Ken Owen stood under a Budweiser beer tent at the Pomona Raceway and asked his congregation to pray.
Fog shrouded the makeshift church. A 3,000-horsepower engine roared outside. His 260 parishioners, at least half a dozen of whom were world champion drag racers, huddled in the early morning cold.
"What we're doing is not something that most Christians would relate to," Owen said of his pre-race service Sunday before the start of the Winston World Finals. "A lot of old-timers don't know how to take us. But God has opened up doors in a lot of creative ways these days."
Ken Owen is the official chaplain of the National Hot Rod Assn. A self-described "new wave" evangelist, he travels 75,000 miles a year to lead some of racing's biggest names down the road to salvation.
His pews are the splintered grandstands, his pulpit is the speedway and his nondenominational message of faith is geared to the grueling demands of a sport that, after baseball, ranks as this country's most popular.
In the process, the 41-year-old San Dimas minister has tried to shed light on what he says are two largely misunderstood endeavors: preaching the gospel and piloting a 280-m.p.h. dragster.
"The stigma of the leather jacket, greasy kids, the wild hell raiser--all that phased out a long time ago," said the husky, good humored Owen. "And not all preachers are like those you see on TV--yelling and screaming and causing a fuss.
"Racing has become a very professional thing and we're trying to reach racing on a very professional level."
Owen's ticket to the drag strip came in 1981 when, after several years as an associate minister in San Jose, he was introduced to Racers for Christ, International, a San Dimas-based Christian car club.
Driven by his religious calling and a lifelong love for the sport, he used the organization as a springboard to begin offering informal services at Sunday races to the dozen or so people he could hastily gather in the back of a trailer.
Today, Racers for Christ has grown into a full-time ministry serving more than 200 motor races every year throughout the country. Owen, now president of the 1,600-member group, oversees a team of chaplains who attend the entire spectrum of motor events, including Indy car, stock car, off-road, motorcycle and boating races.
"I don't think any pastor or reverend could just step in and do what Ken has done," said Dallas Gardner, president of the National Hot Rod Assn., which certified Owen as its first official chaplain last year. "His understanding of racing gives him the insight to have a meaningful religious relationship with these people."
Although he has never raced himself, Owen says he grew up with an affection for the sport and a keen appreciation for the skill needed to guide a dragster down a quarter-mile strip in just over five seconds.
To reach his audience, he peppers his sermons with racing analogies, drawing the connection between "God guiding our lives and the difficulty sometimes in steering a race car." Christianity, he says, depends on "the combination of all its principles," just as "a race car is only going to run when all the elements are combined" in the proper way.
"If you're talking about a missionary going overseas to the jungles of Africa, the thing that makes him effective is when he becomes totally saturated into the society that he is called to," Owen said.
"Instead of going into the jungles, we go to the race tracks," he said. "It has its own language, its own vocabulary, its own customs. It takes a real racing fan to be accepted."
For his nomadic flock, who do their biggest racing on the day usually reserved for piety, such devotion does not go unnoticed.
Source of Inspiration
"A lot of times it seems like he's talking to us instead of just a congregation," said Eddie Hill, who set a national speed record of 285 m.p.h. with his top-fuel dragster this year. "He has a lot of empathy. I come out feeling good and inspired."
Dave Schultz, who can throttle his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle from 0 to 165 m.p.h. in about eight seconds, agreed.
"Before this, I raced for years actually feeling guilty about being away from my church," he said. "Now with Ken's sermons, you can feel like you've been in the Lord's house that day."
For that pleasure, the racers and their families gather in groups from 50 to 350 to brave heat, cold, noise and dust at speedways from coast to coast.
But Owen, who graduated from Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, says that such inconveniences hold a refreshing, "gutsy" appeal.
Value in the Setting
"They know its not going to be an ideal setting, and I think that kind of pulls us together," he said. "But that's the nature of the racer--having to overcome a lot of obstacles and fight a lot to get where they are."
On the road for about 20 weeks out of the year, Owen sometimes travels with his wife, Ann, an actress and gospel singer who frequently performs the national anthem before the day's races.
When he is not busy preaching, Owen can be found watching the speedway action with his pocket binoculars or just hanging out on the sidelines talking shop with some of his favorite racers.
"If you took a minister who did not understand racing and just threw him in this environment, he wouldn't survive," he said. "I think they accept me as one of them."