NASCAR... Now That’ll Preach!
and religion have been tied together for as long as I can remember.
Maybe it’s because of its Bible-Belt roots.
Maybe it’s because so much of the racing occurred on Sundays after church. For so many growing up in the earlier days of the sport, Sunday was church, lunch, listen to the race on the radio and then back to church.
Maybe it’s because when the green flagged dropped the race ended for too many not at the Checkers but in Eternity.
For as long as I can remember NASCAR events have always opened with the Invocation, the National Anthem and the most famous words in auto racing. So religion has been a part of NASCAR and sometimes NASCAR has been a part of religion. Some might say a little too much at times. I know it once was in my life.
Last Pocono weekend, my church, the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church in Midway, KY held its annual Homecoming Celebration. Homecoming at Forks is part church family reunion, part birthday party, all celebration for what the Lord has done here all these years. It’s a time to not only look back and remember but a time to look forward with great expectation.
This marked our 231st year of continuous service. To those of you on the Eastern side of the Alleghenies that might not mean much, but on this side, for a pioneer church that was founded four years before Kentucky became the first state in the New West, it’s pretty special to think what it has seen over that time.
This weekend may have been the first time in its history that NASCAR was used in a sermon.
Not that it couldn’t have been used earlier. Back when I began attending Forks after accepting Christ in 2000, attending a Sunday morning service had a lot of similarities to a race at Bristol during its period of explosive growth. The “Little Church on the Hill” had nearly closed its doors a few years earlier as a good Sunday may have three dozen in attendance. When we arrived, Forks was being blessed with great growth. The pews were packed, I mean packed. After the single service expanded into two services, it was still packed. There was no difference then between row seven, left hand side there and Bristol’s Kulwicki, Section T, Row 7 as both had more humanity there than physically able to fit in the available space.
You got there early to get a seat. You made room for others who, like you, just had to be there. Jammed in shoulder to shoulder, standing to sing a hymn required a coordinated effort by the entire row which was not much different than what it took to stand to see “Trouble in Turn Three” at Bristol. Folks should have been miserable crammed together that tight for that long but truthfully no one cared. Everyone just had to be there and there was such an air of expectation. In so many ways, there were more similarities between Race Day and Church Day than one might think.
So maybe it wasn’t a stretch to finally hear NASCAR from the pulpit.
This year’s Homecoming speaker was Dakotah Euton, the Assistant Area Director of the Central Kentucky Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Dakotah had been to Forks many times, holding basketball camps in our multi-purpose recreation center. This was the first time he would share his message from the pulpit.
FCA Assistant Area Director, Dakotah Euton delivers the message at Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church’s 231st Homecoming Celebration
Oh what a message he delivered!
Homecoming speakers will often present a “Past-Present-Future” message for this occasion. Dakotah did as well... but his was different. Although, he and his family are not members here and attend church in a neighboring county, you’d never know it. On his “Past” point he told the “Forks Story” as well as any long-time member. On the “Present” you would have thought he worshipped weekly with us. He was spot on.
It was his third point, the “Future”, when his message took an interesting turn and NASCAR appeared. Before you jump ahead and think it was like one of Rev. Joe Nelms invocations where he prayed that “we get fired up, go three wide into the turns for His Honor and Glory” or his world famous sponsor laden prayer that concluded with him channeling his inner Ricky Bobby and gave thanks for his smoking hot wife-it was nothing like that. Instead, Dakotah turned our attention to the dual screens and allowed this video to play (with proper editing of sound of course) to make his final point.
Here we see the infamous Pepsi Max commercial in which four-time Cup Champion and 93 Cup race winner, Jeff Gordon dons makeup to become the wimpy “Minivan Mike” and takes “Car Salesman Steve” (poor fella) on the test drive ride of his life.
In it we see Gordon playing his part to the T, awkward around the car, hesitant to even pull away from the parking spot in the powerful, solid black Camaro. But with gentle coaxing from Steve, the test drive is soon underway and as our hero quickly “gains confidence” and puts the Camaro through its paces, Steve believes his customer is rapidly “losing control” if not his mind.
Steve’s conversation quickly goes from an encouraging “it has a little power” to “you are liable for any damages so please stop the car” to “you’re going to wreck this car and you’re liable if you wreck it” to “Mike! Stop the car right now!” to “You’re an idiot and I’m going to kill you”, to finally as Gordon gleefully broad-slides and backs the car into its original parking spot, Steve quickly unbuckling and exiting to “Who do you think you are? I’m calling the cops!
It’s only after Gordon sheds his disguise and reveals his true identity to the irate and terrified Steve and explains he’d been pranked that Steve utters his final words that are almost lost at the end of the film, yet make Dakotah’s final point...
“Can we do it again?”
Here is Steve, who moments earlier when he was riding with “Minivan Mike” was begging, threatening, doing everything he could to bring this life-threatening ride to an end, was now gleefully asking to go on that same ride again now that he knew that it was Jeff Gordon behind the wheel.
The difference was trust. Steve barely trusted “Minivan Mike” out of the parking lot with the powerful Camaro and before it was over wanted to kill him for making his life flash before his eyes yet anxiously wanted to repeat the harrowing “test drive” with Cup Champ Jeff Gordon in control.
As the lights raised, Dakotah brought his point home that “Isn’t that a lot like life?” When we don’t have “control” or are put in a position of having to trust someone (including ourselves) or something we don’t fully trust, can’t the “ride” get harrowing... isn’t the “ride” unbearable? Yet, when we place our trust in One who is truly in control and we know it, the “ride” changes.
He closed by charging us that going forward we should pursue Christ, trust Him and in that way when we all get to the end of our “ride” and find out Who was truly behind the wheel we won’t have to ask, “Can we do that again?” when there is no chance to do it again.
Dakotah did it much, much better. Hopefully, you see his point.
In the days following Homecoming, I continued to look back on the truth in his final point, not only in life but in the sport. In reflection, one of the things I’ve experienced over the years in my NASCAR fan journey is an erosion of trust. I look back and think of the folks in the sport who though I may not have agreed with, I trusted. For whatever reason, I don’t find so much trust in the sport anymore.
Reclaiming fan trust may be the biggest challenge facing NASCAR going forward-bigger than overcoming aero dependency, stage racing, the Chase/Playoff/Whatever, schedule shakeup, sponsorship exodus, diminishing car counts, rising costs and whatever else is out there.
If the trust is there, existing fans will hang on for the ride, no matter how harrowing things might get going forward.
that trust, lose the fans.
Restore trust. Restore the sport.
NASCAR... Now that’ll preach.