NASCAR prerace prayer another black eye

July, 26, 2011

I first saw it on CNN's "Headline News" on Sunday morning and then again Monday on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" while waiting for a delayed flight.

It made me laugh -- and cringe -- at the same time.

We're not talking about a breaking story from the White House involving national security, an update on the sagging economy or another twist to the Casey Anthony saga as these shows typically dwell on.

We're talking about the prerace invocation given by pastor Joe Nelms before Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Nashville Speedway.

And I use the term "invocation" loosely.

This was a scene straight out of "Talladega Nights,'' with Nelms thanking the man above for everything from "Little E,'' otherwise known as Dale Earnhardt Jr., to all the sport's manufacturers (except Chevrolet) to Sunoco Race Fuel to his "smokin' hot wife.''

He thanked everyone and everything but "Baby Jesus,'' as Will Ferrell did in the movie.

He ended it with the "boogity-boogity-boogity" line that Darrell Waltrip uses before the start of every Sprint Cup race on Fox TV.

Drivers who were bowed in reverence beside their cars couldn't help but snicker and laugh.

As funny as it was, it was another black eye for a sport trying to distance itself from the hillbilly image that "Talladega Nights'' played to the hilt. It was worse than having NFL wide receiver Golden Tate say that NASCAR drivers aren't athletes.

It made national news, and not in a good way. The race and the racer winner, Carl Edwards, weren't even mentioned.

As the son of a preacher, I love good humor from the pulpit. My father was a master of it.

But Nelms' prayer didn't put the spotlight on anybody but himself, which is not what prayer is about even when humor is involved. An email I received on Tuesday morning said what many of you have. I'll share a portion of it:

"If anyone is counting, the invocation preacher Saturday night in Nashville made me very, very uncomfortable. He seemed to be marketing himself. Anyway, I live in Tennessee and was sorry he was representing this state. There are enough people who have pre-conceived [notions] of NASCAR and this state and this unhappily confirmed some of that.''

To be fair, I'll share some of how Nelms defended his prayer on Sirius Radio's "Tradin' Paint'' show.

"I don't want to do the cookie-cutter prayer, not that we don't need to thank God for our military men and women,'' he said. "Absolutely, we wouldn't be here without them. Not that we don't desire safety for all of the officials, workers and drivers. We certainly don't want anything to happen to anybody out there. We need a safe race.

"But it's the same prayer week in and week out, and I'm not sure anybody is even listening to it anymore. So I said, 'I want to get somebody's attention' … try to make an impact on the fans and give them something they'll remember and maybe they'll go home on a Friday night or a Saturday night and say, 'Maybe I ought to get up and go to church in the morning.'''

If that inspired anyone to go to church, please let me know.

It just made me laugh, and then cringe.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer


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