NASCAR & Auto Racing

Max Helton was well worthy of NASCAR's wide circle of love

Minister wasn't what Max Helton was. It's what he did.

Helton, who helped begin Motor Racing Outreach in 1988 and for more than a decade served as a pastor and a friend to hundreds of people in the NASCAR community, died Sunday at his home in Huntersville. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in August.

"For Max, it never was about being the NASCAR chaplain or about MRO being a big deal," retired driving champion Darrell Waltrip said. "It was about him and his faith and sharing that faith."

After leaving MRO in 2002, Helton and his son-in-law Daryl Barker founded WorldSpan Ministries, an organization that serves spiritual needs for motorsports series and communities around the world.

That was the continuation of a ministry that began with a conversation in 1988 at a race track in Riverside, Calif.

Waltrip, Lake Speed, Bobby Hillin Jr. and their wives had formed a Bible study group and were looking for someone to help make that grow.

"I had been praying that the Lord would send us a Godly man who was interested in spreading the Gospel in the garage," said Stevie Waltrip, Darrell's wife. "I was praying for someone who was not all caught up in all the stuff that racing can pull you into."

She was sitting in a car at Riverside with her then-infant daughter Jessica when Helton tapped on the window and asked if he could talk to her.

"He got into the car and he said, `I feel the Lord is asking me to start a ministry in racing,' " Stevie Waltrip said.

"I knew in my spirit this was the man I'd been praying for."

After that first meeting with Stevie Waltrip, Helton, who grew up in east Tennessee and was the son of a Baptist pastor, agreed to move to North Carolina to help set up the ministry that grew into MRO.

"He didn't have two nickels to rub together," Darrell Waltrip said. "I remember one time he drove five hours from Charlotte to Richmond (Va.) for a one-hour Bible study in our hotel room. We asked him where he was staying, and he said, `Oh, I haven't decided.' Then he drove back home because he didn't have money for a hotel room."

Still, MRO grew into a fixture in the sport.

"The NASCAR community fell in love with Max," long-time friend Steve Green said, "and he was worthy of that love."

Former Observer religion reporter Ken Garfield described Helton's approach as "a ministry of presence."

"He could go into the shop and do a Bible study and he'd talk to the Rick Hendricks and Dale Earnhardts, too," Garfield said.

"He had programs for the spouses and kids of the drivers and crew chiefs, and didn't forget the tire changers or the guys in the shop. He was just always there. He had a real feel for the culture he was in, and he was kind of a glue that helped hold the community together."

On the night a pedestrian bridge collapsed after the all-star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, Helton opened MRO's offices in the track's Smith Tower for families and friends of the injured.

MRO established at children's ministry that provided activities and a safe haven for the children of drivers and team members when they came to the track. It also organized a "dad's Olympics" each year on Father's Day weekend at Pocono (Pa.).

"Christianity is a relationship with Christ, and that's what MRO is about, relationships," Stevie Waltrip said. "That's what we had for the first time."

Helton also led weekly chapel services at the track.

"It was really interesting how Max could make the Gospel sound like something you just should be doing," driver Jimmy Spencer said. "He was enjoyable to listen to and he could relate everyday life at the track to something in the Bible."

Before his illness, Helton traveled all over the racing world with WorldSpan Ministries. He also trained and consulted with teachers and counselors in a program he called HOPE -- Hanging Out: Personal Evangelism.

"You think about Bill France Sr. being a visionary in what he thought NASCAR could be," Darrell Waltrip said. "Max had a vision for a ministry at the track. He wanted MRO to be a church, in every sense of that term. He wanted it to be something that ministered to everybody. But at the center of all of that was his faith." IN MY OPINION

Funeral information

Max Helton's family will receive friends from 7 to 9 tonight at Raymer Funeral Home, 16901 Old Statesville Road, in Huntersville. A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Grace Covenant Church, 17301 Statesville Road, in Cornelius. A private burial for family and friends will follow.

The family requests memorials to be made to WorldSpan Ministries, P.O. Box 681117, Charlotte, NC 28216.

Mr. Helton, 67, is survived by his wife, Jean; daughters Melanie, Elain, Crista and Becky, and nine grandchildren.

Related stories from Modesto Bee