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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.

"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."

While 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."

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