Darrell Waltrip was mad.
Ricky Craven had just knocked Waltrip's car into the wall during a race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.
"I was livid, fit to be tied," Waltrip remembers. "I ran into the garage and snatched Ricky's window net down. I was just about to get into it with him when some of the guys grabbed me and took me back to my hauler."
Max Helton, the NASCAR chaplain who had helped Waltrip and a small group of others form Motor Racing Outreach in 1988, was at Waltrip's hauler waiting.
"He was talking to me about not being a very good witness and asking me to think about what I was doing," Waltrip says. "But the more I thought about it, the madder I got.
"I told Max, 'I can't let this go. I am going back over there right now and have this out with Ricky.'"
Helton got up and stood in the doorway of the lounge in Waltrip's transporter.
"He put his arms across the door and said, 'Here, Darrell, take it out on me. Hit me instead. That will save you from making a big mistake.' And he was serious, he wasn't saying that trying to be funny."
Waltrip laughed anyway. "I said, 'I know I am being foolish,'" he said. "And so I sat back down."
It's a great story, but it doesn't end there. What happened next shows how Helton, who passed away Sunday at the age of 67 after a seven-month battle with brain cancer, turned life into lessons.
"The very next week at Phoenix, Max asked me if I would lead the opening prayer at the chapel service after the drivers' meeting," Waltrip said. "I got up and went to the front of the room and guess who was sitting there on front row. Ricky Craven.
"I said, I can't pray because I have this guilt on me. I have something to take care of fisrt. So I asked Ricky to come up there and I put my arm around Ricky and I asked him to forgive me. Then I prayed."
Helton served as the leader of MRO from its founding in 1988 until he left to take his message of "personal evangelism" to the worldwide racing community through another ministry he founded, WorldSpan Ministries, in 2002. During those years in the NASCAR garage, it sometimes seemed like there were about 10 Max Heltons.
He had a knack for being there when people needed him. He was there when called upon, as any good minister is, but Helton somehow seemed to anticipate those needs. On the starting grid before the race, he'd stop for a brief prayer or word of encouragement to dozens of drivers. He spoke as easily with millionaire car owners as he did garage mechanics who try to remember to wipe grease and oil off their hands with a cloth before greeting Max.
Steve Green's parents were teachers at Tennessee Temple University, where Helton studied. In 1958, Green was in junior high school and played baseball. Helton became his coach, and a life-long friendship began.
"He was like a big brother I never had," said Green, who will be one of the ministers officiating at Helton's memorial service on Wednesday. "I was in on a lot of his late-night collusion meetings where he worked up pranks to play on the night watchmen and the school's dean of men."
Once, Green said, Helton conspired to have an entire car taken apart and then re-assembled inside a snack shop students visited at the college. The next morning, the shop workers came in to discover it sitting there with no idea how it got there or how to get it out.
"Max never, ever got caught and he never got in trouble," Green said. "He could talk his way out of anything."
He could also talk his way into things, too.
Green was a counselor when Helton was putting together the foundations for Motor Racing Outreach in late 1988. Green said Helton called and began talking about how he needed to hire someone to serve as a counselor to address some of the family issues being faced by people who worked in the sport.
"He said, 'Steve, I have got to find ways to love on all of these people," Green said. "I said, 'You don't know what I do for a living?' Max said he didn't, and I believe he really didn't. So I told him I was basically doing that kind of work. He said, 'Well, then you quit your job and you come down and help me.' I told him he was crazy. But he said, 'That's why God had me call you to talk about this.'"
Green said the only way he could do that would be to make an annual salary of $60,000 - a sum he doubted Helton couldn't pay him.
"He said, 'That's no problem, you come on,'" Green said. "So I went and it just felt so right. But when I got there, he said, 'OK, now you need to go raise the money to pay your salary. And anything over $60,000 you raise you can help us pay the rent with."
Early on in MRO's existence, that $60,000 figure was laughable. Waltrip tells of Helton driving to Richmond and back - five hours each way - to conduct a one-hour Bible study with drivers because Helton didn't have the money for a hotel room. Green said Helton came in one day and said the lights and phones to MRO's offices were going to be shut down that day because the group was out of money.
"We didn't know until after that how bad it was," Waltrip said. "Max just had faith it was going to work out."
And, of course, it did.
"He was just my best buddy," Green said. "He loved people, and the real presence of God in his life was effervescent."
Max Helton, 67, is survived by his wife, Jean; daughters Melanie, Elain, Crista and Becky, and nine grandchildren. The family requests that memorial donations to be made to WorldSpan Ministries, P.O. Box 681117, Charlotte, N.C., 28216.
Monday, March 31, 2008
Darrell Waltrip was mad.