If George Whitefield were alive today, Steve Wingfield believes the 18th-century Anglican preacher who helped sparked the First Great Awakening in America wouldn't be leading crusades in stadiums or megachurches. Rather, Whitefield would be spending a great deal of his time on weekends at NASCAR events.
Instead of Whitefield though, it's Wingfield, the founder and CEO of Steve Wingfield Evangelistic Ministries and Victory Weekend Ministries, who finds himself in the middle of hundreds to thousands of raucous, rambunctious race fans, preaching to the masses and spreading the gospel on select weekends through the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at campgrounds and reserved venues just outside the racetracks.
With a background of 30 years of crusade evangelism, Wingfield says there's no place he would rather be. He imagines Whitefield—who earned a reputation as an open-air orator and field preacher—would feel right at home each weekend at the track among rabid NASCAR fans.
"Because he went from the church to the field, I am convinced, based on my own experience, that Whitefield would be at a NASCAR event on many weekends," says Wingfield, who began his racing ministry in 2010. "When we go to an event, we spend our time not only ministering to people, but mingling out among them in the campgrounds, getting to know them.
"Can you imagine someone like Whitefield pitching horseshoes, playing cornhole or enjoying a grilled hamburger with the people he shares the gospel with? I can, and I think he would love it because that's the type of preacher he was. Lives were changed when he went out into the fields and preached, and that's what we believe we're doing with Victory Weekend—changing lives."
Whitefield once declared the whole world as his "parish." In the historical biography, George Whitefield, Field Preacher, author James Paterson Gledstone quoted Whitefield as saying, "Every one hath his proper gift. Field-Preaching is my plan; in this I am carried as on eagles' wings. God makes way for me everywhere."
Renewed Vision for Outreach
After many years as an evangelist, Wingfield began to notice what he called a "disturbing trend" in his work. Wingfield, who is based in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, says responses to his crusades were declining, and the events "were becoming nothing more than a rally for Christians." As a result, Wingfield longed for something more in his ministry.
In 2005, the Steve Wingfield Evangelistic Association held a crusade and festival in Bristol, Tennessee, home to Bristol Motor Speedway, tucked in the northeast corner of the state near the Virginia border. Jeff Byrd, then the speedway's general manager, asked Wingfield to conduct the Sunday morning chapel service for the Sprint Cup Series drivers and their families. The experience had a significant impact on Wingfield. At the time, Bristol, which sold out 55 consecutive Sprint Cup Series races from 1982 to 2010, sported a capacity of 147,000 fans. It now holds more than 160,000.
"I remember that day distinctly because it was the day that the pope (John Paul II) died," Wingfield says. "The crowd was huge. To see all of these people at this event, I thought to myself, There are a lot of possibilities for Jesus here. I knew about Motor Racing Outreach and about Raceway Ministries (other NASCAR evangelistic ministries), but I didn't know of anyone doing really what we wanted to do.
"A couple of years later, by chance at a golf outing, I met Jerry Caldwell, Jeff Byrd's son-in-law, who had taken over for Jeff after he died of pancreatic cancer. I asked for a meeting with Bristol's general manager, and when I walked in his office, Jerry remembered me. I explained what I wanted to do, and Jerry was thrilled with the idea. The next spring, we made it happen. We had a full-blown festival set up at the Bristol Drag strip near the track. We've been doing it ever since."
Jim McBride, former president of Raceway Ministries—a national fellowship of NASCAR ministries—has known Wingfield for more than 15 years. The two met during one of Wingfield's crusades and kept in touch until Wingfield made his move into the NASCAR arena. McBride, who worked closely with Dover International Speedway, says he felt it was a perfect opportunity to connect with a ministry he believed in to help bring the gospel to NASCAR fans.
"Steve knew we had a ministry at Dover, and he told me about his new vision," McBride says. "He knew a partnership would be beneficial, and he wanted to know if we would partner with Victory Weekend. We didn't have as many resources to fulfill our vision as we would have liked. We felt like Steve was giving us an avenue for us to be able to reach more fans with the gospel. It turned out to be a blessing for both of us."
Dover International Speedway has now become a staple on Victory Weekend's annual NASCAR schedule with two stops each year.
Race Weekend Preparation
Because most NASCAR events are spread out over a three-day period, many fans come in early during the week to set up their tents, motor homes and campsites at the designated campgrounds. Wingfield and his staff will usually come in the Wednesday prior to the race to prepare for their evangelistic efforts. While NASCAR holds many night races, Victory only travels to events with day races.
With eight paid staff on board, Wingfield estimates the cost to his ministry is $25,000 per weekend event. The racetracks, however, do allow him to bring in his 18-wheeler and set up for free, which is a bonus.
