Controversy doesn't resonate with NASCAR

Updated: February 13, 2004, 9:47 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Imagine, the week before the Super Bowl, Jerry Jones removing the stars from the side of the Dallas Cowboys' helmets and replacing them with a crucifix. Or on the eve of World Series Game 7, George Steinbrenner growing tired of the intertwined NY and exchanging it for a pair of praying hands on the left chest of every Yankee.

Regardless of individual religious beliefs, people would wonder what was going on. Yet that's just what's happening here in Daytona this week, where Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller has replaced his company's hood-sized logo on Bobby Labonte's No. 18 Chevrolet with that of the controversial movie, "The Passion of the Christ."

Promoting movies is nothing new -- Miller has had specially painted cars for "The Hulk" and "Toy Story 2" in the past. But this film, which depicts in bloody detail the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, is hardly like any other. It isn't due out for two more weeks, yet has already created an unprecedented media firestorm. At the core of the controversy is the painful argument between Christians and Jews over who is responsible for Jesus' death.

Billy Graham was reportedly so touched during a screening that he wept. After Pope John Paul II saw clips, he reportedly said, "It is as it was." But some Jewish leaders who have seen the movie, which was produced and bankrolled by devout Christian actor Mel Gibson, are livid, concerned that the film blames the Jews for killing Jesus and could ignite anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League has also expressed concern.

Now, this broiling controversy, one that's been debated from the cover of Newsweek to countless cable talk shows, finds itself in the garages of NASCAR's Super Bowl, painted across the hood of an 800-horsepower stock car, alongside the logos of Budweiser, Miller Lite and of course, Viagra.

Bobby Labonte
Labonte's isn't the first Cup car to have religion on its hood.

"Really, they're not doing anything different than Viagra," said Rabbi Barry M. Altman of Temple Beth-El in nearby Ormond Beach, Fla. "I mean, this is a commercial venture. They're putting more dollars into Mel Gibson's pockets. But be as it may, the more people discuss topics like these, the better off we are as a society."

The idea for the promotion came straight from the top. Miller, the Interstate Chairman, saw a screening of the movie in California and decided he had to be part of it. After checking with his team, he proposed the idea of a "Passion" hood to NASCAR.

Traditionally, stock car racing's sanctioning body considers proposals on a case-by-case basis, with products that are detrimental to the sport or that contain inflammatory statements of a sexist, political, or religious nature not allowed. A few years ago, driver Morgan Shepherd was reprimanded when he wanted to put an image of Jesus on his car. Eventually, he was allowed to put a crucifix and the slogan, "Racing with Jesus."

In this case, NASCAR approved. After which, Miller offered Gibson the prime spot on his No. 18 car -- for free.

"This outstanding movie factually portrays the most important 12 hours in history," Miller said. "The Bible is clear -- Jesus was volunteering when he laid his life down. I don't feel it's near the issue people are trying to make out of it."

While most people in the sports marketing world hope to avoid controversy, hope to promote the positive and ignore the negative, the decision by the Interstate Batteries racing team to support the movie opened the door for rampant criticism.

And yet here in the NASCAR Bible Belt, where early-morning sermons are a thing of the norm, it hasn't come.

"To be perfectly honest, I've had a bunch of positives as opposed to zero negatives," Labonte said. "Nobody's had a bad thing to say about it. Nor did we really expect they would."

It's rare that sports and religion so controversially collide. Last week, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner was criticized for comments that the Rams didn't play him this last season because he spent too much time reading the Bible. Earlier this year, the NFL fined quarterback Jon Kitna for wearing a cap with a cross during interviews (it was later dropped). In the past, players like Major League Baseball's Chad Curtis have been criticized for witnessing to teammates in the clubhouse.

Now NASCAR is throwing its hat into the mix. And nobody seems to mind.

Deep in the shadows of Daytona International Speedway, just down the road from the famed 2½- mile tri-oval, community Jewish leaders not only support the movie, but Miller's decision to advertise it on his car.

"I actually think it's pretty admirable -- good for him," said Rabbi Garry Perras of Daytona's Temple Israel. "If he is a true Christian, what is he representing? He's spreading the word. How can I disagree with that? I think it's great. It's not going to help him win the race, but more power to him."

More and more, live televised award shows and sporting events are being used as social, political and promotional platforms. Consider the Super Bowl two weeks ago, when a supposed wardrobe malfunction revealed Janet Jackson's right breast, sparking unprecedented media attention for the pop star. Or when famed streaker Mark Roberts took to the field at halftime, doing an Irish jig in front of both teams as a promotion for an online gambling Web site.

If (Labonte) is a true Christian, what is he representing? He's spreading the word. How can I disagree with that? I think it's great. It's not going to help him win the race, but more power to him.
Rabbi Garry Perras

President George Bush will be in attendance for Sunday's race, undoubtedly using the visit to reach this election's hot-button demographic, the NASCAR Dads. So why shouldn't religion be included?

"If a Super Bowl halftime can be a venue for what took place a couple weeks ago, sporting events are opportunities for all types of backgrounds and orientations to express themselves," said Rabbi Jerry Miller of Beth Judah Messianic Congregation in Ormond Beach. "And better to send this message than the one we saw that night."

The movie opens on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, with an unusually wide release pattern for an R-rated film in which two dead languages, Latin and Aramaic, are spoken. Already, 43-percent of advance tickets have been sold. And now, with Miller's decision, the movie will be introduced to a new demographic.

"I can't exactly see the NASCAR market going to a subtitled movie in Latin," Altman said. "But now that one of their guys is behind it, they will. And that's not a bad thing."

As for Labonte, he's doing his best to stay out of the controversy. A devout Christian, Labonte is hopeful that the hood will not only prompt people to see the movie, but will open some religious barriers as well.

"That's the great thing about the opportunity we have here," Labonte said. "We're in a position that could be just the right time for something like this to come out. It's going to be the biggest movie of all-time. I can't wait myself."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.

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