For Solid Stone Ministries' Keith Strickland, winning Atlanta Motor Speedway's annual Thursday Thunder Faster Pastor race might have seemed like a novelty to fans. However, the win and resulting experience resulted in unexpected life-long memories for Strickland.
Strickland, the senior pastor of Solid Stone Ministries in McDonough, started in the rear of the field, driving a bare-bones Dodge Neon. Throughout the race, Strickland slowly passed his devout competition, but he appeared unable to catch the race leader. Divine intervention - or the result of using junk cars - took place: the race leader suffered a flat tire in the final lap, giving Strickland the win.
"Just having an opportunity to race on that track - the same track that [Richard] Petty, [Cale] Yarborough and [David] Pearson and the modern guys like [Jeff] Gordon and [Dale] Earnhardt, Jr. have used - for me to be out there, it was an indescribable thrill," explained Strickland.
While the event and win where both meaningful to Strickland, the resulting honor of giving the pre-race invocation before the 2008 Pep Boys Auto 500 was more significant for multiple reasons.
Long before his win in the Faster Pastor race, Strickland had a connection with Atlanta Motor Speedway. In his teenage years, he worked in operations at the Speedway, assisting with janitorial work and staffing the press box on race weekends. In addition, his father, John, was a NASCAR fan, so Strickland grew up with a familiarity with the sport.
Removed from his days as a youth working at the track and, now, as the winner of the 2008 Faster Pastor race, Strickland had the responsibility of giving the pre-race invocation on a national stage.
"For me to stand on the stage, everything came around full circle," explained Strickland. "As a youth, I never would have imagined myself on the stage; I never could imagine that would have happened to me.
"The experience was amazing," he added. "The treatment I received made it special. To get there and be treated like a VIP and see the drivers walk through the pit area. To be able to go up on the stage and look out on the crowd and all those people and give the invocation, it was great."
Yet, as wonderful as the invocation was, sharing his VIP experience with his father made the moment memorable.
"What made it all that special for me was enjoying it with my father," said Strickland. "My father was a big race fan and was the one that got us into it. This past May, my dad passed away and to be able to give him that opportunity - to meet Bill Elliott and be at the track - that's what was so very special for me. I'm very happy I could give him that experience."
One year after his final NASCAR experience with his father, Strickland returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway to defend his Thursday Thunder Faster Pastor title.
"I'm looking forward to coming back down and I'm just hoping for the best," said Strickland. "I'm really hoping we can repeat."
Atlanta Motor Speedway's annual Faster Pastor race will take place this Thursday, July 16 at Thursday Thunder.