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Church Takes Message on Road

Scientology backs driver at Irwindale, joining retailers and others seeking an audience.

June 09, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

The Church of Scientology is spreading its gospel to NASCAR, starting in Irwindale.

The religion that counts actor Tom Cruise and other Hollywood luminaries among its followers now backs a La Verne stock car driver, Kenton Gray, who competes in one of NASCAR's developmental series at the Irwindale Speedway.

Gray, 35, hopes to qualify for his next race June 24 in the super-late-model class in a car sponsored by Bridge Publications, which publishes the best-selling book, "Dianetics," by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The hood of Gray's No. 27 Ford Taurus is similar to the book's cover, with "Dianetics" emblazoned across an erupting volcano, and his new team is called the "Ignite Your Potential" Dianetics Racing Team.

Scientology is following the lead of retailers, brewers, delivery firms and other Fortune 500 companies that have flocked to NASCAR events to gain the attention of its huge, national following.

"NASCAR racing has captured the attention of sports fans around the world, and we are proud to sponsor a driver who has the potential to be a champion," said Bridge spokeswoman Danielle Methvin.

Gray drove his initial late-model race at the half-mile track May 6 and has not competed since then, Methvin said. He finished 21st in a 28-car field.

When he returns to Irwindale on June 24, Gray first must run in a qualifying heat to make the field for the race, said Bob DeFazio, Irwindale Speedway's general manager.

Gray previously had driven in another class at Irwindale, called Legends, and had raced motorcycles.

He also founded his own race team, Freedom Motorsports Group.

"Dianetics is a book that helped me in many ways since I first read it many years ago," Gray says in remarks on Freedom's website.

And in a statement provided by Bridge, Gray said the book "markedly improved my focus and my consistency."

He was not available to elaborate, Methvin said.

This is not the first time that a NASCAR vehicle has featured a religious message.

Veteran NASCAR driver Morgan Shepherd has driven with the phrase "Racing with Jesus" on the hood of his car in recent years, which he said was a "way to reach people worldwide" with his message.

At the Daytona 500 in 2004, Bobby Labonte's Chevrolet advertised Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" on its hood.

NASCAR monitors sponsorship and advertising closely, but has no objection to the "Dianetics" entry, said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter.

"We would step in at any level if we deemed it to be in bad taste or bad for the sport," he said. "But in this case, we don't think it is.

"Not all of our fans agree with some sponsorships, but they do understand that it is imperative for our cars to have sponsors in order to succeed."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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