His pulpit is in front of the scorer's stand, his congregation sits not on pews but tires. His parish is literally the pits, but Bill Baird wouldn't have it any other way. As the chaplain of NASCAR, the association of stock car racing drivers, Baird, 38, tends to the spiritual needs of their families and crews, as well as the stars themselves. At the electrifying command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" the burly (6'5", 265 pounds) chaplain moves quickly among the starters, their 600-hp engines roaring, and offers each a final word of encouragement. "There's a real need for Bill," says driver Joe Booher. 'He reminds us of things in life we might forget."

Though Baird is on close personal terms with many of the drivers, he is not a racing buff who combines preaching with pleasure. During his early years as a minister, he crusaded through the U.S. and South America and never gave racing a thought. Then, one day in 1977, he was preaching in Timmonsville, S.C. and met the mother of driver Cale Yarborough. "Racing meant nothing to me," he says, "but she talked about how much Cale loved going to church on Sunday and how a ministry for racers would be an opportunity to do something beautiful. Ole big-mouth me said, 'Why can't I do that?' Cale, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and a lot of the other drivers talked it over and came to me and said, 'We want you with us,' " Baird continues. "I saw my first race in the best seats with the Yarboroughs, but to be honest, it didn't interest me."

Nonetheless, he accepted the call. His new interdenominational ministry, known as Chapel 500, started slowly—only 30 people showed up for his first service—so drivers appealed to their fan clubs for donations. When that wasn't enough, Parsons called a drivers' meeting. "Bill has never asked us for anything, but if we want to keep him we've got to support him," he said. The drivers passed the plate and Chapel 500 was rolling. It is now headquartered in the education building of the First Baptist Church of Asheboro, N.C. Baird's wife, Eunice, does the bookkeeping at their mountainside home but misses most of the circuit, because their daughter Michele is just 8.

Bill and Eunice both grew up around Asheboro. As a Quaker, he attended nearby Guilford College and graduated in sociology and psychology. He was a football star but failed his tryout with the Minnesota Vikings. "I thought of sulking," he says, "but then I felt the call of God. A lot of churches had heard of me, and I went around speaking to youth groups." Nowadays, though, he makes a point of not lecturing his more hard-bitten parishioners (and never mentions death or dying). "These people know right from wrong," he explains. "My mission is to get them to realize that God loves and cares about them, and that I care. The worst thing I could do would be to tell them they're going to burn in hell. So someone is living with someone else's wife. It might be wrong, but I still care about them." As for their education, Baird notes "a wide range of intellect among drivers. Some are Bible scholars and some couldn't find Genesis 1:1. But I think we have built up something beautiful and positive—something that's not chrome-plated."

The racing clan seems equally devoted to Baird. "I used to want my family home on Sundays," says Judy Ranier, a car owner's wife, "but when we got Bill I realized we could grow spiritually even though we weren't in a traditional church." Adds Joe Booher: "If you crash, things always look better after you've talked to Bill. You always think of danger on the track. You don't dwell on it, but it's there. Bill means a lot to the families, and he never thinks of himself."

Knowing the men as well as he does, Baird would say the same for his flock. "People have the idea that race drivers are mean," he says, "but they're the most tenderhearted people in the world. Last year in Nashville a rookie blew an engine, crashed into a pole, and was in surgery for three hours. I was at the hospital with his wife, and they had $27 to their name. When I got back to the track, the drivers were taking up a collection, and in 10 minutes they had $1,500. This is practical Christianity. So you see why these drivers are dear to my heart."