Joe Nelms (left) enjoys a moment with NASCAR stars in May 2012 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of J. Nelms)
Preacher Joe Nelms continues to divide his time between the pulpit and pit road.
Nelms, who is the pastor of Family Baptist Church in Lebanon, became nationally known for his humorous “NASCAR prayer” last year at Nashville Superspeedway in Gladeville.
Nelms gave thanks for, among other blessings, his “smokin’ hot wife.”
The bemused benediction went viral, attracting nationwide attention.
“It was simply unbelievable,” Nelms said.
The Superspeedway suspended operation at the end of last season, but that hasn’t stopped Nelms from ministering to a fleet flock. This year, he serves as track chaplain at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway, delivering the pre-race invocation and conducting Winner’s Circle interviews.
“I’ve always loved racing,” said Nelms, 36, who grew up in North Georgia attending races and rooting for home-state hero Bill Elliott in the NASCAR Cup Series. “My dad and I went to mostly small, local dirt tracks because we couldn’t afford Cup tickets.”
Four years ago Nelms’ ministry brought him to Lebanon as pastor of Family Baptist.
“After arriving in Lebanon, I heard about the big racetrack in Gladeville and went out to get tickets for one of their upcoming races,” he said. “I was chatting with some of the folks at the track, and when they learned that I was a local minister, they invited me to give the pre-race invocation.”
Nelms had delivered two pre-race prayers before the “one that got all the attention.”
The prayer, delivered prior to the July 25, 2011, NASCAR Nationwide race on ESPN, was re-broadcast on ABC News and written about nationally. Nelms was interviewed by FOX News and various other national media.
“I was shocked and amazed,” Nelms said, reflecting on the response.
In the prayer, Nelms offered thanks for the car companies and race sponsors, and for his “smokin’ hot wife” – a term borrowed from the Talladega Nights movie. He also gave thanks for his two children, Eli and Emma, “or as we call them, our Little E’s.”
As the unusual prayer went on, national TV cameras caught drivers bursting into chuckles and grins as they stood trackside with heads bowed.
Nelms concluded his invocation with announcer Darrell Waltrip’s trademark “Boogity, boogity, boogity, amen!”
Response to the prayer was mixed. Most saw the good-natured humor in it, while others considered it a tad sacrilegious.
“We weren’t preaching a revival that day,” Nelms said. “It was a NASCAR race. I believe Jesus wants us to be joyful. Christians don’t have to be sour. I guess that was the point I was trying to make. We can love the Lord and still have fun at the same time.”
One thing for certain, it was a prayer that wasn’t soon forgotten.
“Even today, I’ll be somewhere and someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you the preacher who gave that prayer at the NASCAR race?’”
Nelms became involved with Nashville’s historical Fairgrounds Speedway through his friend Nicky Formosa, who is the brother of the track’s promoter, Tony Formosa Sr.
“Tony asked me if I’d help them out this season, and I said I’d be glad to,” Nelms said. “I enjoy going to the races and mingling with the drivers and fans.”
There are a few more races at the fairgrounds this season, including the premier Oct. 4-6 All-American 400 weekend. Nelms will be trackside for all of them.
But no matter how long and late the Saturday night races may run, Nelms is always up and ready for church on Sunday morning – all part of the sacrifice a racing reverend has to make.