2016-06-30
This story originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2001.

Jeff Gordon drives a fast car for a living, so his wife, Brooke, tapes a handwritten scripture verse to the steering wheel for him to contemplate for the few minutes when he is in no particular hurry. Just last Sunday, she copied a verse from the 15th chapter of I Corinthians: "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory," it began. At the bottom of the slip of paper, she wrote, "Be safe. I love you." Gordon says he won't look at the scripture when he knows he needs to keep his eyes on the road. The caution periods when the cars slow after an accident or incident are another matter. "I'll look at it, read it, and I'll do a little prayer here and there if I feel the need to," he said.

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  • Gordon is one of the most successful and personable stock-car drivers on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He won't celebrate his 30th birthday until August 4, but he has already won three Winston Cup championships, 55 races, and more than $39 million. He is in first place in the standings heading into one of the season's most prestigious races, the Brickyard 400, on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indianapolis is 20 miles from Pittsboro, Ind., where Gordon's family moved when he was 13 so he could pursue a racing career.

    His blue No. 24 Chevrolet with the fluorescent orange flames is probably the most recognized car on the circuit. Because he wins a lot, he is not well liked by fans of other drivers, who chide him for being just a little too clean-cut and well-mannered. But Gordon is universally respected as one of the best in his sport.

    And his sport has grown exponentially in the last decade. Attendance at races doubled between 1990 and 2000. Sales of NASCAR merchandise have mushroomed from $80 million in 1990 to $1.26 billion last year. The National Football League was the only professional sports organization to have higher television ratings than the Winston Cup, and TV ratings this year are up 20% over a year ago.

    With the acclaim and rewards of a glamorous occupation, however, come great risk. One of Gordon's fiercest rivals, the seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed February 18 when his car slammed into a wall during the last lap of the Daytona 500. It was the fourth death of a NASCAR driver within a year, but Earnhardt's death shook stock-car racing to its core. Earnhardt was such a formidable and relentless competitor that he was almost considered immortal. Since his death, one or two drivers who had not attended the pre-race chapel services at the race track have been coming, said the Rev. Max Helton, founder of Motor Racing Outreach, an interdenominational program for racing communities launched in 1988.

    "When it's Dale Earnhardt, you're saying, 'That was a top team and a top driver, and it probably could have happened to anybody at any time when it happens to the biggest guy in the sport,'" Gordon said during an interview last weekend in the office of his team's trailer. "It's almost mind-boggling."

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  • Gordon thinks about Earnhardt every day, but he has been able to cope with the tragedy, in part, because of his faith--a faith he owes in many ways to racing. As a boy, Gordon did not go to church: "I always knew I believed in God," he said, "but I don't know if I actually knew what that meant, you know?"

    In the early 1990s, prompted by a friendship with Bobby Hillin, a fellow driver on the Busch Grand National Series, Gordon began to seek some answers about his faith. He then met Helton, and liked the way Helton answered questions without overselling organized religion. It also helped, Gordon says with a laugh, that Helton had connections in racing that could help Gordon land a lucrative job.

    Then, in the winner's circle at Daytona in 1993, Gordon met Brooke Sealy, a model who was the reigning Miss Winston. Because Miss Winston was forbidden to date a driver, Gordon and Sealy kept their relationship a secret until Brooke gave up her crown. It quickly became apparent to Gordon that Sealy considered religion an important part of her life. Shortly before he and Brooke married, Gordon was baptized at her family's church in King, N.C., not far from Winston-Salem. Helton married the couple on November 26, 1994, in Charlotte. The wedding was every bit as storybook to racing fans as Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding. "There were some seeds sown before she came along," Helton said from his office in Charlotte, N.C., "but Brooke did a whole lot of watering."

