NASCAR is the only major provider of sports entertainment that includes a prayer in the pre-race ceremony. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the Supreme Court eliminate prayer in public schools, County Courthouses banned from displaying manger scenes, and the Ten Commandments removed from state houses of government. This privilege granted by NASCAR, and the networks, provides a generous concession to persons of faith who increasingly feel marginalized and their faith minimized in our present culture.
Although NASCAR has intentionally outgrown its Southern roots and developed a nationwide network of tracks and fans, it remains committed to preserving this tradition grounded in the cultural south and evangelical Christianity. Who could have predicted the marriage of Bible thumping preachers and moonshine runners could ever work? What strange bedfellows they make! Although the instructions given to guest chaplains specifically request the pastor use “inclusive” language, the majority of those who participate in the 25 second prayer ignore the instructions and pray “in Jesus’ name” to the delight of many and the dismay of others. For an evangelical pastor to do otherwise would be a compromise of their faith. Other fans who do not share their convictions feel offended.
Having been both an observer and a participant in the race prayer, I confess feeling conflicted about the practice. In 1986, through the generosity of the France family and the goodwill of Rev. Hal Marchman (track chaplain for 46 years at Daytona International Speedway) our family was invited to join other clergy families as guests at the Twin Qualifying races. I immediately became a fan. I wrote an article that was published in the News-Journal special edition on February 25, 2001 after Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. When Hal retired in November 2004, I was honored to fill this position knowing I’d never fill his shoes. Two years later, Daytona International Speedway made a decision to rotate the position of chaplain and give other clergy an opportunity to be involved. The role of Chaplain became much like the Grand Marshall who exhorts the drivers to “start your engines.”
Here are a few observations from an observer and a participant. First, the sequence of the pre-race ceremonies follows the presentation of the flag, the prayer, the National Anthem, and a military flyover. While the position in this sequence honors the importance of prayer, the placement of the prayer may also create confusion about the meaning. The pre-race sequence links patriotism to our nation and devotion to God while the thundering jets serve as an exclamation point to our massive military muscle. The placement of the prayer makes a statement before the chaplain ever utters a word.
Second, race prayers follow a predictable pattern. The chaplain usually prays for the safety of the drivers. I still ask myself, “How does a chaplain pray for the safety of someone driving an 800 horsepower billboard traveling at two hundred miles per hour, aerodynamically hooked together bumper to bumper in a 43-car train?” God does not suspend the laws of gravity or physics, and is not responsible for human error in order to grant us “safety.” Once, I was asked to pray for the safety of the cowboys at the start of a rodeo. How do we pray for the safety of people who intentionally place themselves in harm’s way? In other words, “We’re going to place ourselves in situations of needless risk for your entertainment and we want God to cover the bets in the event it goes bad.” The Allison, Earnhardt, and Petty families know this doesn’t work.
Third, the chaplain is usually compelled to pray for the safety of our troops. I am a son of the south; and, I love our nation. I am proud to be an American. Yet, this practice has always felt strange to me. My son was in the Air Force during my first experience of praying at the speedway. I had a personal interest in “blessing our troops.” I wanted God to do what I could not do: protect my son. So what happens when this divine protection policy does not work? What happens when the military vehicle pulls up in your driveway, the uniformed soldiers knock at your door, and the first words spoken are, “I regret to inform you but your son or daughter…” Does this mean God was a slacker and had left the post? Does this mean our prayers for safekeeping were not earnest enough? Is it our fault our son or daughter was killed? I don’t believe so. I am convinced that God grieves whenever there is the needless death of a son or daughter regardless of the theory, ideology, philosophy, or theology that is playing behind the scene while these soldiers are pulling the triggers.
I believe God has made all things sacred. It is what we do that makes the world profane, as we are painfully witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico. I am grateful NASCAR honors this sacred tradition. I am moved to tears when I see thousands of people who wouldn’t step near the shadow of a steeple remove their caps as a sign of reverence to God.
As we pause to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we are reminded that our struggling 13 colonies could not find a way to unite until they declared war on England. Let us pray for ways for our world to unite without having to have enemies. If the world is a village, then we are all members of the same tribe. Let us pray for a new unity and for the healing of our environment, our nation, and our world. Let us pray for the creatures, the fowl and fish, who are the victims of the massive reminder of our addiction to oil. Let us pray for clean energy, jobs, and for hope for those who have been beaten down by the recession. Let us pray for peace, that we may beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks, that we will study war no more. (Isaiah 2:4) Let us pray to bring our troops home! Shalom and Amen!