Max Helton, Founding Chaplain of MRO…
My interest in racing began in my early teens. Two of my childhood friends, Carl and Earl Butler had two brothers who raced at local dirt tracks in the mountain regions of East Tennessee. I started driving at age 13 and bought my first car when I was 15. It was a 1946 Dodge fluid drive. Two cars later, I acquired a 1950 Chevy that was my street rod. I put a split manifold with straight pipes (absolutely no mufflers!), had the head shaved and customized the body to look slick.
My high school years at Everett High School, Maryville, Tennessee, were filled with the car era. Boys and girls were all taken up with cars and speed. Drag racing occurred every Friday night following the football games. The gathering took place at Cream Land the favorite fast food drive in on the Walland Highway (also the scene of the drag races.) While in high school, I managed to race a few races at a local track.
I was a regular listener to the early days of NASCAR racing with the sounds of cars and the personalities of racers like Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Paul Goldsmith, Marvin Panch, and of course, my favorite, Fireball Roberts. But after graduation in 1958, I went away to college and pursued life away from racing as it was frowned upon by the general public.
Over the next decades my life took me to live in the Cayman Islands, Hawaii, Chicago and New York City far away from my racing interest roots. While pastoring a church in White Plains, New York, I met Frank Amendola who owned a car parts business in nearby Stamford, Connecticut. He also had a race car. He was surprised to find a pastor of a church interested in racing and quickly became my friend. He raced at Freeport on Long Island. I had a little, red Volkswagen Rabbit. During the mid-evening of the Saturday night races, the public were invited to what amounted to a drag race against other competitors around the quarter mile oval. There were about two cars of all makes and models in the event that I first entered. My first run was against a 1976 Chevy Chevelle V8. My starting position was on the inside. I got a good jump at the start and won the first round – much to my surprise as well as the spectators. I won round two. I made it to the finals. It was now me and a Corvette. The crowd was going wild as listened to their cheers for the “Rabbit”. Lining up on the outside, I knew that I was in trouble going into turn one on the outside. As the flag dropped, I speed off into turn one and was still side by side the Corvette on the backstretch. My front wheel drive made my cornering much easier than the Corvette’s tight inside on the corners. It was an exhilarating race to the second place finish. But O What a Night!
Moving to Bakersfield, California, to assume my duties as Senior Pastor of the West Park Baptist Church and my interest in racing interest now renewed by my New York experiences, I found a support to my interest through many in my new congregation as I soon discovered that Bakersfield’s hometown racing hero and Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears, had a huge following within the church. So I was introduced to a staff member’s brother who raced at a local track, Mesa Marin. Soon I found myself going to the track with Bruce Sons. I began to work with him as we both had experienced the death of one of our children…me at daughter at age 16 and him a son at age 2. Our journeys took us to the race often as he struggled to race with his son’s death on his mind. I began to see many needs within the racing community of Bakersfield which I soon discovered was home to not only Mesa Marin, but to Bakersfield Speedway, a small dirt track in nearby Oildale and to Formosa Drag Strip and to nearby Willow Springs road course. Bakersfield gave to the world of racing such names as Rick and Roger Mears, George Snyder, Casey Mears, and Kevin Harvick. It was at Mesa Marin that I got to know such local favorites as Mike Chase and Jim Thirkettle and the High Plains Drifter from Colorado, ???? who made weekly trips to Mesa Marin. Dick Trickle stunk up the show when he appeared annually from Wisconsin.
THE FOUNDING OF MOTOR RACING OUTREACH
By summer of 1986 I had moved on to a pastoral position at Grace Church, Glendora, California. Glendora was and still is the home of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) which serves as the sanctioning body of the most popular drag racing series in the world. Again I found that several in the church membership were race fans. They shared racing stories of the nearby defunct Ontario Speedway and the Ascot Raceway along with the famous Pomona drag race track.
In May, 1986, I attended the International Sports Coalition meeting in Santa Clara, California. This group was formed to promote and encourage Christian ministries to develop in all sports globally. They had previously met in Seoul, Korea. I found this group to be encouraging when I shared with them my interest in developing a racing ministry. Alex Ribeiro, a former F1 driver from Brazil, became my friend and offered much encouragement for US racing but gave almost no hope for racing ministry outside the USA.
