Story by Matt Courson / Contributing Writer
Photo courtesy of Joe Nelms
Lebanon, Tennessee – For a preacher, Joe Nelms found himself in a real pickle.
Nelms was asked to deliver the pre-race invocation prior to the 2011 Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville Superspeedway. In the weeks leading up to the race, he didn’t think about what he would say, but now, it was July 22, 2011, the day before the race and this man of the cloth, a man who had prayed thousands of prayers during his 14 years in the ministry, did not have a clue as to what he was going to say when the microphone was turned over to him as thousands at the track bowed their heads and millions watched on television.
So, he phoned a friend for advice. That was a good idea, for the friend suggested the obvious: if the preacher was going to give thanks to the almighty, he should thank God for racing. “I thought that was a great idea,” said Nelms, a racing fan for many years. Twenty-four hours later, the rest of the world thought so, too.
Joe Nelms grew up in Tunnel Hill, Georgia, about 100 miles north of Atlanta and just a short drive south of the Tennessee state line and the city of Chattanooga. He’s 6-foot-2 with a thick southern accent. He has a booming voice of God during his sermons, but also has a comforting voice, too.
Preaching does not necessarily run in the family, Nelms says. His grandfather was a preacher, but he passed away several years before Nelms was born. His father was a deacon, but Nelms didn’t receive what he describes as “the call” until 1997, when he was 21. He spent his first years serving as a youth pastor at his home church in Georgia and he would occasionally serve other churches as an interim pastor when there were vacancies. For 12 years Nelms has had a church of his own in Lebanon at Family Baptist Church, in Lebanon. His oldest son Eli, 17, has followed his father’s footsteps and has taken interest in preaching.
Nelms developed a love for racing when his father introduced him to NASCAR on television. The two would attend dirt track races at North Georgia Speedway in nearby Chatsworth, Georgia. His favorite driver at the time was Bill Elliott, who was from nearby Dawsonville. “Being from Tunnel Hill in Northwest Georgia, Bill Elliott was from Northeast Georgia, so he was the closest driver to us,” Nelms said.
On the morning of the 2011 race where he was scheduled to pray, Nelms, accompanied by his wife, Lisa, and their three kids: Eli, Emma and Keenan arrived at Nashville Superspeedway hours early to attend the day’s practices and qualifying sessions. The invitation to pray came with the chance to go behind the scenes, where most race fans don’t get to visit. He was determined to make the best of the opportunity.
At the time, Nelms said, he didn’t have a current favorite driver, so as he and his family were enjoying the pre-race excitement behind pit row, he started to search for one. Austin Dillon, who in 2011 had been driving full-time in NASCAR for just two years became Nelms’ choice for a two reasons: he raced the No. 3 Truck, Dale Earnhardt’s number, and Dillon was sponsored by Bass Pro Shops. In addition to being a preacher, Nelms loves to go take to the lake in hope of bringing in a haul of crappie. He also enjoys hunting for turkey and deer. But it was a Bible verse that was taped to the dashboard of Dillon’s truck that sealed the deal for the preacher.
“We’ll root for him,” Nelms told his family.
As chance, or providence, would have it, Dillon was leaving the media center as Nelms and his family walked into the room filled with racing writers and broadcasters. Nelms introduced himself and family as fans and, to their delight, Dillon stayed to talk for 15 minutes and signed autographs for the family.
Several hours later, Dillon noticed the Nelms family in the media center area again.
“Hey Eli, are you having fun,?” Dillon called out to Nelms’ son, who was eight at the time.
The pastor was flabbergasted that Dillon stopped to acknowledge his newest fans and remembered his son’s name. “He took another minute with him and I’m thinking you’ve already given us your time. It’s not even rude for him not to at this point because he’s at work,” Nelms said, who noted he still roots for Dillon and his brother, Ty, who also is a racer.
So, the day was memorable even before Nelms began to pray.
After the prayer, well, life became even more memorable.
The invocation that stirred the racing world was not rehearsed or written down. That’s an important part of the story of that day, he emphasized. His friend told him to thank God for racing and Nelms took those instructions to heart. “Prayers are talking to God; they aren’t meant to be rehearsed or recited. It’s just talking.”
This is how it went down. At 3:30 p.m. Nelms was led to his position on the stage located at the finish line on the racetrack, right in the center of the grandstands filled with happy fans eager for the event to begin.
The announcer quieted the fans. “We ask that you remain standing for our invocation delivered tonight by Joe Nelms, pastor of Family Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tennessee.” On the track drivers bowed their heads. In the stands, people took off their hats and bowed. Nelms grabbed the microphone and closed his eyes.
Ten years later, the preacher named Joe delivering his prayer is still available for viewing on YouTube.
