisa. And my two children, Eli and Emma or as like to call ‘em, the little Es. Lord, I pray you bless the drivers and use them tonight. May they put on a performance worthy of this great track. In Jesus’s name, boogity boogity boogity, Amen.
The change from the mid-century resistance to racing to the full-throated embrace of NASCAR by religious leaders suggests that both sides have been affected by the exchange. To understand a portion of this shift, we return to Bill France Sr., Daytona International Speedway, and the invocation.
Having become part of the Daytona community while pastoring Central Baptist Church, Rev. Hal Marchman had developed a following for his unconventional style of ministry. An addict turned minister, Marchman and his wife built a congregation by reaching out to those harmed by poor choices and society’s traps. Marchman, as it so happened, also enjoyed car racing. He visited the race track often and gave invocations at the start of racing events. Working on the track in the days leading up to first televised flag-to-flag Daytona 500, Bill France Sr. sent a message to ask if Marchman would be willing give the prayer on Sunday. He agreed and, nestled in the moment before the national anthem and the command to start engines, the Baptist preacher gave an overtly Christian prayer that ended with his famous “Shalom and Amen.” As the sport’s popularity rose, the racers and car owners became visible representatives of outward Christian piety.
In the early 1980s two brash, young drivers took the lead in promoting NASCAR: Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Both men found success on the track through controversial driving styles. But outside the camera’s glare, Darrell’s wife Stevie had begun a steady attempt to convince Darrell that all his success on the track meant nothing for his eternal soul. Like all good salvation stories, Waltrip’s involved winning titles but an emptiness in the success. He began searching for answers and soon found a new personal relationship with Jesus Christ.4
During the mid-1980s, his on-track squabbles with Earnhardt found an odd expression in their off-track friendship. Both Darrell and Stevie played an important role in Earnhardt’s commitment to Christ. By 1988, all three along with other drivers had helped launch Motor Racing Outreach, which provides counseling services for families of drivers and crews, offers Sunday morning worship services at every track on the circuit for NASCAR families, and organizes the preachers who say the invocation every week.
When Joe Gibbs entered the world of NASCAR as a car owner in the 1990s after retiring from the National Football League, his evangelical faith had found a willing home. The admiration he engenders among competitors is a testament to his faith. For instance, Gibbs gives the invocation at NASCAR’s all-star race every May. In the prayer, Gibb’s references Christ’s redeeming love and the individual’s right, secured by military folks around the world, to make a choice for God. He asks for protection of drivers and fans, and respectfully reminds everyone that Jesus is the only path to God. Gibbs will sometimes make more pointed references to issues like abortion, but generally he follows an evangelical pattern of prayer that gives thanksgiving and asks for protection. Cameras roll the entire time, focusing on drivers, the grandstands, and Gibbs himself. In the stands, fans put down their Coors Lights and Budweisers, take off their hats, and bow. For a moment, it looks like church. After the amen, the caps go back on, drivers cuss and fight while television cameras and audio capture the chaos, and fans drink their alcohol of choice. Families are there, but so is the unseemly side of racing, something preachers had warned against throughout most of the twentieth century.
We can see that the sport, as it took on more significance in American life, dramatically transformed how evangelicals responded to it. Though there are preachers who still condemn the use of Sundays for racing, few if any ministerial groups register complaints. More importantly, fans expect the use of evangelical prayers at the races, even when they are inebriated. The public performance of the prayer appears to validate the cultural importance of faith, but it also legitimates leisure time. In the process, the invocation becomes commodified and Nelms’s prayer does not seem odd as much as it seems to mimic the larger occasion of the race. While God’s name is invoked and Jesus’s sacrifice praised in the face of one of the most pointed examples of mortality in sport, worship itself appears to be given to NASCAR and the cultural praise located in American identity. There has been an exchange, but the nature of that exchange has yet to be fully explored.
“Resolution Passed By Jones Creek Church.” Christian Index, May 3, 1917, 25 (col. 2 -3) ↩
“Ministerial Association Committee Asks for Action Against Proposed Race Track,” Macon Telegraph December 13, 1945, 18A (col. 4-6) ↩
In a curious moment in Protestant culture dominance, the editors of the Christian Century poked fun at themselves after the Chicago City Missionary Society’s Renewal had featured an article that noted the American obsession with cars. “While they [Renewal] call their project ‘A Whimsical Thesis,’ we violently protest their attack on our secret idols—automobiles.” The Christian Century had spent most of the early part of the twentieth century tallying automobile deaths. (“A Choice of Gods,” Christian Century, July 29, 1964, 975.) ↩