Waltrip and Nelms

NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip & Lebanon pastor Joe Nelms

GLADEVILLE – In NASCAR circles it’s known simply as “the prayer.”

It has been almost 20 years since Lebanon pastor Joe Nelms stepped to the microphone at Nashville Superspeedway and delivered perhaps the most memorable pre-race invocation in racing history.

The rollicking, humorous prayer was carried live as part of ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 Federated Auto Parts 300, drawing widespread national attention. Since then, it has attracted over 3.4 million YouTube viewers, and seven million more have tuned in to a song about the prayer.

An encore is coming.

Nelms, pastor of Family Baptist Church, expects to deliver another invocation prior to one of the track’s tripleheader racers next June 18-20.

“Nothing is finalized, but I’m sure it will happen,” says the affable Nelms. “I’m excited about it.”

Nelms says he was stunned by the response to his 2011 prayer which had drivers, crewmen and others chuckling up and down pit road, and fans cheering and applauding in the stands.

“I didn’t prepare my comments in advance,” he says. “I just got up and said what came to my mind.”

What came to mind was this:

“Heavenly father, we thank you tonight for all our blessings in all things and give thanks. We want to thank you for these mighty machines that you’ve brought before us. Thank you for the Dodges and 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.

“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. Lord, I want to thank you for my smokin’ hot wife Lisa, my two children Eli and Emma, or as we like to call them, the Little E’s.

“Lord I pray bless the drivers and use them tonight. May they put on a performance worthy of this great track. In Jesus’ name, boggity, boogity, boogity.”

The latter reference was to TV announcer Darrell Waltrip’s famous signal to start each race, The “smokin’ hot wife” was a line from the racing movie comedy, “Talladega Nights.”

Almost before he could say “amen” Nelms was a national celebrity.

He was flooded with media interview requests, and the SPEED Channel flew him to Indy to do a live spot before the next week’s race. Almost all the response was positive, although a few considered it a tad irreverent. Nelms says that was not his intent.

“It got people to taking about God and prayer and Jesus,” says Nelms, whose household now includes son Keenan.

“That’s my goal as a pastor. I want church folks to be regarded as regular people. We don’t have to be grim and stuffy. We can laugh and enjoy life. Jesus believed in joy.”

On his Facebook page, Nelms describes himself as “a Christian, Pastor, Father, Ga. and NASCAR fan.”

When he’s not ministering to his flock, he can often be found in a crappie boat.

Nelms grew up in Tunnel Hill, Georgia, where his grandfather was a minister and his father a deacon.

He began preaching in 1997 at age 21, and eventually became pastor at Lebanon’s Family Baptist Church.

The church has approximately 50 parishioners, including bluegrass/gospel star Rhonda Vincent who attends whenever she is in town.

“We’re just a little country church, but I love it,” says Nelms, whose Sunday and Wednesday-night sermons are streamed live.

Information is posted on the church’s website and Facebook page.

Nelms, like his fellow racing fans, welcomes the re-opening of the Superspeedway and its addition of a big-league NASCAR Cup race. Most felt the track didn’t have a prayer of getting one of the prize races.

Maybe it just needed the right prayer.