Sitting down with Norm Evans, former Miami Dolphin and Seattle Seahawks player, I found a friend who would be my mentor in developing such a ministry. I wasn’t sure at the time about my going into it fulltime or just help get it going with someone else doing the work. Norm and I talked a lot over the next months. I went to another coalition meeting in Houston that helped me to continue in my desire to see that those within the racing community that were already committed in their faith to be discipled. It was my thought that they would become the real ministers, not me. I just wanted to help those grow who were already believers. But I didn’t know where to start. While in Bakersfield, I had met Rick Mears once. His dad, Bill, was in the paving business and had paved our church parking lot. So my thought was turned toward the Indy cars.
One day in the local San Gabriel Valley Tribune there was an article on Ken Owen, the chaplain in the NHRA and president of Racers for Christ. I called Ken and we met. Upon finding about my interest, he invited me to join him in the Racers for Christ organization. I learned from him that Racers for Christ, mainly a NHRA group, also had chaplains with IMSA (sports car series) and the Indy cars but no one in NASCAR or F1 or other series. So soon I was introduced to Hunter Floyd (Indy car series chaplain) and Richard Anderson (IMSA chaplain).
Not knowing just what direction to take, Norm Evans joined me in praying much about what to do. Soon I was introduced to a NASCAR Winston West race driver, Rick McCray. Rick and his wife, Sandy, and I talked about the spiritual needs within NASCAR. They shared with me that the Winston Cup series (now NEXTEL CUP) had a chaplain but that they had heard that he was about to quit. They also told me that Darrell and Stevie Waltrip were new in their faith in Christ. I called Darrell and Stevie to talk with them more about what was going on in their series spiritually. Darrell and Stevie were very open about their faith and their desire to grow more in their faith, but felt that they were not being helped spiritually with their present chaplaincy program.
Mike McMahon, a Bakersfield friend, and I decided to go to the Daytona 500 in February, 1987 along with Dick Varder, a member of Grace Church. I was not sure what would happen in Daytona. I had arranged a meeting with Hal Marchman, the Daytona track chaplain. Little happened on that trip. I didn’t get to meet the Waltrips. It was a hectic weekend and my first professional race event.
Upon returning I was really seeking God about what direction to take if I was going to pursue developing any kind of ministry to the Christians in the racing communities. I still was unsure about Indy or NASCAR. Norm Evans, the president of PAO (ProAthletes Outreach) encouraged me to develop a similar ministry of training Christian leaders out of the racing community. So I began to seek information of who in the racing world had a committed faith in Jesus Christ. Then I could interest them in getting involved in training for leadership with their faith.
I begin to seek further counsel from others that were involved in sports ministry. Dave Burnham, then pastor of a church in Boca Raton, Florida, was especially helpful to me and my wife, Jean. Anthony Shepherd, staff member at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles and former race driver, gave good insight. Alex Ribeiro continued his encouragement calls or notes. Ken Owen pushed me to join his group. Frank Pastore, former Cincinnati Reds pitcher, Swen Nater, former Lakers player, Geoff Zahn, California Angels pitcher, were just some of the sports people that gave me advice and encouragement to step out and do something in the racing community. I attended a meeting in Chicago area with the Conservative Baptist Association about special ministries. While there I meet David Johnson from New Jersey. We discussed the possibility of starting a ministry to train people in the racing community to become leaders of their faith. Other leaders with the CBA encouraged me to pursue this path.
Now sensing that God is leading me to get involved with the racing community, I approached Dick Varder about his starting a ministry to the Winston West series especially with our contact person and driver, Rick McCray. Rick and Sandy were thrilled with this idea. So the first ministry began with Dick’s involvement with the 1987 season. As the year progressed, many of the drivers got involved along with their families. Series champion, Bill Schmidt and wife, Sylvia, were faithful supporters along with Hershel McGriff. Dick served the community well and spiritually lives were changing. Ministry was now underway in the racing community. Motor Racing Outreach was born.
I started meeting with interested people to put together a board of directors. Dick Varder and David Johnson were whole-hearted with me. We began to pray about others to join us. We agreed to pattern it much after the PAO model. I talked again to Ken Owen of Racers for Christ and told him that I would not be joining their organization and that I would be starting a separate motorsports ministry.