"They've embraced what we're doing," the evangelist says. "It's a God thing."
Each Victory Weekend launches Thursday evening with a concert from a top-notch local band. Wingfield invites drivers who are Christians to share their testimonies, interact with the crowd and sign autographs.
Friday evening's service brings more music and allows Wingfield and his staff to share the gospel. During the service, veterans, active service members and other public servants such as firefighters and police officers are honored.
On Saturday nights, Wingfield says, the "clear and simple message of the gospel is preached, and people are invited to respond and make a commitment to Christ."
Ready Response From Fans
With all of the activities planned for each weekend, Wingfield and his staff have plenty of opportunities to spread the gospel. It's the impromptu evangelism among the crowds, however, that he believes brings the most satisfaction. That's when Wingfield's staff heads to the infield campgrounds—where numerous trailers and motor homes are parked—and to the campgrounds outside the track to mingle with the fans.
While some may resist the presence of Wingfield's staff, most are friendly and welcome them. It's somewhat of a strange dynamic, considering a large sect of NASCAR fans have developed a reputation as "hearty" partiers. Dell Hamilton, a former Xfinity Series part-time team owner and sponsor who works with Wingfield to help recruit Christian drivers to participate in Victory Weekend's events, says the ministry is effective because he and his staff aren't Pharisees—they refuse to judge the fans who drink.
"I've seen this firsthand," says Hamilton, who works with Xfinity Series drivers, including Blake Koch, Josh Reaume and Cody Ware, and Sprint Cup Series driver Michael McDowell. "It's incredible. When you're talking to them about the Lord, it seems like their walls come down because a lot of what is said is speaking directly into their lives. They may drink, but they're still able to carry on a decent conversation.
"Steve and his people—all they do is love on the fans. There is no judgment and condemnation if they've got a beer in their hand. Sometimes you don't know if some of them listen intently or not, but then you get a note from someone down the road whose information you took down, and you find out that his life has changed. I've been a Christian for 50 years and have worked as a music leader, associate pastor and youth director. I've been in church all my life, but I've seen more life-changing decisions among the NASCAR fans than I have at any time before in the church. Yes, God does work mightily in NASCAR."
Wingfield says the most gratifying part about Victory Weekends is when fans contact them after the event, and the response has been overwhelming. From 2013 to 2015, Wingfield's organization held 32 events, attended by nearly 150,000 people with nearly 2,300 decisions for Christ.
"When George Whitefield held revivals, there was spiritual change that resulted in social change," Wingfield says. "If America is on the cusp of a spiritual awakening—and many people believe it is—then people should check out a NASCAR event. I truly believe revival is happening, and it's happening at the racetracks. George Whitefield would love it."
Shawn A. Akers is the online managing editor at Charisma Media and is co-host of the "Javelin" podcast on the Charisma Podcast Network.
Patriotic NASCAR ministry branches out to serve veterans
Each weekend that the Steve Wingfield Evangelistic Association (SWEA) heads for the track for a NASCAR event, the organization pays tribute to American service men and women. But Wingfield believes Americans owe much more than that to those who sacrifice for their country every day. It is by what he calls "the grace and favor of God in action" that his organization is able to show gratitude to these military personnel.
To honor and care for these men and women, SWEA is in the process of building a retreat center—called The Inn—in Upper Tract, West Virginia, where veterans can find refreshment. The property where the center is being built was completely debt free.
In 2015, Wingfield received a call from a friend inviting him to see a piece of property. Wingfield hesitated since he was not in the market to purchase the land, but God directed him to invite a man named Paul Weaver, founder of Lodestar Guidance, to view the property. Weaver visited the property, and after spending the day committing his decision to the Lord, he wrote Wingfield a check to cover the purchase price.
"The presence of God is all over this place, and I want everyone to be a part of it," Wingfield says. "Our stated mission for the center is to provide a place for relaxation, renewal and refreshment for those men and women who have sacrificed so much to serve. The verse that brought me to tears was Proverbs 11:25, which reads, 'A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.'"
The Inn has a total of 12 units, and Wingfield says it will take "at least a million dollars to get this place where it needs to be." God provided for the property, so Wingfield's faith is strong for the fulfillment of the expense for the infrastructure.
The retreat center is an extension of what Wingfield and his organization do at NASCAR tracks each year. At each race, Victory Weekend pays tribute to military personnel by praying for them and presenting them with a specially minted medal featuring the Victory Weekend logo. The inscription on the back says, "We honor your service," along with Philippians 1:6 ("I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ").
Anyone who wants to donate toward the veterans' medals can visit stevewingfield.org to contribute. —Shawn A. Akers
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