Godspeed: Racing Is My Religion
By L.D. Russell
Continuum Books, 182 pp.

Here is what many nonbelievers see when they glimpse a NASCAR race on television: A bunch of billboards on wheels turning left at insane speeds, perpetrating unconscionable air and noise pollution and pointless death, and wasting an increasingly precious natural resource.

Hooting and hollering at this spectacle, and gawking at the bikini-clad winner’s circle girls, are millions of “shirtless, sunburned, beer-swilling, tobacco-spitting devotees,” writes L.D. Russell, author of Godspeed: Racing Is My Religion.

Russell, a professor of religion at Elon College and a former contributor to the Independent, wants you to see the light; Godspeed is a full-throttle sermon on NASCAR’s behalf. “Racing is a religion,” Russell insists in a transcription of his Socratic dialogue with a Duke philosophy professor, “a cult of true believers with their rituals, myths, and a system of ethics that rival Confucianism.” A self-described “evangelist” for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Russell describes it with words like “ineffable” and “transcendence”; he waxes pastoral, romantic, semi-sexual. He quotes the Bible and misquotes John Donne. He tells stories of tornados and recounts his dreams (because “when Southerners cannot explain in a straightforward manner something we know to be true, what we do is tell a story”). He puts his prose into Revelations overdrive to testify that “trackside […] you are literally [sic] swallowed up in sound. You do not so much hear the noise of the fire-breathing dragons as you feel it in your bones and sinews.”

Russell freely acknowledges and at times even attacks NASCAR’s problems, but Godspeed is an impassioned apologia, and two of these essay-length love letters end in exhortations for the reader to make a Sunday pilgrimage to the nearest trackfor Trianglians, the Orange County Speedway is just a few miles north, and there’s one in Wake county, tooand get the feeling. It’s religiously tautological: The only way to get into NASCAR is to let NASCAR into you; racecar spelled backward is racecar.

Russell also looks hard at religion among professional racers. With death always so near, and NASCAR so Southern, it’s no surprise that most drivers claim a devotion to Jesus, less to avoid catastrophe than to cope when it inevitably strikes. NASCAR even has its own satellite ministry, Motor Racing Outreach, whose hidebound conservatism, greasy financial piggybacking and mutual image-burnishing offend Russell’s humble pantheism. He is in his early 50s but portrays himself as the naïf: awed, even spooked, by nature and by his fallen hero, Dale Earnhardt Sr.; moved to tears by the Civil Rights Museum; anti-intellectual despite his professorship; a seeker of God in every thing and on every path; and righteously shocked and appalled by even ordinary prejudice and intolerancethus the ideal acolyte of the thrill-giving, adrenaline-laced, rabble-rousing, hero-worshipping, deafening-roar Church of NASCAR.

There are some dead-end detours in Godspeed, including a long travelogue about visiting Graceland that barely alludes to NASCAR (it’s one of two chapters originally published in the Indy, and it helps stretch the book to publishable length), and a puzzling divagation on the nature of evil in car racing that awkwardly invokes the Holocaust and Sept. 11 and seems to disregard the distinction between evil and accident. Perhaps only a nonbeliever would say so, but on the track there is no eviljust reflex, stamina and purifying speed. Everything else falls awaymorals, evil, God, family, even fear of death. Still, Godspeed fulfills its evangelical mission: Russell made at least one NASCAR-neutral reader willing to tag along on his next hadj to Orange County Speedway and join that “frenzied multitude of yahoos,” as Russell lovingly calls themif he’ll buy the chili dogs and beers.

L.D. Russell reads from Godspeed: Racing Is My Religion at the Regulator, 720 Ninth St., Durham, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m., and McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village Sept. 29 at 11 a.m.