DOVER, Del. -- As in old movies about migrant workers, the men and their families travel from job to job. Every Thursday for 34 weeks of the year, their motor homes create temporary towns of 1,500 people. Then, after four days, they move on to the next dusty spot.
"First comes the community, then comes the factory," says Ron Pegram, who ministers to this thriving ensemble.
This is the way of life in the Winston Cup Series of auto races that runs from February to mid-November. The families set up housekeeping in the racetrack infields while the men go about the business of professional stock-car racing. On Sunday mornings, like people in any community, some of them go to church.
But there is only one church here, a traveling nondenominational church run by Motor Racing Outreach (MRO).
MRO was started in 1988 by Max Helton and has grown to include 16 ministers serving 23 motor-racing series, most of them under the umbrella of NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The ministry operates on a budget of $2.5 million a year and has no debts.
"If we can't pay for it, we don't get it," says Jackie Pegram, who helps her husband and runs the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon Bible school and day care.
Often, the metal folding chairs for the service are set up inside the garage where the cars were prepared for the race that will start in a few hours. Other times, the service is held outdoors.
"This is our church," says Ron Pegram. "We spend 182 nights of the season in our motor home with this congregation. We've been doing it now for six years."
In 1993, Pegram, a former Baptist pastor, volunteered to help Helton. He has since worked with racing-boat series and the Busch Grand National and Winston Cup series.
The services he and MRO provide are like those in most churches, but the sermons reflect the particular milieu of auto racing.
"I was taught in Bible college to illustrate each point," Pegram says. "Scriptures say what they say, but the illustrations you use to make your points can change. I try to make them relevant, recognizable to the people I'm preaching to."
So in Pocono, Pa., there was a sermon titled "God Is the Template of Life." It drew a parallel between race teams having to make race cars measure up to specific requirements to qualify for racing and people having to measure up to God's example.
At Indianapolis, a story made the point that "it's not who you are, but knowing God that can make a difference in your life," using as an example Roger Penske, a highly successful car owner.
At Dover, the Pegrams put on a skit about Sarah and Abraham. Speaking above the roar of engines being tuned, they preached that it doesn't hurt to dream, that God's people are "ordinary people just like us" and that nothing is too hard for God.
It seems nothing is too much to ask of the MRO ministry, either. Besides its work at the racetrack, it provides weekday Bible study at 28 race shops once a month, coordinates several retreats, has established a sports-medicine clinic that travels to each race and recently started a Bible study program for women whose husbands are in racing to help them cope with the stress of their husbands' jobs.
It worked with car owner Joe Gibbs, a former Washington Redskins coach, to establish the Fans Racing Outreach, providing a Sunday morning service for the fans who come to the races. Racing-team members and owners attend to share their testimony about God's presence in their lives.
"It's hard for us to have a normal church life," says Gibbs. "And it's just as hard for the fans who come to see us race. It's important that we reach out to them with testimony. They don't have a place to go for a normal church service, either."
"We make normalcy out of an abnormal lifestyle," agrees Jackie Pegram as she prepares for the arrival of the usual 26 to 30 children who take part in the Sunday Bible study during the race. "When I first came here, I thought it was sad for the children who have to leave their back yards and pets and homes. It's neat that the men get to do what they have a passion for. And many of the women love it too. Many of them grew up with their husbands and went street racing with them. But the children -- hopefully, we've filled that gap."
Kyle Petty, a second-generation driver, grew up with the children of other drivers and crewmen in these same dusty infields. They played football and other games as their dads went about the business of Sunday racing.
"When I was young, there was nothing like this," says Petty. He points to a group of teen-agers helping with the collection plates. "Look at those kids," he says. "They're right at the place in their lives where they need a home base. They're going through changes. MRO is there to supplement. The kids are well grounded by their parents and in the Lord too."
The children show off their Sunday school knowledge.
"We were sitting at the breakfast bar in our motor home the other morning and our 2-year-old, Jonnie Leigh, reached out and held each of our hands, like Miss Jackie teaches them," says Patty Petree, whose husband, Andy, owns the car driven by Kenny Schrader. "We bowed our heads and she said, 'God bless America.' "
Patty Petree laughs. Her daughter had been learning about prayer and had heard "God Bless America" sung at a recent race: She simply put the two together.
"I think MRO is the unifying factor in our motor-home compound," says Petree. "MRO helps all of us with professional and personal problems. They make my life better. You know, I'm Methodist and growing up, when I went to church I always left feeling I was a sinner. With MRO, you leave feeling good about yourself. They have the ability to make you feel better."
Ron and Jackie Pegram like to hear testimony like that. Over their time in MRO, they have come up with an ambition.
"My and Jackie's real desire is that every family here stays together," Ron Pegram says. "It's sometimes hard with all the travel and notoriety and with all the pressure for life to be normal. But we've seen families really impacted by our presence."
Pub Date: 10/10/99