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NASCAR tracks are open evangelism field

By Deann Alford
at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway

Fresh out of college and ready for speed, Eric McClure found fame and success on stock car tracks near his home in southern Virginia while working in the NASCAR race shop co-owned by his family. But when he surrendered his life to Christ, he also surrendered racing.

Church youth leader and father of three, Brett Rowe has a lifelong passion for racing. But well before Rowe won the Automobile Racing Club of America truck championship in 2005, he held his path before God with an open hand: “Lord, if I can’t handle this, if it drags me away from You, if it’s messing up my family, I don’t want to do it.”

Morgan Shepherd, who in 1980 won what is now called the NASCAR Nationwide championship, is among the last of his generation of drivers. Now 66, he’s more than four decades older than some of today’s contenders.

But McClure, Rowe and Shepherd continue to compete in the Nationwide series, one of stock car racing’s top circuits. They seek faithfulness to God in their calling, using their platform to raise the name of Christ to their millions-strong audiences in what has become one of the world’s most popular sports.

Ron Reiser, too, hoped to race. “But God had another plan,” he says. Today Reiser is senior pastor of Tanner Williams Assembly of God in the Mobile, Ala., suburb of Wilmer. The racing fan is director of the interdenominational Christian Rodders and Racers Association and an AG-endorsed motorsports chaplain. Local tracks, Reiser says, are “a wide-open field for ministry if we could get chaplains involved.”

McClure, 29, son of Morgan-McClure Motorsports co-owner Jerry McClure, grew up zealous to drive fast in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide racing series. In the 1980s and 1990s the Morgan-McClure team won three Daytona 500 races. While Eric McClure’s racing career met early success, he soon learned that the glory he’d envisioned didn’t satisfy. “Before I knew the Lord, I was miserable when I didn’t race and miserable when I did.”

Two weeks after he wed in 2004, McClure made Christ his Savior. Doors remained open to race in the Nationwide series and three Sprint Cup races. Then in 2006 a full-time national sponsorship with Hefty landed in his lap.

McClure finds lots of opportunities to share God’s love behind the scenes in NASCAR. He has seen people become Christians in the garage. But so far, winning remains elusive.

McClure says he acknowledges the temptation to ask, “Why can’t I win now because God’s on my side? It doesn’t work like that.”

For now, McClure and his wife, Miranda, believe he’s where he needs to be.

“There are opportunities to witness to other people,” he says. “Those opportunities give us peace, and that’s what we’ll be doing till God changes direction for us.”

Brett Rowe, 41, is among the few Nationwide series drivers who still hold a day job (at his family’s mattress factory) while flying weekends to racetracks around the country. Rowe, of Barboursville, W.Va., may be the only NASCAR racer on the circuit today who leads kids’ ministries at a local church.

Rowe carried his adolescent obsession for motorsports into adulthood, racing everything from motocross to dirt-track stock cars. Fifteen years ago he volunteered as van driver for his church’s youth group. In two years of ARCA truck racing, he has won half the races he entered.

After a NASCAR team owner invited Rowe to drive, Rowe competed in nine Nationwide races in 2007 and most 2008 events to date. His car prominently bears John 3:16, and, when space permits, “For God so loved.”

Still, Rowe’s ride has low-budget sponsors. No matter how talented a driver may be, having to buy equipment cast off from other teams crushes any hope Rowe may harbor of recapturing his ARCA success in NASCAR. But he’s not one to grouse. “Not only is this an opportunity to do what I love to do, but I’m getting the opportunity to tell people about the Lord.”

Parked beside Rowe’s No. 05 car in the Nationwide garage is Morgan Shepherd’s “Racing with Jesus” No. 89. In Shepherd’s 41-year racing career, he’s won four Sprint Cup races, 15 Nationwide races and numerous pre-1982 victories in NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman division. Shepherd committed his life to Christ after returning from the 1975 Daytona 500 to discover his wife had left him.

Driving in NASCAR opens doors to speak in churches, prisons and other venues. So even after a sponsorship deal soured in the late 1990s, wiping out Shepherd’s millions, he regrouped and kept racing. But without a sponsor to finance his racing team, he can’t afford a full crew or the numerous tire changes needed to complete a race, and often must drop out.

Still, as NASCAR’s popularity soars, so has interest in his message. Shepherd receives mail from fans around the world.

“People come to us through exposure,” he says. “If we didn’t have this” — Shepherd gestures to the ‘hauler’ that carries his cars to races — “they wouldn’t be coming to us.”

Shepherd is also an evangelist for motorsports. “It’s a family sport,” he says. “In this business you work on your car all night. It takes these kids off the streets.”

Chaplain Reiser, who ministers at two local tracks, says his own racing fever has kept him glued to a sport in which he once longed to participate. Last year he led five people to salvation at a track. “Whatever interest God has given you in your life, God can use it for ministry,” he says.

TPE contributor DEANN ALFORD is a senior writer for Christianity Today. She is a member of Church of Glad Tidings, an Assemblies of God congregation in Austin, Texas.

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