There are few more devoted followers than NASCAR fans, whose fervor rivals -- and sometimes exceeds -- their Christian faith. So it should come as no surprise that a college lecturer has made their twin passions the subject of a new book, Godspeed: Racing Is My Religion.
"You can't separate them," says the author, L.D. Russell. "A race is a kind of morality play in which fans witness the drama of human existence. We live in the face of unbeatable odds. The ultimate defeat is waiting for us."
Without question, he writes, "Racing is a religion, a cult of true believers with their own rituals, myths and a system of ethics that rival Confucianism." Russell compares the NASCAR rule book with the Bible's book of Deuteronomy.
"I never miss the Daytona 500," he says, but at the same time he'll also be going over papers from the course he teaches on racing and religion at Elon University in North Carolina.
Russell cuts a colorful, atypical figure for a religion professor. The former Southern Baptist seminarian and youth pastor now sports a silver ponytail and favors cowboy boots. He travels to stock-car tracks around the Southeast on a Honda Shadow motorcycle or in a 1966 Ford F100 pickup. Tattooed and twice-divorced, he includes in his acknowledgments "my favorite ex-wife and best friend."
While the book is written for NASCAR aficionados, it also is aimed at those who are clueless, skeptical or even hostile toward American car culture.
"I'm an evangelist for NASCAR," Russell writes. "I spread the gospel of racing every chance I get."
Russell may be onto something, according to Lynn Neal, assistant professor of religion at Wake Forest University.
"He raises an important question about the nature of religious life in the 21st century," says Neal, who teaches a seminar on "Surprising Spirituality: Popular Culture and Contemporary Religious Life."
"Where are people discovering ultimate meaning? Many continue to find spiritual guidance within the boundaries of traditional religious institutions," he says. "Others, like Russell, have discovered the sacred in the unexpected places and spaces offered by popular culture -- the racetrack, the wrestling ring, the romance novel."
Admittedly, Russell has an expansive definition of religion in the NASCAR context.
"The fans are the faithful few, the righteous remnant saved from the boredom of their everyday lives by the mystical religious experience of raw power and awesome speed," he writes. "To put it in more philosophical terms, it's all about transcendence."
"All your worries, all your cares, tomorrow and yesterday drop away, and you're caught up in the present moment, what one theologian called the Eternal Now," he continues. "Nothing else matters. And if that ain't religion, I don't know what is."
Sacred and secular collide
The relationship between religion and racing has not always been a harmonious one.
In the early years of the sport, there was grumbling from pulpits that some of the faithful were skipping services to go to the track. Ministerial associations urged county governments to ban Sunday beer sales. For them, Russell writes, racing was for the hell-bound, embodying "a trinity of evils: recklessness, intoxication, and gambling, and all on the Lord's own day."
That view has changed radically over the past half century, and Russell is not the first or the only one to make the connection between racing and religion.
"I've gotten teased about it because there is that perception that NASCAR fans were once considered rowdy or rednecks," says Twila Roberts, director of finance at Northland, a Church Distributed, in Longwood. "One of the things that drew me to NASCAR was an after-race interview with [driver] Michael Waltrip when he shared his faith on TV. It really sparked my interest, and I started following it."
The Rev. Bobby Welch, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, will deliver the opening prayer at today's race. The former president of the Southern Baptist Convention sees these venues as a great opportunity for evangelism.
"What better opening for a conversation about eternal things than after a crash at the speedway, while sitting knee-to-knee with someone who may not have that assurance of heaven and eternal life," he said. "What an opportunity to share the joy and peace and purpose you have in life because of Christ, during casual conversations."
"Committed Christians are passionate about their belief, and I think race-car fans are passionate about their teams and their drivers," says Charles Cramer, of Longwood, an active member of First Baptist Church of Orlando. He has attended NASCAR races around the country, and Christian services led by "track chaplains."
"I often refer to myself as a secret member of the NASCAR religion," says Catherine Kellogg, of Orlando, a staff missionary with Campus Crusade for Christ. "Because I see the fervor and I see that people are drawn to the individual drivers the same way they are drawn to their church or denomination."
Kellogg admits that her feeling about stock-car racing is something of a guilty pleasure. "I am dividing my faith," she says. "I am putting my fervor and faith in something that is not my religion -- which is obviously more important. NASCAR is definitely second, but not by much."
Tragedy becomes inspiration
Russell's book was inspired by the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt, a feeling of personal grief like that of countless fans.
"It was devastating for me because he was my hero," he says, "my working-class hero. A hush fell over my soul, and I couldn't stop my tears."
A lot of the religious component of racing revolves around death, resurrection and immortality, he says.
"If my hero, my favorite driver, emerges at the end of that race victorious over the danger and death, then I have more hope that I, too, can do the same," he says.
"Driving is about mortality," he says. "We all drive. But we don't think about mortality. We need hope and faith and courage to get behind the wheel of a car."
And when a hero -- a stock-car driver -- does die?
"A noble, courageous death is the next best thing to rolling away the stone from the mouth of the tomb," Russell writes. "Stock-car racing does not offer eternal life, but the inherent danger of the sport, its weekly flirtation with death, surely grants its fans, whether they realize it or not, a deep sense of comfort and courage this side of the Great Unknown."