Racing is next to Godliness

by Amy Kingsley

When I meet LD Russell, he’s dressed like his hero – in black from head to toe – and wearing his number. Russell’s hero, by the way, is Dale Earnhardt, the late NASCAR champion from North Carolina, and his number, for the uninitiated, is three. That number is stitched to a ball cap with a curled bill and lightly frayed edges. Russell is trying to convey what it is about Earnhardt that inspires him: his earthiness, success and skill, among other things. But before he gets to these qualities, he mentions Joseph Campbell, a well-known scholar of mythology. “He says that we create cultural heroes because we see in them what we want to see in ourselves,” Russell says. Russell’s propensity to drop high and low-culture references in the same sentence says a lot about the type of person he is – namely a NASCAR fan with an advanced degree in religious studies. And it says a whole lot about his book Godspeed: Racing is my Religion. Russell is greeting his fans in Greensboro at a book release party at ArtMongerz, down the road from his usual haunts in Hillsborough. Above a stack of books hangs a painting of three stock cars heading down a straightaway. Godspeed, is part memoir, part history and part academic study of the ways racing and religion have collided in the popular and personal imagination. Russell conceived the book soon after Earnhardt’s death in 2001 when he crashed into the wall at Daytona. NASCAR had been part of his consciousness since childhood, thanks to the influence of his grandfather, a serious racing enthusiast and auto mechanic. “Part of the book came about because I tend to look at everything in a religious way,” Russell says. In the book, the relationship between religion and racing evolves from combative to cozy. In one early chapter, Russell describes the successful efforts of Orange County preachers to shut down a racetrack in their backyard. Later on, the organized NASCAR Corporation spawns its own rolling ministry, Motor Racing Outreach. Russell’s thesis is that it is the nature of the sport itself, both its danger and its occasional monotony, which creates a fertile environment for religion. The popularity of evangelical religion increased apace with the popularity of stock car racing, and both emerged from the American South to take over the country. “Why are we not only willing but eager to pay these men to risk their lives?” Russell asks. “I suspect what fans get out of that experience is the same thing the people worshipping in the Baptist church down the street feel when they feel the presence of God.” Russell would know. He had a religious experience when he was 16, after years of attending the family’s Baptist church. “I felt the presence of God,” he says. That experience led him to enroll in the Southeastern Baptist Seminary, where he took a divinity degree before entering the ministry. One of Russell’s early assistant preacher assignments didn’t go so well, an event that he hints at in his book. The tide of conservatism that swept into the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s also disturbed Russell’s spiritual well-being. He eventually abandoned the church, enrolled in a master’s program in religious studies at Wake Forest, and became a born-again NASCAR fan after a trip to Darlington. Now Russell teaches at Elon University and writes freelance for the Independent Weekly in Raleigh/Durham. He’s working on a couple of manuscripts, including a completed memoir about his childhood in South Carolina and a work concerning the spiritual aspects of music. He’s still a NASCAR fan. These days find him pulling for Junior – that would be Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to the unschooled. “Now he’s partnering with Satan’s evil spawn,” he says, “not that I have an opinion on the matter.” Ah, yes. Religion has its dark side, too.

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