“Heavenly father, we thank you tonight for all your blessings. You said in all things, give thanks,” he said, his rumbling voice just getting warmed up. “So we want to thank you for these mighty machines that you’ve brought before us. Thank you for the Dodges and the Toyotas. Thank you for the Fords and most of all we thank you for Roush and Yates (Engines) partnering, to give us the power that we see before us tonight.”
Nelms was warmed up by this point. A few bowed heads looked up in curiosity.
“Thank you for GM Performance technology and RO7 engines. Thank you for Sunoco racing fuel and Goodyear tires that bring performance and power to the track.”
And he was off and running. He thanked God for his family.
“Lord I want to thank you for my smokin’ hot wife tonight, Lisa, my two children, Eli and Emma, or as we like to call them the Little E’s.”
The camera panned over pit row. Drivers and their teams grinned ear-to-ear ear and the crowd erupted in cheers. But the preacher wasn’t done.
“Lord, I pray and bless the drivers and ask that you use them tonight. May they put on a performance worthy of this great track.”
Nelms closed his prayer with a nod to Darrell Waltrip, driver and racing commentator, who was famous for saying a certain phrase at the start of every race.
The crowd went wild. Fans waved their caps. Drivers got into their cars grinning. The camera switched to the singer of the National Anthem, standing next to Nelms, who appears trying hard not to laugh out loud.
Nelms left the stage. He just talked to God, something he does every day and did not think a second time about what he had said. Immediately after the prayer his family left the racetrack headed for a beach vacation.
Somewhere in Alabama that night on his way to Florida, he got a call from a friend who told him he was on ESPN. Nelms wasn’t impressed. “I’m like well yeah, they’re at the track recording the thing,” he said. The friend exclaimed: “No, you’re on the highlights.” When the family arrived at their stop over for the night, he turned on the TV in the hotel room to various news networks and he was everywhere. Soon his phone was ringing. Reporters tracked him down for interviews.
“I received three or four calls that night and was expecting life to be back to normal the next morning.”
When they reached the beaches of Destin the next day, Nelms said he only saw the beach for about two hours during his week-long visit. “I stayed in the room and completed over 200 interviews that week. Because I wasn’t expecting or used to anything like that, I accidentally scheduled two or three interviews that overlapped. I couldn’t keep up with it.” The only time that the phone did not ring was when he accidentally dropped his phone in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing a trip to purchase a new one.
“The SPEED Channel called me and flew me up to Indianapolis for interviews, so I flew from Pensacola and the family drove back to Nashville,” he said.
Even months after the race, Nelms received interview requests. A video uploaded to YouTube of his prayer was watched millions of times. (It’s still up and has been viewed nearly three-and-a-half million times.) A song was even written about the prayer, where it has been viewed over seven million times. He became acquainted with Dillon’s grandfather and now team owner Richard Childress, where he spoke at the company Christmas party. Today, Nelms delivers invocations weekly at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
In the year or so after the prayer, Nelms continued to be recognized in public. In 2012, Nelms and two of his best friends Bud and John (who are also preachers) went to a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Bud had never been to a race and the three had secured hot passes, which allows an individual access to the garage and pit road for the weekend, Nelms said.
“We drive down to Atlanta and find out that the credential trailer is closed. I had been to a few races by this point and people start knowing who I am. And the worker told me ‘There’s next to nothing that I can do for you.’ ” Nelms was able to get a pass that allowed him entry into the in-field but would not grant access to pit road or the garage.
The three went in and parked with no credentials and only blank name tags. They decided to push their luck and talk with a gate guard. “Preacher, preacher,” the gate guard exclaimed. “She says can I help you with anything?” Nelms explained that he and his friend’s credentials to allow them access to the garage area were in the closed credential office.
“She said come with me, where do you need to go?” Nelms said, “take us to Ty Dillon’s hauler, with the worst-case scenario we’ll be able to watch the race from the lounge in the hauler. I walk in the hauler and start making myself at home and my two friends are scared to death, they ain’t never been to anything like this,” Nelms said.
In the hauler, Nelms is greeted by Max Papis, a driver coach and business adviser for the Dillon brothers, who then escorts the three around the garage and pit road and eventually to driver introductions. “If anyone asks you, we’re family. We’re cousins,” Papis said in his Italian accent.
Ty Dillon ended up scoring his first career win at the event, and Papis escorted the group of friends to Victory Lane. “That was so much fun,” Bud said afterwards. “I said you don’t have a clue,” Nelms told him. “The odds of us being at the racetrack with the guy that won are slim to none.”
Nelms said if a racetrack ever needs him to pray again, he’s ready. Earlier this year, owners of the Nashville Superspeedway which has not hosted a NASCAR National Series race in nine years, announced that racing would be returning the track located about 30 miles east of Nashville. It will be the first time the track hosts the premier Cup Series. “I’m told I’ll be doing it again and I just can’t wait,” he said. He understands, as far as prayers go, his 2011 invocation set the bar pretty high, but he’s up for the challenge. After all, it’s just talking to God, something preachers do every day.
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