Thursday, June 2, 2011

NASCAR and Religion

Twice a year, sort of like a modern-day biblical plague, swarms of people buzz into the area, fill the streets and collect inside Daytona International Speedway for the NASCAR races.  The next arrival is July 2, less than a month away.  Each time they overrun Volusia County, I am reminded of how similar religion and racing really are.

While it may not seem an obvious comparison, surprisingly, they share many attributes.

For starters, race fans have their own religious center.  They call it Daytona International Speedway, Michigan International Raceway, Watkins Glen or whatever.  They treat it like holy ground, walking around in reverence, indoctrinating their children and treating it like a shrine.  Think of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Some of the sacred sites have been abandoned.  North Carolina Speedway comes to mind, but I recall seeing the ruins of a vacant Israeli site that was first a Greek Temple, then a Jewish one and finally Christian before being deserted.

I should point out that the speedway in North Carolina was nicknamed The Rock, just like St. Peter: “Upon this Rock, I will build my church.

In addition, fans have their icons.  For example, statues of Dale Earnhardt and of Bill and Ann France stand outside Daytona International Speedway.  Fans stand in front and “worship.”  Awe often fills their faces.  I saw fathers instruct their sons on the history of such heroes.  In the same way, almost all churches carry statues or images of Jesus or saints.  In addition, the “fish” symbols of Christianity correspond to the numbers fans festoon their cars and clothing with.

Offerings are hardly unique to religious settings. A ticket to the 2010 Daytona 500 started at $55. Churches collect offerings from parishioners at every service.  Synagogues require annual dues, and members may receive tickets for crowded shuls on High Holy Days.   

Tracks are bigger than even mega-churches, but the pews at any race oval and in any religious buildings are pretty much the same.

Many religious groups also have uniforms.  Think of the Amish, nuns, priests and the like.  Rabbinical robes fall into that category.  So do mitre hats.  Race fans have their uniforms, too: jeans, plaid shirts and caps.  With sponsor logs and racing stripes, they are usually more colorful than anything a priest or rabbi might don, but their object is the same: instant identification with a particularly sect of believers. 

Then, too, religions and racing have libations.  Wine is usually the drink of choice at religious services.  That’s too effete for race fans, who tend to bring large quantities of beer to their services.  In both cases, imbibing is supposed to enhance the experience.

In addition, racing and religion share a holy day.  Major races are held on Saturday nights or Sundays throughout the year or on holidays.  That’s true for religious services, too. 

Both groups have their religious books.  Christians and Jews rely on the Bible, although they don’t have identically the same one.  Muslims use the Koran.  Holy books exist in other religions as well.  For race fans, the sacred scripture is called a program.  I know all about those books.  I spent five years at International Speedway Corp. – which owns many race tracks, including Daytona International – writing programs.  Fans received them inside plastic sheaves and treated them with utmost reverence.  I should point out that program were more valuable if left inside their plastic coverings and unread.  That’s not true with religious texts, but both were handled with the same deference.

Of course, both excite extreme devotion.  Challenging religious beliefs can cause wars.  The list is endless: Parts of Europe were virtually depopulated by a battle between Protestants and Catholics; the Crusades were a fight between Christians and Muslims; Jews celebrate Hanukkah, a commemoration of a fight with the Syrians over religious freedom; and so on.  In racing, just try to tell a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan that Jeff Gordon is a better driver.  The results will be pretty much the same.  

There is tolerance.  Christian churches may share the same building as Jewish tenants.  A fan of one racer will sit next to a fan of another.  But, there’s no doubt that each considers itself superior. 

Finally, race fans find racing heavenly.  It inspires lofty prose and an enormous amount of praying during events.  Religions require people to die first before having any kind of heavenly experience.

Racing seems to have the edge in that area.

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who likes to keep his tongue firmly planted in his cheek on occasion.  You can find his books, including a history of racing in Daytona Beach, at

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