Another call to the Waltrips led me to Bobby Hillin. I wanted Darrell Waltrip to come and speak to a men’s group during NASCAR’s annual fall race at Riverside. Darrell expressed that he could not but suggested that I contact another Winston Cup driver who was new in his Christian faith, Bobby Hillin. I called Bobby and ask him to speak at our Grace Church men’s gathering on Thursday evening prior to the Riverside Sunday race. Bobby graciously accepted. I went to the Riverside track on Thursday to meet Bobby and make arrangements for his trip over to the church (about 40 miles away). It was also on this day that I first met Darrell and Stevie Waltrip. After some time with them in the garage area, they expressed a deep concern that such a ministry that I proposed was much needed within NASCAR. At Riverside I also met some of the track people.
That night Bobby Hillin and his new bride, Kim, rode with me to Grace Church where Bobby shared his story of his faith in Jesus Christ.
On Sunday at Riverside, I attended my first race from the pits. On a caution pit stop, Bill Elliott pitted near the entry of the pit road. In those days, there was no pit road speed limit. All the cars came in hot (fast). I was standing behind the pit area of the Elliott team when suddenly I saw bodies flying through the air over the car. I was stunned. I had never expected anything like this. Dan Elliott, Butch Stevens, ??Colwell and Chuck Hill were all taken to the infield care center. I went down to see if there was anything that I could do. Chuck was the only one that was seriously injured and was transported to a local Riverside hospital.
I visited Chuck in the hospital and offered to help in any way that I could. Dick Varder had time to spend with Chuck and visited with him often over the next few days. Chuck’s mom came out and Dick and some other people at Grace hosted her time in California. The flight out was her first flight ever. Wilma, his mom, had never been far from her north Georgia home. Chuck was in the hospital for about three weeks and returned to Dawsonville.
At Christmas time 1987, my family and I went to Tennessee to visit with my mother and father. One day, my dad and I drove down to Dawsonville to see Chuck. While there I meet Bill Elliott for the first time. He thanked me for my help and prayers for Chuck while he was in the Riverside hospital. This began a long and lasting friendship with Bill.
Returning to California, I continue talking with the Waltrips and Hillins by phone. They suggested that I come to the 1988 Daytona 500 to meet Lake and Rice Speed, another outspoken follower of Jesus Christ couple. So I arranged to meet David Johnson from New Jersey in Daytona to further plan for the future of MRO. I took Dick Varder and Jaime Echevarria with me to Daytona. Jaime was another member of Grace Church who likes to venture out in specialized groups. So he was really interested in what MRO was doing. I also contacted a college roommate of mine, Larry Reesor, who was living in nearby Ormond Beach to find a place that all of us could sit down and talk with the Waltrips, Speeds, and Hillins. Larry arranged a room at a local Presbyterian church where I met the pastor, Laurie Vidal, who would later join the staff of MRO.
The time in Daytona was fruitful as the Waltrips arranged a garage access pass for me to get in and meet other people in the racing community. Stevie introduced me to the Speeds. Darrell was so busy with all the race stuff that I rarely got to talk with him. But Stevie was a great hostess. With everyone’s busy schedule at Race Weeks only Bobby got to come over to the church to meet with Jaime, Dick, Dave and me.
In the brief conversations at Daytona, it was decided that I would come to Atlanta in March to further the discussion about MRO and if we would minister to NASCAR Winston Cup series. So I went home to California, worked on a plan of our overall ministry, and a budget. On March 11, 1988, I flew to Atlanta from Los Angeles. Bobby Hillin pick me up at the Atlanta airport around 6 pm and drove me over to a nearby hotel to meet with the Waltrips and Speeds in the Waltrips’ hotel room. We discussed the possible ministry and costs. I caught an 11 o’clock flight that same evening back to LAX.
(I could take one day off from my church duties to fly out to Atlanta and back.) It was rather discouraging since no one from the meeting gave much advice, offered any kind of assistance, or said that they would be involved. They said that it was a wait and see situation as they had been hurt by other ministry attempts to the series.
Phone conversations continued over the next few weeks, now it was three couples instead of the two. I didn’t have a lot of time to commit to it since I was on staff at Grace Church. Finally it was decided that we would have another meeting when the Winston Cup series returned to the final race to be held at Riverside in June. Meanwhile, I was convinced that I should somehow be involved in seeing that the racing communities of the world have a presence of God. So I began to talk with people about joining me in this work by serving on a board of directors and thus forming a legal Christian charitable organization.
Dave and Arlene Johnson agreed to join with me and Jean in forming an official board. Dick Varder said that he thought that since he was a staff member that he thought he would not be on the board of directors. He thus became MRO’s first official chaplain. Jaime and Luisa Echevarria decided to come on board as well as John and Virginia Preston, Jim and Kathy Papen, and Norm and Bobbe Evans. These have now become the first official board of directors for MRO.
