This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, was produced by the Virginia Folklife Program and is the latest in a series highlighting individuals working at the intersection of culture and community.
The 2023 racing season rolls into the Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, culminating in the third annual Food City Dirt Race on Easter Sunday. This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the NASCAR Cup Series.
Opening day follows months of preparations. Speedway officials reported it took 2,300 truckloads of red Tennessee clay to cover the track’s concrete surface in advance of Sunday’s dirt race. The “Last Great Coliseum” transforms into a sizable city during race events. With a capacity reaching 153,000 people, a full Speedway — not including the surrounding campgrounds — is Tennessee’s sixth-largest city. Any single race draws together visitors from every state and several countries.
Among the hundreds of individuals who work before, during, and after a race to bring this temporary town to life are the dedicated volunteers of Bristol Raceway Ministries. Wearing bright blue shirts with logos incorporating a cross and a black-and-white checkered flag, they are easy to spot.
Founded in 1992, Bristol Raceway Ministries is embarking on its third decade of serving NASCAR fans.
It began when Bob Fleming, music director for Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in Bristol, began to organize services in the nearby All-American Campground during race weekends.
“The church was missing a mission opportunity being so close to the track,” said Butch Rhodes, Bristol Raceway Ministries’ current director.
Today, as many as 300 volunteers, from roughly two dozen congregations representing at least six denominations, come together to minister to fans. By stepping outside of their church walls and meeting people where they are, these volunteers are adapting traditional worship into new forms.
“In the sports field, the potential for chaplainry is wide open,” said Bobby Branch, who has been volunteering with the group for 15 years.
“We get to experience every aspect of life here at the track. The high times, the sad times, the low times, helping someone work through a problem, or helping someone find spirituality in their life,” Branch continued.
“We get to experience every aspect of life here at the track.”Bobby Branch
Adapting to meet fans’ needs at the track means Bristol Raceway Ministries offers a variety of services. They have a “golf cart ministry,” picking up people from the campgrounds and shuttling them up the steep hill approaching the track.
Their “hospital ministry” supports the families of those that experience a medical emergency at the track. Led by longtime van drivers Rick and Carol Hale, support might come in the form of a ride to the hospital or help running errands.
“There’s also what I guess you could call our cookie ministry,” Rhodes said. Each participating church asks its congregation to make homemade cookies, which race day volunteers hand out, two to a bag. “Right after COVID, when we couldn’t do that, people were wondering, ‘Where are the cookies?’”
Bristol Raceway Ministries can also expect to help with more than one fan wedding or memorial service during race weekends. “At every race, there are responsibilities that are a normal part of life, but not a normal part of racing,” Branch said.
The work is so rewarding, volunteers like Ellis Bishop return, year after year.
“It grows on you. I’m not the life of the party, but I can be here with 100,000 people and interact with them, give any kind of assistance that they need. It’s a different environment, helping someone that needs it,” Bishop said.
Spiritual nourishment can, indeed, be gained on a golf cart.
“There’s just a tremendous opportunity for people to open up when they get on the cart. They have a need, they’re not in their home environment — you can really connect with them,” volunteer David Fernandez explained.
Fernandez moved to Bristol from Southern California roughly two years ago and felt called to serve, even if it meant giving up being a spectator.
“I feel so much more fulfilled doing what I do and getting to take a look at the race here and there,” he said.
Every NASCAR track has a locally organized raceway ministry, often supported by (or overlapping with) Racers for Christ, a national network (Fernandez is a member). Bristol Raceway Ministries enjoys a strong partnership with speedway officials, who in turn respect their work and give them behind-the-scenes access.
This year, for the second time, an Easter Celebration — featuring Tim Tebow, Phil Wickham, and Cory Asbury — will be hosted on the Fan Midway before the Food City Dirt Race.
Offstage, it is Bristol Raceway Ministries tending to fan needs, both spiritual and physical.
“We usually tell people, if you have a need or have a burden or you need help, look for the people in the blue shirt,” Branch said.
When asked if they ever get nicknamed the “Blue Angels,” Fernandez laughed, saying “No, we’re not that fast.”