by Grayson Hester
Rev. Dr. Libby Grammer never really cared for sports. And, despite living in Martinsville, Virginia, known primarily for its racetrack, she especially didn’t care much for NASCAR.
That is, until she became the first woman ever to deliver a pre-race prayer. “I think it’s important that NASCAR and this community know that women can be pastors who pray in places of faith, just like the men do,” Grammer said.
Like most sports, NASCAR had been all but shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Martinsville Speedway, typically roaring with excitement and exhaust, was silent. But, in March 2021, the speedway barreled back to life, not only by burning rubber, but by breaking new ground. The pre-race prayer, which in all the history of the Speedway — and arguably that of NASCAR – had always been delivered by a man. Now that prayer was to be voiced by a woman.
“Alexandra Snyder, a young woman in her 20s, called me out of the blue, asking if I’d like to offer the prayer,” Grammer said. “As I talked to Alexandria, I could sense she was excited about having a woman in that role.”
Snyder is the Group Sales Account Executive at NASCAR’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, and had found Grammer because of the investments Grammer and her church, First Baptist Church Martinsville, had made in their online presence. This gave FBCM the edge over what is surprisingly a fairly crowded female pastoral field. “Martinsville has a plethora of women pastors across all denominations,” Grammer said. “It’s not one of those places that has never seen a woman preach.”
Yet, whether because of the Spirit or because of cyberspace, Grammer ended up being the first female to pray at a NASCAR race.
Initially, she wasn’t sure that she would say yes. But, following further conversations with Snyder and some influential talks with Mike Hatfield, another CBF pastor in the area who had offered the prayer no fewer than 20 times, she was game.
As Grammer prepared, these things to pray for were part of her focus: gratitude that people could at last be present in person; thanksgiving for science and vaccines; friendships and having fun and sportsmanship; and a request for the protection of all the drivers.
On the day of the race, Grammer’s presence as a woman pastor wasn’t the only unusual thing. Because of Covid precautions, her prayer was pre-recorded. The crowd -– which was uncharacteristically small — was safely spaced out. Yet, among the slimmed-down number present were several of her congregants and kids and parents from her church’s Early Learning Center program, a program with over 80 children that has been a ministry of the congregation for more than 60 years, all there to support their pastor.
Amid the rumble of warming-up engines and simmering, age-old tensions, Grammer appeared on the Jumbotron and she prayed. “NASCAR is made up of folks who take the prayer seriously; so they removed their hats, seeing it as something important,” Grammer said. She did not feel as if her appearance were an issue. In fact, the faces of a group of attendees sitting nearby lit up when they realized they were next to this woman who had just become, by way of Jumbotron, a local celebrity.
After a few other pre-race housekeeping items, the checkered flag was waved and the drivers were off to the races. And so was Grammer’s newfound love for this sport. “Being at a race live is awesome,” Grammer said. “I had gone in with low expectations. But I left, saying, ‘Nah, dude, I get it. I would totally go again.’ I really enjoyed the race and think there’s a reason that people of all walks of life end up at NASCAR.”
That is in keeping with the way Grammer approaches her ministry. Martinsville, like much of south-central Virginia, has struggled economically since a number of industries left for more lucrative shores, leaving the city facing a more difficult recovery. Grammer, however, prefers to live in the city to which she ministers. She gets her coffee there, she shops there and, now, apparently, she breaks glass ceilings at NASCAR races there. “It says to little girls who come with their parents to NASCAR, ‘Hey, this is something I can do with my life! If God were to call me, I could do that,’” Grammar says. “I’m glad others were given the opportunity to hear a woman pray. It’s a simple thing, but it matters.”