It's 40 minutes before the green flag in St. Louis, and a man in a white shirt and slacks walks onto the track alongside the lined-up cars, giving thumbs up and a blessing to the 27 drivers waiting to start their engines.
The man is not an errant fan but the Rev. Philip De Rea, known as Father Phil to the 2,000 drivers, mechanics, timers, family members and other support personnel who participate on the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) circuit from early April through mid-November.
Most weekends, these same people travel to tracks in North America, Australia, Japan and Brazil to mount 20 races featuring Champ Cars--a variety of "open wheel," cockpit-style racers that run at speeds up to 240 mph and differ somewhat from cars on Indy Car and Formula One circuits. And Father Phil is there, too, offering what he calls "a presence" to drivers and crew members who cannot leave the track on race day--usually Sunday--to attend church.
Walking "the grid" before the race is only one of the priest's weekly rituals. He also conducts several prayer services before each race--public liturgies for mechanics and drivers and their families and friends, as well as private Masses for longtime friends. Between liturgies, he walks or rides a scooter to different pit areas, greeting crew members as they make final adjustments on the cars and sometimes giving blessings to new drivers.
De Rea, 57, has been serving this "parish on wheels" for nearly 30 years and has been the official chaplain with CART Ministries since 1982. But his primary job is national director of the Missionary Vehicle Association, a Washington-based organization that gives grants to missionaries in developing countries to help purchase Jeeps, trucks and other vehicles--up to 25 a year.
During the winter months, De Rea often visits missionary outposts in such countries as Ghana, Peru, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil and Uganda. Come spring, he prepares to serve the itinerant parishioners in his CART ministry, many of whom receive newsletters about his missionary work and respond with donations.
For his role as racetrack touring pastor, De Rea has developed a "theology of racing . . . that leaves denominational lines behind," he said last week in his office on Michigan Avenue NE.
Many of the race car drivers, owners and crew are Catholic, but many are not. So in his prayers and counseling sessions, De Rea tries to use language that would make any believer in a Divine Being, even non-Christians, feel comfortable.
"You're a Catholic priest, but you are no longer there preaching Catholic theology," he said. "I'm trying to make God . . . present to people where they are. I'm trying to make religion real."
Roger Penske, an Episcopalian and owner of Marlboro Team Penske, calls the priest his "number one man" for providing spiritual support at the tracks. De Rea said Penske helps underwrite his racing ministry, which costs about $25,000 a season for travel, food and hotel expenses.
Another admirer is actor Paul Newman, who raced professionally for 14 years and is co-owner of the racing team for which Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi drive. Newman described himself as "religiously dysfunctional," having been raised by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who became a Christian Scientist.
But the actor, 74, has watched De Rea in action for 10 years, both at the race track and at weddings he's performed for Newman's racing colleagues or their children.
"I see him comfortably between the human and the cosmic," Newman, a regular contributor to the Missionary Vehicle Association, said in a telephone interview. "If I were a religious person, I would want him to be looking after me."
Among De Rea's closest friends is racing legend Mario Andretti, 59, with whom he shares not only the Catholic faith and Italian heritage but also a love for powerful cars. "I was brought up on auto racing," said De Rea, who grew up in Nazareth, Pa., and today drives a 1996 Impala SuperSport with a Corvette engine.
De Rea remembers crawling under the fence at age 5 to watch cars zoom around a small dirt track. Several years later, Mario Andretti's parents immigrated to Nazareth. Mario couldn't speak English, but Phil spoke Italian and a friendship developed. While Phil went to a seminary to become a priest, Mario honed his racing skills and in 1969 won the Indianapolis 500.
By then, De Rea had been ordained as a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. With his seminary days over, he began going to races again and started doing what came naturally and through training--ministering to others.
"I started because I was friends with Mario Andretti and enjoyed going to the races. Now it's a commitment I can't get out of!" he said.
Before last Saturday's Motorola 300 in St. Louis, De Rea did what he has done for three decades--held a private Mass for the Andretti family. Mario, now retired, was there with his wife, Dee Ann. Also present were son Michael Andretti--who went on to win the race, his first victory in more than a year--and his wife, Leslie.
"Father Phil's almost like a member of the family," said Michael Andretti, 36. "He's been there for us through hard times and good times. He's a great shoulder to lean on, a great person to have around."
One of the most difficult times for the family was at the Indianapolis 500 in 1992. Michael's younger brother, Jeff, also a driver, had both legs crushed in an accident; father Mario crashed and injured his foot. And Michael was leading the race with 10 laps to go when his engine blew, and he had to drop out.
De Rea stayed with family members through it all, helping them regain their health and equilibrium and maintain their faith. "Ours is a dangerous business," Michael Andretti said. "You must have faith that you will be okay."
De Rea, who will work tomorrow's Miller Lite 200 in Milwaukee, recalls two especially tough times as a racetrack chaplain. The first was the 1996 death of driver Jeff Krosnoff, who suffered massive head and chest injuries when his car spun out of control in Toronto and hit a tree inside the retaining wall. The most difficult part was protecting the privacy of the family, said De Rea, who counseled them after the accident and later conducted Krosnoff's funeral.
The second incident occurred in July in Brooklyn, Mich., when Adrian Fernandez crashed into a wall and a wheel and other debris flew into the stands, killing three spectators and injuring six others. De Rea, watching the race on a television monitor, rushed to the scene and prayed for the victims.
Those who died "never knew what hit them," he said.
Track officials notified relatives of the dead, and De Rea met them at the hospital that night. "The worst part was waiting for the different families to show up," he said. He returned to Michigan to hold the funeral for one of the victims, who was not Catholic.
For the most part, De Rea said, his job at the racetrack is a joyous one. Each year, he performs 10 to 20 race-related weddings for drivers, or for a crew chief's daughter or a team owner's son--usually on non-race days. And he has baptized so many children over the years (27 last year alone, he thinks) that he has trouble keeping track. Some were the children of people he married several years earlier.
Some people come to him because "they really feel you've got a magic touch, that you can help them with their problems," he said. Two weeks ago, as he walked through the pit area before a race, a mechanic handed him a note with his daughter's name and address and asked him to write to her.
The daughter, who will be a high school senior this fall, had tried out for the majorettes but failed to make the squad. "She's absolutely devastated," the man told the priest. "Could you please write her and tell her [that] if not becoming a majorette is the worst thing that will happen to her in life, she'll be okay?"
Father Phil said he would.
CAPTION: The Rev. Phil De Rea, center, a Catholic priest and chaplain on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit, visits with racers and their families before a race last month at the St. Louis Gateway International Raceway.
CAPTION: Father Phil, center, jokes with Dick Vermeil, left, coach of the St. Louis Rams football team, and car ownerCarl Hogan Jr. before a race in St. Louis. De Rea follows the racing circuit from April until November.
CAPTION: The Rev. Phil De Rea blesses racer Helio Castro-Neves before his race in St. Louis. De Rea conducts several prayer services before each race and sometimes blesses new drivers on the circuit.