Baptist minister Libby Grammer is slated to give the pre-race prayer Sept. 25 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, where she became the first woman ever to do so in early April.
But Grammer’s motivation is less historical than it is theological and pastoral.
“Many NASCAR fans grew up religious, but they may never have heard a woman lead and pray,” said Grammer, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Martinsville, Va., a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partner congregation. “I think that’s meaningful and maybe it’s surprising to the fans. For a lot of them, this is their first encounter with a female pastor.”
The first time around, Grammer admitted she didn’t know what kind of response to expect from a mostly male audience. “I really worried I would be booed off the stage, but that didn’t happen. Everybody was respectful. They took off their hats and later some of the guys sitting nearby said, ‘Hey, there’s the pastor.’ They were super excited.”
But the impact of Grammer’s NASCAR praying comes into relief when considering the speedway’s social and economic importance to the region, said Mike Hatfield, senior pastor at Chatham Heights Baptist Church in Martinsville.
The speedway, which hosts multiple NASCAR and other races throughout the year, ascended in importance after the early 2000s when the region’s textile and furniture manufacturers closed shop, Hatfield said. For a time, the city led the state in unemployment.
“The one thing left was the racetrack, which has undergone several improvements. It’s become an icon,” said Hatfield, who also has delivered the opening prayers at the track. “Some local people go not for the races, but for the social event.”
Even those who don’t show up on race days appreciate the facility’s economic presence, and church leaders are aware of its cultural significance. “Keeping up with it helps me to have a working knowledge of what’s happening in the community,” he added.
“It’s important for everybody on TV to see that women can be called into ministry by God.”
But the influence is especially powerful when moderate and progressive clergy are introduced and pray before local television audiences unaccustomed to alternative ways of doing church. It’s why Hatfield said he urged Grammer to accept the spring invitation to pray at the speedway.
“It’s important for everybody on TV to see that women can be called into ministry by God, and they need to see that in every form — including at a race that is traditionally male-oriented,” he said. “And maybe those who went to the race will go home and say, ‘They let a woman do the prayer. I wonder what that means to me?’ Maybe it has an impact on their theology.”
Another hoped-for outcome is the effect Grammer may have on girls and women who may have sensed and repressed calls to ministry, he added. “It plants a seed that isn’t going to be developed at a racetrack or while watching on TV, but later as they are struggling with a calling from God to serve, they will say, ‘Wait a minute, this person was a Baptist pastor and a woman. I can recognize there is validity in my calling, too.’”
Grammer, who grew up Southern Baptist, said she hopes her participation also may reach men and women who have been mad at church to see there are alternatives to church as they’ve known it. “I think it’s important they know that women in ministry exist and that they know we are doing this good work and we are doing it well.”
But it’s also just a 30-second prayer, she said. “I am not going to change the minds of people who are hard-core against women in ministry, but I know it has increased my visibility here in the city.”
Grammer also has kept First Baptist relevant in Martinsville through other external ministries. She’s involved in the local ministerial alliance, attends Baptist association meetings and has been a leader in area social justice and ecumenical efforts. Her work has inspired newspaper articles, including one about women in ministry.
Praying at the racetrack needs to be considered in those contexts, she said, but it is still important. “I want to be a part of the community in a real way and not just standing in my pulpit in my church.”