This board meets with the Waltrips and Hillins at Riverside. Lake was only racing a partial schedule and did not come to Riverside. We met at the Riverside Hilton on Thursday evening. Darrell had previous commitments and could not attend. Also meeting with us was Rick and Sandy McCray, (they introduced me to the Waltrips) and another Winston West driver, Reno Fontana. I was still unsure of my role, since I wasn’t sure if I should step out and go full time or just gradually get involved especially since there were no financial commitments from the couples in the series. However, Stevie Waltrip did ask in the meeting if I would be willing to resign my position at church and to this ministry since she felt that I knew more than anyone else about how to do it. Sunday I took the day off at the church and went to the race at Riverside. I was introduced to Les Richter, former owner of the Riverside track and the president, Dan Greenwood. Dan had called a couple of weeks prior to the race to ask if I would give the final pre-race prayer at Riverside. I was so honored to stand before the many fans and racing community to give the last public prayer at the famed race track.
After more discussion with the newly formed board and the elders at church, I resigned to go full-time with MRO. Jean and I traveled in June to Monroe, Washington to the Winston West race. Bill Elliot was racing there that weekend along with fellow Cup series driver, Derrick Cope. As Jean and I were walking into the track, a man stopped to ask if we wanted a ride into the track. I knew from his speech that he was not from the northwest. Curtis Colwell drove us into the track. He had come from Georgia with Bill Elliott.
Jean and I planned a trip back east to find housing. I had attended a PAO conference in Tampa earlier in the year with my friend, Norm Evans. While there I met Jim Hines, a Tampa attorney. He had offered me some office space in Tampa. So we planned to move to Tampa especially since NASCAR headquartered in Daytona Beach. I had no clue that all of the teams were based in the Charlotte area. One day I was talking with Bobby Hillin about going to Tampa. He said, “Why are you going to Tampa? The racing people live in Charlotte.” That was news to me since I knew that Darrell Waltrip lived in the Nashville area. Now plans are changing. We rearranged our plane tickets for a trip to Charlotte. Bobby was such a help while we were in Charlotte. He stopped me in the street in Concord one day to say that I should meet Brian VanderCook. I did and we rented the space for the first MRO office within his office at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Returning to California, the people at Grace Church were so helpful in the process of getting MRO going and in moving us to North Carolina. Carol Viselli, my administrative assistant, spent hours typing documents. Gertie McAuley folded letters and sent out mailings. Sandy Moffitt from Bakersfield also did some mailings. Our small group was incredibly supportive and gave us a big send-off.
My last day at Grace was August 15, 1988. The next day, we loaded up with the help of several strong men from Grace and some good packing ladies to help with the chores. The next day the two Ryder rental trucks and our car started on the cross-country journey to Charlotte. Jim and Virginia Preston drove one of the trucks. I drove one along with my dad. Jean was stuck in between the two trucks driving the Buick with Crista, Becky, Crista’s friend, Janice and my niece, Cheryl.
The first event I held was a Bible study at Darlington on Thursday evening, September 2nd in Darrell Waltrip’s room at the Howard Johnson Hotel on Tower Road. Rice was having their second child so Lake was not present. Stevie was busy at home and didn’t come to the race until Sunday am. So the first study attendees were Darrell Waltrip, Bobby and Kim Hillin, my wife, Jean, Crista and Becky, two of our daughters and me.
The next week I went to Richmond. Finances were slim so I just went up on Friday to lead a Bible study at the Waltrips hotel room and then I drove home that night. No one knew that I couldn’t afford a hotel room. This continued over the next several weekends at Dover, Martinsville, etc. I missed the fall Charlotte race as I had arranged to take a fall tour group from Grace to New England during that time.
During the off-season, I continued my plans to find Christians in motorsports that I could get involved with training them. So we planned along with Norm and Bobbe Evans to host a leadership conference in January, 1989, in Orlando just prior to the Daytona races. So I spend much of winter promoting this conference and building relationships within the racing communities. I attended the Motorsports Writers and Broadcasters annual awards dinner in Los Angeles. On the plane out to LA I met a young NASCAR driver, Mark Martin. He really didn’t know me and I barely knew who he was.
From there I attended the annual CART meetings in Palm Springs. It was a good interaction with the open wheel race community. I was warmly welcomed by many of the drivers and officials. It was a good meeting.