    Now Gordon says he and Brooke pray every night before they go to bed. He also attends a Bible study when his schedule permits. Part of the Gordons' weekly routine is to attend the MRO chapel service. Last Sunday, before a race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., Gordon and his wife found a seat in the middle of a sea of folding chairs in a garage. Next to them was another driver, Ricky Craven, and his wife and two children. During the half-hour service, which included a hymn by a children's choir and a sermon by MRO chaplain Dale Beaver, Gordon kept his arm around his wife.

    "That was a part of her life she did grow up with," Gordon said. "It was important to her, and she wanted it to be important to the person she was with. A lot of the (spiritual) questions that I felt I couldn't just ask of anybody, I felt I could ask her. I really became interested in it, and my belief just grew and grew and grew. It's just continued to grow from there."


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  • Now, Helton said, Gordon has one of the strongest faiths of anyone involved in motor sports. This is, apparently, a feat. Helton said that about 75% of the 43 Winston Cup drivers attend the chapel services. "When I first met him," Helton said, "he was not into it at all. But he has become very firm in his beliefs."

    A race track is a difficult place to find solitude, let alone a quiet nook. The ear-splitting rumble of cars chasing each other in tight packs, combined with the pungent smell of gasoline, exhaust, and molten tire rubber, makes watching racing a thrill like no other sporting event, but it does not make for the ideal sanctuary. The feeling of danger at a race track is palpable and sometimes overwhelming. The mood was noticeably somber before a race last month at New Hampshire International Speedway, a track at which two young drivers, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, died last year in separate accidents. Petty's father, the veteran driver Kyle Petty, decided to keep a low profile in his first race there since his son's death. "I know that it took a lot for him to come back here," Gordon said that weekend.

    Drivers like to believe their cockpit is as safe as a cocoon, and the sport, in many ways, has never been safer. A frightening, fiery, car-shredding accident often ends with a driver walking away from the wreckage. But every driver is keenly aware of the risks. Gordon finds himself praying several times before a race.

    "Mainly for safety," he said. "For God to help me to do to the best of my ability, things like that. I ask Him to do the things that are pleasing to God." He and his racing team usually end pre-race meetings with another prayer. Then, after the drivers belt themselves into their cars, another prayer, often for safety, is said over the public-address system before the cars pull off pit road and the racing begins. At the end of Sunday's race at Pocono, Gordon got out of his car and, during a television interview, thanked God for a safe race.

    There was also an invocation before the Daytona 500, of course, but that prayer for a safe race failed. The racing community's response was not only to mourn Earnhardt's death, but also to gather as a family and pray harder. Racing continued, and the Sunday morning chapel service drew a standing-room-only crowd at Rockingham, N.C., one week after Earnhardt was killed. The MRO services have become a magnet. Those most affected by the four recent deaths in NASCAR continue to attend the Sunday services. In the audience on Sunday were Kyle and Pattie Petty, Adam's parents, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 26, a rising star whose driving ability has been compared favorably with his father's.

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  • Gordon has a favorite Bible verse, from Philippians: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." Gordon said the verse often gives him solace during a race, in which dogfights for the lead are sometimes contested at 200 miles an hour and a split-second decision could mean the difference between winning a race and hitting the wall.

    "That's one that always sticks out in my mind," Gordon said. "It just reminds me of God.. When you're in a race car, you're going through so many different emotions throughout that race. You may be leading, then you might be at the back of the pack trying to work your way up, things may be going your way, things might not be. It's just a constant reminder not to give up, and to know that God, in my mind, is really in control."

    As a reminder, there are the Scripture verses that Brooke tapes to the steering wheel. They change from week to week, Gordon said, but they have their favorites, and there is usually a theme. Gordon says Brooke borrowed the idea from Stevie Waltrip, the wife of former Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip.

    Certainly, Earnhardt's death has caused him to focus harder on his faith, but it is not as if Gordon needed that cue. He has come to understand that the danger of his profession is never too far away. "I just think a lot more about how life can change at every second," Gordon said, "and that you just never know what's ahead of you--that you've got to be the best person you can be in your life. To be the best you can."
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