By Shannan Adler, Special to CNN
(CNN) - The scene at the pre-race drivers’ meeting at Daytona International Speedway last Sunday morning, before the Daytona 500 was delayed a day because of rain, was a typical pre-race circus.
Reporters everywhere. Blinding flashbulbs and microphones jammed into drivers’ faces. VIP guests like Mitt Romney and Sports Illustrated “it” model Kate Upton.
But after the meeting, which happens two hours before each race, the media leaves and the doors are shut. The roar gives way to silence. Church is about to begin.
“God, I pray that you would make us very aware of how we can love and how we can be an example,” the minister, Steve Keller, tells his congregation. “God, together we really just want to take a walk in your heart and be a people who really know you and who really reflect you and live for you.”
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Two guitar players in jeans and flannel shirts strum folksy chords in front of 150 members of this tight-knit NASCAR community. Seated in rows of blue plastic chairs under dim lights, NASCAR drivers and their pit crews put their arms around their wives and balance children in their laps. A huge Daytona 500 banner hangs near the front of the room, where an altar would be in a church.
Drivers and their crews bow their heads in prayer at a MRO chapel service before the Daytona 500.
“Have a great day of competition,” Keller says near the end of the hour. “We love you.”
The service is what some call the church of NASCAR, part of a national ministry for drivers, pit crew members and their spouses and kids.
It is often the only quiet moment these families get during days at the track.
The chapel services are run by the Motor Racing Outreach, founded in 1988 by legendary NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip and his wife, Stevie, and a handful of other drivers.
There were chapel services for drivers before Motor Racing Outreach, but they weren’t formally organized. Most times, there wasn’t even a minister present.
Locations for services were changing constantly and were often less than ideal. Waltrip recalls some services happening off the back of a driver’s truck. He and other drivers aimed to start what he calls a “credible ministry.”
So they recruited Max Helton, an ordained minister from Southern California who loved racing. “The Lord called him to move to North Carolina and head up the ministry,” Waltrip says of Helton. “That was the beginning.”
Today, Motor Racing Outreach has two full-time and two part-time ministers. The MRO team ministers to the extended NASCAR family before each race, serving through a racing season that stretches from February to November. The Daytona 500 is considered the biggest race of the year, the season opener for NASCAR.
Many services take place in rooms similar to the one at Daytona, always just after drivers meet with the media. Many racetracks have invested in rooms that double as media centers and chapels. At other tracks, chapel services happen in garages.
A chapel service at the Daytona 500 is lead by MRO.
For drivers who can’t visit their hometown churches during the racing season, Motor Racing Outreach has become an integral part of life on the road.
“Us being gone 36 weekends out of the year, this is our church,” said driver Michael McDowell, who attended the Daytona 500 service with his wife, Jami, and their 3-year-old son, Trace. “This for us is a normal Sunday.”
“What MRO does for the NASCAR community, they are there to support you but also with their chaplains and being able to take in God’s word and to have a time to just get away from all the noise and just pray before the race,” he said. “It’s just a refreshing time.”
Keller, a full-time MRO minister, says that most drivers and families who attend the chapel service are regulars. The services draw 150 to 200 members of the racing community. “It’s a life-or-death sport,” said Keller, explaining the popularity of the chapel services. “There’s a sense of, if and where the almighty is, I want to be as close to him as I can before I get into a car.”
Keller also says that religion - Christianity in particular - is a big part of the NASCAR tradition. Several drivers are outspoken about their faith, including last year’s Daytona 500 winner, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne.
NASCAR is one of the few professional sports in the U.S. that has a televised invocation before each event. (Last summer, a Baptist preacher made national headlines for giving thanks to God for his “smokin’ hot wife,” in an invocation before a Tennessee race.)
Keller says another reason for NASCAR’s nexus with Christianity is its Bible Belt roots: “Racing was born out of the South, and so its roots tend to be faith and family.”
That’s at least partially right. The forefathers of racing were moonshiners in the hills of North Carolina, who were constantly trying to outpace the law. Some of the best-known bootleggers became drivers, including the legendary Junior Johnson. The earliest race car drivers learned how to modify everyday cars while transporting liquor, so their vehicles wouldn’t drag under the weight of all that booze; a telltale sign to a perceptive cop looking to bust them.
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Today, Keller says that the intensity of the sport sends many drivers and their families to his door in search of counseling. Many drivers struggle to find balance between a career that keeps them on the road and their families. Drivers also sometimes struggle with one another, with Keller reporting plenty of work in conflict resolution.
“The MRO through thick and thin has been the glue that holds this family together,” Waltrip said. “That’s true whether it's tragedy or triumph.”
As the drivers and their pit crews ramp up for this weekend’s races in Phoenix, two chaplains from the MRO are already there and working. The racing season is only just beginning, and so are the chaplains. NASCAR’s long season - a whopping 10 months - is virtually unrivaled in any other professional sport and includes nearly 70 races all over the country, of which the MRO will minister to every single one.
If the race happens to be within seven hours’ driving distance from the MRO headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, the chaplains hop into their cars and drive.
Any farther, and they fly. No matter what, they will be there, and the drivers are counting on it.
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