the faith

In NASCAR, lines blurred
between racing and religion

— When Bobby Labonte takes the green flag in Sunday’s Daytona 500, he’ll
be racing for victory — and the Lord.

    The hood
of Labonte’s car is both a shameless movie plug — The Passion of the Christ,
coming soon to a theater near you — and some new-style proselytizing for
the Gospel.

Yes, witnessing has moved from the revival tent to the fast lane.

“It’s a chance to get the word out,” Labonte, who grew up in Corpus Christi,
Texas, said about the ad on his car. “Someone
who is curious about Jesus and has never been saved sees the race and says,
‘Hmmm, I’d like to see what that’s about.’ … Maybe we can change their

   NASCAR racing
and the Christian faith have often worked hand-in-hand, from infield services
for drivers, crewmen and officials to the pre-race invocation to the annual
break in the schedule for the Easter holiday.

comes a car promoting The Passion of the Christ,
a soon-to-be-released
movie that already has drawn lavish praise from conservative clergy —
including the Rev. Billy Graham — but angry denouncements from Jewish
groups fearing it will stir up anti-Semitism.

Labonte, it was a no-brainer to plug Mel Gibson’s film on the No. 18 car,
especially since the movie focuses on the seminal event in the Christian
faith — the crucifixion of Jesus.

“I know how much it has impacted my life and my family’s life,” said Labonte,
a former NASCAR Nextel Cup champion.

Stock car racing is unapologetic about its ties to Christianity, which
isn’t surprising for a sport that grew up in the Bible Belt. But, mirroring
NASCAR’s attempts to diversify the good ol’ boy image, the word has gone
out that all religions are welcome.


“Walking through the garage, yes, I’m unashamed about being a Christian,”
said Dale Beaver, a chaplain for Motor Racing Outreach, which conducts
half-hour chapel services before events. “If you’re not a Christian, that’s
OK. We can still get along.”

NASCAR has attempted to maintain symmetry between its predominantly Christian
fan base and those of other faiths.

Hal Marchman, a retired Baptist minister who has given the pre-race invocation
since Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, always ends his prayer
with “shalom and amen,” incorporating the Hebrew word for “peace” into
his Christian beliefs.

“We’re not the only ones,” Marchman said. “I respect the Jewish religion.
I respect every religion.”

    But it’s
not always easy for NASCAR to pull off the balancing act.

    Two years
ago, Morgan Shepherd put a Jesus decal on the hook of his racing truck
before a race in Darlington, S.C. NASCAR officials received complaints
— “maybe it was the atheists,” Shepherd said — and asked him to remove
the logo. He complied, prompting a backlash from Christian fans.

A few weeks later, NASCAR told Shepherd he could put the logo back on his
race vehicles. It’s been there ever since.

“I commend NASCAR and the sport I’m in,” Shepherd said. “They’re not afraid
to stand up for what’s right. They let us come in and worship with MRO.
We can pray before races. I know they’ve taken a lot of heat.”

He praised retired NASCAR chairman Bill France for resisting any attempts
to eliminate religion from the race track.

    For instance,
it’s hard to imagine NASCAR levying a $5,000 fine on a competitor for wearing
a cap with a cross during interviews, which happened with NFL quarterback
Jon Kitna in December (the fine was rescinded last week by the league).

Shepherd’s perspective, NASCAR’s alliance with the Christian faith gives
the sport a more wholesome, family oriented image.

“I guarantee you’re never going to see anything like what happened with
Janet Jackson,” Shepherd said, referring to the singer whose breast was
exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show. “Those things are not going
to happen in our sport. Not while Bill France is around.”

Shepherd said he’s received plenty of praise for his Victory In Jesus racing
team, that hasn’t translated into financial backing. His hopes of qualifying
for the Daytona 500 were scuttled by a shoestring budget.

“Why does corporate America spend so much money … supporting things that
don’t have moral values?” Shepherd asked. “And here we are, trying to serve
the Lord. There’s nothing bad in the Bible. Even if you don’t believe in
God, if everyone would just live by the Bible and the Ten Commandments,
see how much better the world would be.”

Labonte has plenty of financial backing. In fact, the idea to use the No.
18 car as an advertising vehicle for “The Passion of the Christ” came from
his primary sponsor.

Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, has teamed up with Hollywood
to promote other movies, including Toy Story 2 and The Hulk. But Gibson’s
project took on special meaning after Miller saw the film at a screening
in California.

    He doesn’t
believe the movie portrays Jews as being solely responsible for the death
of Christ — a concept blamed for centuries of anti-Semitism.

“The Bible is clear: Jesus was volunteering when he laid his life down,”
Miller said. “I don’t feel it’s near the issue people are trying to make
out of it.”

And, said J.D. Gibbs, who runs the team, this marketing campaign isn’t
intended to keep other faiths in the pits.

“We want everyone to look at this as their sport,” Gibbs said. “It’s not
just a Christian sport.”

Overcomes Early Problems to Earn 11th in Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Sunday,
Feb. 15, 2004 ˆ Bobby Labonte overcame early problems in the Daytona 500
and fought back to finish 11th in the 46th Daytona 500 Feb. 15 at Daytona
International Speedway. 

who started 13th in „The Passion of the Christ‰ Interstate Chevrolet,
worked his way up to sixth by the time he pitted on Lap 30. However, as
Labonte entered pit lane, he ran over a cone and slid through the grass
between pit road and the frontstretch before entering his pit stall.

wasn’t very good on my part. (Fatback, crew chief Michael McSwain) said
‘Pit if we can pit,’ and I was on the high side and I didn’t know if I’d
run out of gas or not, so I figured it’d be better to try and pit rather
than just stick it out, because if you run out of gas on the backstraightaway
or something, I’d be in worse shape,‰ Labonte said.

thereafter, Labonte suffered damage to the front of his car when he bumped
another Nextel Cup competitor while trying to avoid a spinning car. The
car suffered damage to the oil cooler duct and the Interstate Batteries
Racing Team began to repair the car during a pit stop. 

had fallen to 40th when the race restarted on Lap 37, but managed to work
his way up to 30th when a caution on Lap 58 enabled Labonte to get is lap

guys did a good job of getting me out,‰ Labonte said. „We lost a lap, but
we were fortunate on the ‘Lucky Dog’ situation, and we got to make it back

A 10-car accident on the backstretch helped Labonte gain several positions
and by the halfway  point of the race, he had worked his way back
to 12th. 

With the final 300 miles taking-place under green and the field spread
out, Labonte could not crack the top 10 and wound up 11th. It was a major
improvement from a 41st-place finish in 2003.

    „It was
almost a top 10,‰ Labonte said. „I think last year we finished like 80th
or something like that, so it was better than that. I wish we could have
finished a lot better. This racing was pretty good today, for me. Early
in the race, we could pass a little bit better than at the end. I don’t
know why it didn’t get any better toward the end.” 

„For us and a lot of guys, it seemed single-file, I don’t know if it was
the wind [OR SATAN!!!!] or what. If
we could have made up a little bit on one series of runs, maybe we could
have caught a couple of cars, maybe we would have been in the pack of cars
in front of us.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in the rural wilderness of Joshua Tree, California, where I am a partner in with Stephanie Smith.