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
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
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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