Married To Nascar

John and Nancy Andretti sit with their three children in the fifth row, listening to hymns, Proverbs and the sermon. It would be an ordinary Sunday scene if the chapel weren't a converted garage, if race-car engines weren't rumbling outside and if the word "safety" didn't dominate the prayers. Just two hours after the service the men in these makeshift pews--NASCAR drivers Andretti, Jeff Gordon and a few dozen others--will circle Michigan International Speedway at 170 miles per hour. And Nancy Andretti and the rest of the NASCAR wives will cheer, worry and pray.

There's much to celebrate this racing season. NASCAR is getting more network TV exposure than ever and seems poised to win new fans. But since Dale Earnhardt's death in February, the Winston Cup circuit has become a traveling shrine. Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in just nine months, fueling new concerns over racing safety that cloud even jubilant moments like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s triumph at Daytona this month. The safety debate will heat up again in August, when NASCAR releases its investigation into Earnhardt's death. Against this backdrop, there's never been a more anxious time to be a Winston Cup wife. Their husbands voluntarily face more danger than policemen, astronauts or frontline soldiers, but unlike wives of those warriors, racing wives have front-row seats--and have to smile for the TV cameras. Says Joe Menzer, author of "The Wildest Ride: A History of NASCAR": "It takes a different kind of woman to be able to withstand all the near misses and the ever-present realization that something very bad can happen." To find out what it takes, last month NEWSWEEK spent a race weekend alongside Nancy Andretti.

Fixing lunch in her motor coach on Saturday afternoon, Nancy, 37, doesn't seem worried. Her husband, a veteran driver mired in a mediocre season, is off at practice, while Jarett, 8, and Olivia, 6, do crafts at the kitchen table. Renita, their nanny, plays with Amelia, 1. Nancy grew up just three miles from the Indy 500 racetrack, but she didn't follow racing until she began dating John, a high-school classmate from a famed family of racers (Mario is his uncle; Michael his cousin). Now, after 14 years of marriage, she leads the nomadic life typical of NASCAR families. More than 30 weekends a year she's piloted in their seven-seat prop plane from her Charlotte, N.C., home to distant racetracks. Once there, she joins dozens of other drivers' families in a private infield village of motor homes, which are driven between tracks by full-time drivers. The motor coach itself isn't a hardship: it's a $225,000, 42-foot, air-conditioned model with a skylit shower and John's signature woven into the leather upholstery. But the schedule is draining. "It just beats you down and wears on you," Nancy says. The upside: many drivers earn millions.

Throughout the afternoon Nancy keeps watch as the kids migrate from Razor scooters to the private playground. She also watches a preliminary race on the motor coach's 42-inch liquid-plasma TV. When a race car hits the wall and catches fire, Nancy barely glances up. Nasty wrecks are as much a part of racing as the deafening noise. John has been lucky so far. He's broken ribs and required surgery, but avoided serious injury. The Andrettis refuse to dwell on the danger. "You can't do anything about the risks, so I try not to get myself all worked up," says Nancy, who listens to the crew radio so she can hear John's voice if he's in an accident.

As the TV replays the accident, John, 38, comes in from practice. He's lived with the risks not only as a driver, but as a family member, recalling the devastating 1969 crash that forced his father, Aldo, into retirement. He says Jarett and Olivia have some sense of the risks, especially since his teammate Adam Petty's death last May, though they may not realize it could happen to him. "Why prepare them for something that's going to happen to everyone someday?" he asks. "Do you prepare your kids? Then why should I?"

Instead they spend time trying to make life on the road as routine as possible. On Friday night the kids sleep over with other drivers' children. Later they attend a birthday party at Motor Reaching Outreach, NASCAR's traveling ministry, whose trailer serves as a drivers' community center. But it's hard to lead a normal life when Dad's a celebrity and Mom's picture is on boxes of Hamburger Helper (even though Nancy's severe gluten allergy forces her to avoid nearly everything sold by General Mills, John's primary sponsor). On Saturday, while accompanying his dad to the garage, even Jarett signs autographs ("Cursive or printing?" he asks). Still, those thrills may not last. Already Jarett's soccer schedule conflicts with races. Last year the kids missed nine school days for races--a problem as they move to higher grades. "John wants to do this another 10 years," says Nancy. The kids may not.

They face bigger worries on Sunday, as John tries to end a streak of poor finishes. As the race nears, Nancy stands by his car while a pastor offers a blessing ("Watch over John and give him the ability to drive his best"), then takes her seat above the pit area, tracking his speed on a laptop. Meanwhile, Jarett watches from the motor coach (the nanny will click off the TV if there's an accident), and Olivia joins 21 other drivers' kids at Bible study. The kids watch Jesus multiply fish on a TV screen, then they pass around Fruit Roll-Ups while cars roar in the distance. "When it gets quiet, they know" there's been a wreck, says Jackie Pegram, who leads the children's program. "We don't skirt the danger issue," she adds. "We talk a lot about heaven, and we pray for safety and a good finish."

Back on the track, Olivia's father is in trouble. After starting in 15th position, John made a badly timed pit stop at lap 24 and broke a shock at lap 86, but now he's rebounded. With 10 laps to go his number 43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge is poised to finish the race and advance in the standings. Suddenly Nancy hears a voice yell over the radio. "Go low--oh, no!" Nancy can't see it, but John's car has plowed into the wall on the backstretch. A moment later she hears John's angry voice: "I can't believe it," he says. The car is wrecked beyond repair and won't finish, costing him critical points in the standings.

As soon as Nancy hears his voice--"I knew immediately he was fine," she says--she speed-walks off to grab the kids for the race to the plane. When they reach the garage, John, still seething after the poor showing, hops in, and they quietly ride to the airport. Nancy and the kids board their plane for North Carolina; John and his crew head to a track in Chicago to prep for a future race, while a driver steers the motor coach toward the next racetrack. At home that night, Nancy goes online and sees that John has dropped two spots, to 30th, in the standings. They'll try for redemption next week.