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Max Helton
Founder of Motor Racing Outreach
Died: Sunday, March 30, 2008

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

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION   DAVID POOLE   The Charlotte Observer     Tuesday, Apr. 01, 2008

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 Earnhardt's, 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."

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.

Racing ministry founder Max Helton dies

Posted: April 1, 2008    Bob Pockrass      SceneDaily.com

Max Helton, the founder of the Motor Racing Outreach ministry, died Sunday at the age of 67 after a battle with brain cancer. Helton formed MRO in 1988, and the organization grew from a weekly Bible study to a ministry that not only conducts race-day chapels and Bible studies at team shops but also provides personal spiritual guidance, child care and a workout area among its services.

"Max was truly a visionary," said MRO President Billy E. Maudlin Jr. "Max was always looking out there to see where was the next place he could go, the next thing that could be done to touch somebody's life that hadn't been touched before."

The ministry's access for the members of the NASCAR community and the other motorsports racing series that MRO serves will remain its cornerstone and Helton's biggest legacy. "Max had a philosophy of life and ministry of constantly being available to people," said Maudlin, who became president of the organization in 2000 and then CEO when Helton left in 2002. "You could request anything of him at any time, and he would try to do anything he could to help you.

"He would be there, he would get there. He just believed that it was so important to always be present and always be available to help people. As new people got involved with MRO over the years, that was the first thing he would teach any of us."

Helton is survived by his wife, Jean, of 45 years as well as four daughters and nine grandchildren.

Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs said the first time his family came to the track in 1991, when it was considering starting a NASCAR team, the first person Gibbs and his father, Joe Gibbs, met with was Helton.

"We knew from a ministry standpoint and what he had here starting MRO, we wanted to be a part of that," J.D. Gibbs said. "We don't really start anything without hopefully praying our way through it, getting good guidance. He was a guy that we kind of leaned on when we entered the sport."  J.D. Gibbs said Helton had "a great heart" for every one.

"MRO as whole, what they do is that in racing, you get lost week to week [in the] battle, [you think] your whole life depends upon it and then when somebody gets sick or there is a death in the community, it refocuses what your perspective should be," J.D. Gibbs said. "Max did a great job when people really were looking - what's going to be important 20 years from now, 30 years from now? "Yeah, the championships are nice, and yes the race wins are nice. More importantly is the impact that we have on others, the Lord, and the way we serve others and really he helped make a stronger community in NASCAR."

A prayer with Dale Jr. before race at RockinghamThroughout the racing community, people spoke well of Helton and his mission. "Max aided so many people in auto racing, and you would often see him with some of the sport's top drivers offering a quiet prayer just before the start of a race," said Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, who serves on the board of directors of Helton's World-Span Ministries. "He very personally counseled me through the years and was a great influence on my life."

It is hard to spend a day in a NASCAR garage and not see an MRO representative. "Max Helton's influence will be felt in the NASCAR industry for years to come," a NASCAR statement said. "He touched people's hearts and souls on a spiritual level that won't be forgotten. Max brought out the 'good' in people."

Maudlin said he last talked with Helton a couple of weeks ago as his health and speech were fading. "Everybody that I've talked to that was visiting with him, it was the twinkle in his eyes - that was what you were looking for," Maudlin said. "He was a little bit mischievous. He was apt to get into something every now and then.

"And what you were always looking for, no matter what he was telling you, was the twinkle in his eyes because if you saw that twinkle, you knew he was messing with you a little bit. When I was over there that day, I could still see the twinkle in his eyes, and he was messing with me. What he was trying to say, I honestly couldn't understand. But I knew what he was saying."

A memorial service is planned for Wednesday, April 2, 2008, at 3 p.m. EDT at Grace Covenant Four-Square Church in Cornelius. A visitation and viewing will be Tuesday evening from 7-9 p.m. at Raymer Funeral Home in Huntersville, N.C. The family requests that in lieu of flowers memorials contributions be sent to: Worldspan Ministries, P.O. Box 681117, Charlotte, N.C. 28216.

Bob Pockrass is an associate editor for SceneDaily.com. For more racing news, visit SceneDaily.com

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