Dirt track is road to ministry for Kansan

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Raceway chaplain focuses on drivers, crews

by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest

The revving engines of their racecars push the decibel level in the staging area so high only God can hear Brent Austin’s voice, but every driver knows exactly why the Dodge City Raceway chaplain pauses a moment by his car. The chaplain is offering a prayer for the driver’s safety on the dirt racetrack.

“I like the loud cars—and they are loud! I like the way they look and, even though it sounds funny, I love the way 110 octane fuel smells when it burns,” Austin says.

Austin sums it up this way: “I love the Lord foremost in my life. The second thing I love the most is racing,”—quickly adding that his love for his wife and kids is actually right in there after his love for the Lord.

These two loves—of serving the Lord and of racing sports—were lodged in separate compartments of Austin’s life until two years ago.

For Austin, a longtime lay leader and teacher at Valleyview Bible Church in Cimarron, Kan., ministry had meant involvements such as serving on the elder board and teaching Sunday school. Then his small group engaged in a series of studies from the book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.

“After a couple of weeks I was just struggling with what the author was telling me. It was really the Holy Spirit,” he recalls. By the end of the six-week study Austin was ready to take on the author’s challenge of a “radical experiment” and explore a ministry opportunity outside the church.

Austin remembered meeting track chaplains under the organization Racers for Christ and figured that with his interest in racing, Racers for Christ would be a good place to start. Within a few months he had completed their extensive application process and was approved for the chaplain program.

It took several calls and an unannounced visit to the track promoter’s office to secure a placement as chaplain for Dodge City Raceway. Located in the city where his swimming pool contracting business is based and just 20 miles from his home in Cimarron, it is the perfect opportunity for a local ministry reaching beyond the church walls.

Through two racing seasons, Austin has become a regular fixture at the track. On Friday nights he arrives early to chat with drivers and their crews, asking them important questions like how their car is running and what kind of tires they’ll be using.

At 6 p.m. everyone gathers for the drivers’ meeting. “They will form a semicircle around me and I ask the Lord to bless them and their crew and keep them safe when they’re competing,” he explains, noting that he always prays in the name of Jesus Christ.

He also prays the invocation at the start of the race, again praying in the name of Jesus. “Some nights there might be 800 people in the stands, but in the premier sprint series I get to pray with 3,500 to 4,000 people,” he says.

Austin’s main focus, however, is to care for the drivers and crew. He always stands ready to accompany the safety crew in an emergency on the track, although there have been no serious accidents during his tenure.

A member of the fire and safety crew attributes the safety record to Austin’s prayers. “One guy says, ‘You’re here tonight so that means I won’t have to do anything.’”

Listening is an important part of the job of chaplain. Sometimes that means patiently listening to drivers talk endlessly about their cars and racing strategy or their litany of excuses when they don’t win. On occasion a driver or family member will need a listening ear on more personal issues, but those times are rare.

“With drivers it takes time,” Austin says. “You’re building that relationship with them. You carry Scripture with you and pray that someone will ask you to share it with them.”

Few of the drivers he has worked with are Christians, and with their weekends spent away from home at various racetracks, Austin is the closest thing they have to a pastor. One woman asked Austin if he could officiate at her daughter’s wedding; since he is not ordained, he could only assist. Another time a crew chief called on him for an impromptu devotional for his driver and crew.

Having people look to him as their pastor keeps Austin encouraged in the ministry. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing any good at all and someone will put their arm around me and say how they appreciate my being there,” he says.

Austin finds himself transformed by the experience of ministry at the track. “This is a dirty ministry. I’m going to hear things I don’t hear at the church and see things I don’t see at church,” he says. “Sometimes the language hurts your ears. But it has made me more aware of the need that people have—the need for Christ in their lives.”

“Before my entire focus was inside the church,” he says, “but the Lord has told us to go, and so that’s what I have done. It’s really not an option.”

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