The Faith of NASCAR

The Faith of NASCAR

John FarrellBy John Farrell13 Minutes

“I’ll do whatever He wants me to do,” isn’t the normal mindset of someone who has just won the Daytona 500 — the biggest race on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

However, that’s what was on Trevor Bayne’s mind shortly after climbing out of his No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford Fusion parked in the infield grass along Daytona International Speedway’s frontstretch. Moments earlier, Bayne had crossed the finish line first ahead of Carl Edwards, David Gilliland, and 40 other drivers to win the biggest race of the 2011 season in only his second series start.

Unfortunately, it was his only win in 187 series starts, his last start coming at Texas Motor Speedway in November 2018. However, that was fine with Bayne, because just days before he won the 2011 season opener, Bayne, his father, and new manager had made the decision to put the young driver’s career in God’s hands.

After the race, the 20-year-old driver (Bayne celebrated his birthday the day before), who didn’t have a full-time ride, told the media that he wanted to remain in the sport. He felt he was competitive and knew God put him there, but he wanted what God wanted. If God wanted him speaking in churches about his faith in Christ and the opportunities he had been given, then that’s what he would do. He’d do whatever God wanted him to do.

One of the journalists he shared this sentiment with was Lee Warren (in a phone interview), a Christian journalist who was often commissioned by various magazines and websites. On behalf of those outlets, Warren attended NASCAR races to interview drivers about their faith. After compiling multiple interviews with NASCAR personnel—not only drivers, but also owners, crew members, and broadcasters—he realized he needed to do something more with these stories. He needed to share them on a bigger scale.

In 2012, Warren published a book of 30 devotions drawing on the personal accounts of various individuals throughout the NASCAR industry. Each devotion began with a story about how God had intervened in the life of an imperfect person, regardless of whether they were Christian or not, and then identified applicable biblical principles.

After seven years, Warren decided it was time to publish a second edition titled, “Racing for Christ: 50 Devotions for NASCAR Fans.” A lot has changed in the sport over the past seven years with new drivers arriving on the scene, veteran drivers retiring, sponsorships changing, and more, so an update was needed.

For the new edition, Warren updated many of the original thirty devotions and added twenty additional devotions. His reason for writing the book, however, remained the same: “It was not to highlight Christian NASCAR drivers or Christian NASCAR personnel as much as it was to highlight what God was doing in the sport of NASCAR.”

Spend a little time in the NASCAR garage at any race and you’ll quickly realize how large a part God and faith play in NASCAR. You’ll see it in how the drivers and other personnel conduct themselves and you’ll see it in the pre-race activities. Considering the sport’s roots in the Bible Belt, this shouldn’t come as a surprise despite the sport’s popularity now reaching beyond the southern United States.

“I think the Bible Belt aspect really comes into play in NASCAR being so open to Christianity,” stated Warren. “Various people do the pre-race invocations, but most of them are done in the name of Jesus. They’re actually praying in the name of Jesus and that’s kind of unheard of in this day and age.”

Every Sunday morning prior to the race, the Motor Racing Outreach conducts a chapel service at the track, which is well attended by many in the NASCAR industry, including drivers who already have packed schedules filled with sponsor commitments and fan events. Despite their full schedules, several drivers make it a point to attend worship and some even have their PR people schedule other commitments around the chapel service.

In addition to the chapel service, a group of young drivers started holding a weekly Bible study at the track during the 2009 season. Among the members of this Bible study group were Bayne, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, and Josh Wise.

When Warren asked Bayne about the impact of Bible study group during an interview, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner replied, “They get it. That’s big for me. They are not only racers, but they are brothers in Christ and they help me stay focused on what’s important. We all experience the same pressures, but we really understand each other as drivers, about how tough it is. … We try to keep each other grounded and we try to stay in the Word.”

Bayne and the rest of the members of his Bible study group aren’t the only Christians in the sport who are sensitive to the Lord and willing to share their walk with Christ.

Take Lake Speed for example. Speed competed in NASCAR’s premier series for 19 seasons (1980-98). In 1983, Speed was leading the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway—NASCAR’s longest track at 2.66 miles and one of its most treacherous—when the Holy Spirit spoke to him.

Although Speed grew up in a Christian environment and even attended a Christian college, he felt he didn’t really know Jesus. It wasn’t until God spoke to him while driving the No. 1 UNO Chevrolet during the race that it all changed for him.

The voice asked him, “Lake, what’re you gonna do if you win here, too?” And just like that the voice was gone. But it was enough.

Although Speed finished the race third, Warren wrote in his book that Speed “was chasing something else by the time the checkered flag flew—meaning and purpose in the form of Jesus Christ.”

Warren was familiar with Speed’s story from an interview he saw on television, but he felt there was more. So he interviewed Speed to get the rest of the story.

“I wanted to know more about what happened after that so I got [Speed] on the phone recently,” Warren recounted. “He is very sensitive to the Lord, but ever since that time at Talladega the Spirit was drawing him in and asking him questions about his life.

“At one point, Lake said, ‘my life is not where it needs to be’ and the Holy Spirit told him to go pick up that book that’s been around for 2,000 years and get to know Me better.”

Shortly thereafter, Speed joined a church and became an active member.

Sometimes it’s not just one person who’s called by God to serve and exhibit Christian principles, but instead an entire sport.

When Jake Leatherman, a five-year-old NASCAR fan from Hickory, N.C., passed away in November 2016 from Leukemia, his mom, Crystal, reached out to a local news anchor. She wanted to enlist the anchor’s help in inviting a driver or crew member from NASCAR to attend the little boy’s funeral while dressed in his uniform.

Molly Grantham, an anchor for WBTV News in Charlotte, put the request out there. The result was unexpected, but not surprising knowing the tight-knit NASCAR community.

Not one, not two, not three, but over 60 drivers and crew members, all decked out in their uniforms, showed up for Jake’s funeral. Four of them even served as pallbearers, placing the coffin in the hearse.

Among the drivers in attendance were Joey Logano, whose wife Brittany saw Grantham’s request and suggested to her husband that the entire sport should do something, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Ellis, and J.J. Yeley. Crew members from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Richard Petty Motorsports were also in attendance. All this for a boy who none of them had ever met, a boy too sick to attend a NASCAR race.

“This is one of the reasons I love this sport so much,” Warren said. “You can watch video of the funeral that’s still online and the news reports and you’ll see crew members from competing teams standing side by side. Again these guys are highly competitive on the weekends, but then you tell a story like this.

“These are the kind of stories I listen for. These are the kind of stories that make my ears perk up. I don’t know the faith element of any of those people involved, but I know that mourning with those who mourn is a Christian principle … a biblical principle.”

A Christian journalist, like Warren, who covers NASCAR doesn’t root for any one driver in particular, instead he roots for good stories where the gospel prevails and where the gospel is present … and it doesn’t necessarily matter whether an individual is Christian or not.

The NASCAR community is full of examples where Christian principles abound and the gospel triumphs. It can be seen every race weekend as you walk through the garage or on the pages of Lee Warren’s latest book, “Racing for Christ: 50 Devotions for NASCAR Fans,” where you will not only find stories about Trevor Bayne, Lake Speed, and Jake Leatherman, but many others.

Order your copy of Racing for Christ: 50 Devotions for NASCAR Fans by Lee Warren