Racing for Grace

Area clergy take to the track at AMS to see who is the fastest

Photo By Gabriel Stovall
Jorge Gonzalez (left) and David Butler of First Baptist Church, Hampton are two of the six pastors participating in the Faster Pastor race at Thursday Thunder.

Photo By Gabriel Stovall Jorge Gonzalez (left) and David Butler of First Baptist Church, Hampton are two of the six pastors participating in the Faster Pastor race at Thursday Thunder.

On Thursday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway six local pastors will be looking to give new meaning to the phrase, “God’s speed.”

These men will trade their seats in their churches’ pulpits for one in a race car, as the Thursday Thunder series hosts its Faster Pastor race night.

Event coordinator Ted Austad says that the event in its ninth year provides a family night of fun at the race track for people who may not come otherwise. It also gives people an opportunity to see a different side of their favorite clergymen.

“I think a lot of folks, when they think of pastors, they see them as a person who preaches and teaches on Sundays and puts them almost in the same image as God,” Austad said. “It’s fun for people to see these pastors outside of their church and just fun for people to see them as being human just like the rest of us.”

The race provides good times for the churches involved — and not just for the sheer entertainment of it. Local churches have been using this exhibition as a fundraiser to support some of their most treasured ministry causes.

Each participating church will have a donation box placed underneath the track’s grandstand. The box will be marked for whatever particular charitable cause each church chooses.

Parishoners and others are free to drop their donations into the box as they come into the track, and whichever church has the largest donation by the time of the race starts will put their pastor in pole position for the race.

Austad said the causes help bring out the crowds.

“We try to think of a unique way to determine who starts out at the pole and who will start outside,” Austad said. “Other years we’ve determined it by whoever brings the most food items. We do other races like this such as the Teacher Feature and some with mayors and governeros, but Faster Pastor is by far the most popular.”

Each pastor will take the wheel of a car that AMS has specially prepared for the event. The “bomber” race cars are former stock automobiles equipped with six-cylinder engines. The glass has been removed which Austad said will provide extra safety.

Normal Thursday Thunder features races are 20 laps around the quarter-mile track, but this race will be about 10 laps for the pastors.

And while the drivers won’t be donning firesuits, they will wear helmets, and there will be no restrictions on the vehicle’s speeds — which is just fine with racing participant Jorge Gonzalez.

“I’ve had a couple of speeding tickets,” said Gonzalez as he playfully bantered with First Baptist Church of Hampton’s worship pastor David Butler about who had been caught more times for speeding. “David’s just got one. The one with the most speeding tickets will win the race.”

Gonzalez — originally from Cuba — is also on staff at the church, serving as the Hispanic pastor for the last six years. He’s been an American citizen for 47 years, spending 30 of those in the Atlanta area. And while this will be his first time on a race track, Gonzalez says he does have some familiarity with speed.

While living in Puerto rico, Gonzalez did some street drag racing with a 1970 Firebird Formula with a 400 engine.

“I wish I still had it,” he said. “That thing was fast.”

Butler, an eight-year Georgia resident and native of St. Louis, also is without previous racing experience, butthanks to his church’s heart for people he said he has developed an affinity for the sport.

“We got into this through an organization birthed out of our church called Raceway Ministries,” said Butler, First Baptist’s worship pastor for the last seven years. “For about 30 years or so our church has been going out to the camping areas at the track during NASCAR races to share meals and provide services to the racing fans there. That’s how I’ve been able to see a few live races and became a fan.”

Neither, however, has seen a Faster Pastor race in person, though Gonzalez said he found one on Youtube and was less than impressed with the caliber of drivers he saw.

“They were all driving like my grandma,” Gonzalez joked.

Both pastors had different opinions on who would be victorious between the two. Gonzalez thinks he might be the oldest driver on the quarter-mile track Thursday.

“My age and experience is going to win,” he said.

Butler begged to differ.

“He may be older and wiser, but not faster,” Butler said.

Both are on the same page regarding the charity — Hope for the World — that they have chosen to support because one of its members

“Pam Arney is a lady in our church who has been trying to raise money to go to Albania and be a full time missionary,” Butler said. “We’re hoping we can help her through this event.”