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Here, there, race packs 'em in

February 21, 2005 1:09 am


Grand marshal Ashton Kuetcher waves the green flag to start yesterday's Daytona 500. The race's 47th running ended with a wild finish.


Minutes before one of yesterday's services at Salem Fields Community Church, Thomas Foster drove a few laps around the Daytona 500 track.

The 8-year-old was in Spotsylvania, not Florida for the big race. He was taking his turn in a simulator that lets people experience driving in NASCAR's premier event.

Inside the yellow No. 5 Kellogg's car--which has an engine but can't be driven--were steering wheels, accelerators, brake pedals and video screens. Two drivers at a time could race the 23-car field.

The car was parked outside Salem Fields yesterday as part of NASCAR Sunday, the church's second annual event combining racing and Jesus.

Pictures of NASCAR drivers were throughout the Gordon Road church. A mini No. 8 car and Goodyear tire were on its stage, where a band played country. Church officials wore black T-shirts saying "NASCAR Sunday pit crew." A big-screen television was set up for the race.

The point, said co-pastor Buddy Marston, is to attract people who love NASCAR but haven't been going to church.

"Our church tries to find what the culture connects with," Marston said. "And then connect them with Christ and the church."

It seemed to work. About 700 people attended yesterday's 11 a.m. service, and church officials estimate another 700 people total went to the weekend's other two services.

NASCAR Sunday isn't the only out-of-the-ordinary event the church puts on. They've held concerts on New Year's Eve and an annual Biker Day service in June that last year drew 250 motorcycles.

"We try to reach out to the community anyway we can," said Ian Soper, the church's communications director.

Salem Fields is decidedly more casual than most churches. Most people wear blue jeans and T-shirts--attire that church member Ken Lardie said is more welcoming.

Yesterday's service opened with a band blasting out the lyrics of "I'm From The Country." But then the service got serious.

Marston, who is co-pastor with his wife, Gaye, delivered a sermon about the importance of never lying. Using a NASCAR metaphor, he said his marriage was troubled until he started being honest.

"We were on this giant oil slick," Marston said.

The church served lunch and showed the race after the 11 a.m. service. People lined up for their shots inside the No. 5 car.

Thomas Foster had already been there, done that. He grinned widely after exiting the car, shyly saying he had won the race.

Buddy Marston said during his sermon that he was glad for "outside-the-box" activities such as the NASCAR simulator.

After all, whether the drivers win, lose or draw, they're doing so at church. And that's the point.

To reach BILL FREEHLING: 540/374-5424

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