CONCORD, N.C. (BP)-–With the popularity of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing across the United States, it’s not surprising that the areas surrounding the racetracks turn into small cities during race weekends -– a mission field for sowing the Gospel and providing a much-needed helping hand to race organizers.
A noisy raceway may not seem like a place to prepare people for worship but there are raceway ministries which meet NASCAR fans where they are. That’s why organizations like the National Fellowship of Raceway Ministries (NFRM) and Motor Racing Outreach (MRO) have seen volunteers for their ministries multiply and requests for their services expand.
“There are thousands of people at any given NASCAR race and there are two or three races a weekend,” said Roger Marsh, executive director of NFRM and chairman of the Texas Alliance Raceway Ministries. “A half-million people can show up during the weekend. This presents a tremendous opportunity for us to share the Gospel. There are also 20,000 to 40,000 people in the campgrounds during the weekend, which gives us a captive audience. This is a great opportunity for outreach.”
The National Fellowship of Raceway Ministries, begun in the 1970s by three Southern Baptist pastors who ministered at tracks around the South including Darlington, S.C., and Daytona, is a fellowship of local ministry groups that share the Gospel with race fans, competitors and motor sports participants of all kinds.
It has member groups from Daytona International Speedway in Florida to the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H., and across the country to the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Many of the groups share the Gospel at the major speedways where NASCAR, the IRL (Indy Racing League) and CART (Champ Car World Series) race, while many others minister at road courses or local venues where modifieds, sprint cars and street stocks draw local racing enthusiasts who aren’t able to make it to tracks like Lowe’s Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C.
The ministries work with local groups and help them organize their outreach efforts. They meet with race officials and offer their services without being seen as pushy, Marsh said.
“They welcome me at their offices,” Marsh said. “I don’t talk to them about teaching the Bible and handing out Gospel tracts and leading people to Jesus. I don’t want to scare them. They know we have services for them and are useful to the fans. They know our volunteers are reliable and we can provide chapel services to them.
“We also speak their language. We say we want to give the fans one more reason to buy season tickets,” he said. “They’re very responsive to that. A good percentage of NASCAR fans are church people and there are a good number of Christians among the drivers and crews. We fill a market niche that they need.”
Motor Racing Outreach, based in Concord, N.C., is the primary provider for ministry to several auto, boat and motocross racing series. MRO not only provides chaplains but also will train chaplains who want to minister at a racing venue. It works to establish local groups for ministry to fans at the speedways.
Bill Carpenter of York, Maine, is the group’s fan coordinator, traveling around the country with his family in their RV to about 25 races during the year and helping to make initial connections with track management, NASCAR officials and local churches and organizations interested in racetrack ministry. Initially he said he’d be involved for three years, and that was more than 10 years ago.
“I run around and encourage people,” Carpenter said in his thick New England accent.
With experience drawn from having worked at least 300 races, he said, “I ID talent for whatever is needed. I start new sites and get calls from different groups on how to get involved at the track. I help create seed money for the new ministry. We provide literature like Our Daily Bread tracts geared to racing fans and give guidance [to local groups] on things that have worked in the past. We had a concert at Talladega (Ala.) that drew 7,000 people. We also work with smaller groups on things like Pinewood Derbies and face painting.”
Racetrack volunteers help in a variety of ways. “We work with the track on medical and security situations in and out of the track,” Carpenter said. “Emergency people respond and take injured and ailing people for treatment and we help the family members. We minister to them and hook them up with local ministry people to make it easy to deal with the crisis.”
Motor Racing Outreach also organizes chapel services for anyone who wants to attend, typically 110 minutes before the start of the race. Sometimes they are able to have Christian drivers like Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin give their testimony. The services also are televised on DirecTV Channel 103.
For the past three years, raceway ministry groups sought a working relationship with the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This spring the doors were opened and the groups were allowed a presence at the Brickyard for the Allstate 400 race weekend.
“It was tough,” said Terry Lewis, pastor of Eastside Community Baptist Church in Indianapolis and the ministry group organizer. “This was more of an idea than Indianapolis has ever done. The track has been here for so many years and they want to make money. They asked, ‘What can you do for us?’”
The Indianapolis group had 60 volunteers who distributed 5,000 cups of water and 20,000 pieces of Christian literature, Lewis said. They had a Pinewood Derby, which is usually held at the other tracks by the Christian groups as well. And a Sunday worship service drew 60 people.
“Two people raised their hands that they prayed to receive Christ,” Lewis said. “Others wanted to talk to us and share their experience with us. …
“We received positive feedback from the speedway and received positive things from the ministry,” he said. “A couple from Michigan had a grandson at the track and sent us an e-mail thanking us for being there and providing such a nice thing for them and the grandkids. We hope to work the Indy 500 and the IRL races in the future.”