Darrell Waltrip invited me to come to his home in Franklin, Tennessee to speak at his Tuesday Bible study. I did and spent some quality time with the Waltrips. I asked them about being on the board of MRO. They declined because they had been hurt by the chaplain. I was very surprised. I thought that they would join up with MRO after seeing for several months what we were all about. In fact I tried to get the Speeds and the Hillins to join the board. They decided to wait longer too. It was a difficult thing to accept. Darrell did suggest Bill Haynes as a possible board member. He was a friend of the Waltrips. I talked with Bill and he joined the board.
In Orlando, the first MRO leadership training conference got underway with 28 attendees including teachers and staff. The speakers were Ron Blue, Jay Carty, former Lakers player, and Norm and Bobbe Evans. From NASCAR came the Hillins, Speeds and Waltrips. From open-wheels came former owner, Don Wester and son. Hunter Floyd, the CART chaplain, came. That was about it! Everyone seemed nervous not knowing what to expect. But by closing day all were blessed to see what a new ministry offered.
During this time I met a former friend, Steve Green. Steve was living in Winston-Salem and had a counseling job. I told him about counseling needs in the racing community. Soon he and wife, Amy, joined us by raising their own support. Steve was a big help in making contacts for donors and contacts for our conferences. Our only plan was to teach and train those who were Christians. This would be done through weekly Bible studies, area seminars, and yearly conferences.
I continued with the Friday night studies in hotel rooms. By now the couples caught on and furnished me with a room. I didn’t stay for many Sundays. There was no need as I was only there to train Christians. The other chaplain was still there for Sundays.
The spring race at Richmond was snowed out! The race was rescheduled for Easter (very unusual for NASCAR). Someone had mentioned to Paul Sawyer that I might be available to conduct an Easter service for the fans in the exhibition hall at the track. Paul called me and I accepted the role. Steve would do the music. I would preach. It was a pack place on that Easter morning. The three NASCAR couples were present along with a new couple, Phil and Marsha Parsons. They would now join us for Friday night studies. David Smith of the Earnhardt team also begins to come.
By June the Cup chaplain quit coming to the races. His brother-in-law, Lexie Lednum took over the chapel services at the track. Following the Michigan race, Lexie called me. I met him in Salisbury to discuss the track chapel services. He encouraged me to take it over that he didn’t feel qualified. I said that I would pray about it.
In July 1989, I got a call from Les Richter, NASCAR vice-president of competition, inviting me to come to Pocono race weekend to talk about my becoming the chaplain for the series. I had not planned to go and had not been to the summer races that were away from the southland. I drove to Pocono with Chad Little whom I had met as a Winston West driver. At Pocono I met with Les and then that evening with Lake and Darrell at the Ramada Inn near the track. We discussed much about what to expect. I shared with them that I was hesitate since I did not want to get stuck just in NASCAR. I wanted to serve the Christian drivers and families in racing series everywhere. The rest is history. I spent the next 13 years as NASCAR Winston Cup (NEXTEL CUP) series chaplain.
Following that meeting Lake and Rice Speed, Darrell and Stevie Waltrip and Bobby and Kim Hillin became MRO board members. This was great! Finally someone on the board who was actually from the racing community! Now it was down to business to finish the tasks of putting the organization on sound footing. These newcomers to the board suggested others. Tom and Angel Chambers, president of Goody’s, joined the board.
Now that I was doing chapel services I started going to all races. The Friday night studies were growing. Now that people were getting to know me, they were more willing to come. More people started getting involved. Judy Parrott, Carolyn Rudd and Rhonda Rich were invaluable in making connections for us. They got funding. They provided much needed help with weekly activities.
Last race of the year in Atlanta, Grant Adcock tragically was killed in the race. I was asked to conduct my first funeral service in the racing community. I flew to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Herb Adcock family are still good friends until this day. It was at this service that I first met Bill France, Jr. This was a sad ending to the year in which my good friend Bill Elliott won the championship.
Steve Green was busy planning area seminars in California, Indiana, Florida and North Carolina. These one-night seminars were providing needs within the community. Tom Trento and Norm Evans were regular speakers. These would become feeders into our annual conference which was to be held in December, 1989 at Asheville, North Carolina.
It was a great conference with Larry Moody, Gary Chapman, Norm and Bobbe Evans leading. The attendees were more than double of our first in spite of the snowstorm that blanketed Asheville.
We were off and running…
Thank you to Missy deSouza for her assistance in recording this history of MRO