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NASCAR mixing religion, racing

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 10 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — 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 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 minds."

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.

Now 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.

For 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 hood 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).

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

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