This weekend, the NEXTEL Cup Series makes its yearly trek to Infineon Raceway nestled in the California wine country of Napa Valley. Like a lot of other things in NASCAR's past, the speedway has changed quite a bit; the track design is different (down to 1.99 miles from 2.4), and trying to clean up . With Steven Leicht winning this past weekend's race in Kentucky and Brad Coleman, another driver unable to legally consume the series title sponsor's product, finishing second; it was yet another reminder of how the sport has changed. There are a lot of common threads to these Driven To The Past stories; drivers from the Southeast, their father dying while they were children, and moonshine. I've always been a fan of tradition and know a good thing when I see it, so we'll continue that trend with this week's profile of driver Morgan Shepherd.
Morgan Shepherd's story begins in the hills of Ferguson, North Carolina. Born to farm workers on October 21st, 1941; his father, Jesse Clay Shepherd, did a stint in prison in 1944 for moonshining and while he tried to leave his troubled past behind, he was back at his craft a year later. Morgan was just twelve when his father passed away; and a few years later, he tried his hand at the family business. Luckily, he realized that this was a dead-end lifestyle and turned his attention to more fruitful pursuits.
Morgan began his racing career at Hickory Motor Speedway, the same track as another driver who started out life similar to Morgan, 1970 Grand National Champion Bobby Isaac. Much like another racer, Rick Mast, who traded a Black Angus steer for his first ride; Shepherd made a creative barter for his first ride. He exchanged two flying squirrels, a gray squirrel, his dead father’s shotgun, and twelve and a half bucks for his first rideâ€¦a 1937 Chevy.
Today’s drivers are cutting their first laps in full-sized racecars before they have their driver’s license. Morgan Shepherd was no different.
Except he was 26.
While most racers today are still spending their money on Clearasil, Morgan had to pay speeding tickets, fines, and court costs. His constant run-ins with the police meant that he would not have a driver's license until he was in his late 20’s, which was the same time he actually began racing on dirt. Morgan’s first race was in 1967, and by 1969 he won all but eight races in the 29-race season at the track. A year later, Hickory would be the site for another first in his career; his first start in the Winston Cup Series.
While Morgan Shepherd would spend the next few years running well, making money, and laying the groundwork for a budding professional driving career, he was also living life in the fast lane. Much like his exploits on the streets of Conover a decade earlier, Morgan was living life too fast for his own good. He developed a reputation as a hard partier, womanizer, and an alcoholic. So much so, that he found that his wife had left him upon his return from Daytona in 1975. Unfortunately it often takes a smack in the face to wake somebody up from a life they're destroying. For Morgan Shepherd, this was it. It was during this time he made a decision that would reshape his life; he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. While some may roll their eyes and scoff at that notion, when people get to that point in life, it usually prevents a tragedy, and precedes success.
After making it to the upper echelons of NASCAR, Shepherd was contending for the Busch Grand National title during the 1980 season when another test was thrown his way. His race shop caught on fire. They were only able to salvage "a" racecar, and Morgan ended up preparing the car outside on his back. During this trying time, in addition to the one car, he had only one full-time employee. By the end of the ’80 season, Shepherd piloted that car to nine wins, and was runner up an astounding 21 times.
1981 would be his rookie season in NASCAR's top division. He won the pole at Rockingham in his first start that year, and would end the year with three Top 5s, ten Top 10 finishes, and 13th place in the final point standings. He even won his first year out, winning the spring race at Martinsville.
However that success was short lived, as Shepherd's reputation of being difficult to work with reared its ugly head. He bounced around the series for a few years; trying to land rides where he could, eventually ending up being the replacement driver for Ron Bouchard. Ironically, Bouchard was the driver he lost Rookie of the Year honors to in 1981. He lost the award not on performance, but on personality. He had actually beat Bouchard in the rookie standings, but other variables are used to decide a winner, and Shepherd fell short in the behavior department. As much as things have changed in our sport from the past, some things remain the same.
Being a Christian, Shepherd knew that there was a plan for him, and even though things looked dark, he could see how things were lining up in his favor. He had first overcome alcoholism, and then he had to overcome his unpleasant attitude that had alienated so many in his past. The years between 1982 and his next win in 1986 at Atlanta were humbling for Shepherd. As he told Stock Car Racing Magazine's Alan Middleton, "With 40 laps to go, I couldn't see," Shepherd says of his Atlanta win. "I was trying not to cry. I knew I had to keep my self-control because we were so close to finally winning a big one, a major race. My racing career was nearly gone just a year before, and I was getting ready to win a big one." To do so, he would have to fend off a swarm of champions: Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, and Terry Labonte. Not too bad for a guy who only a few years earlier, first learned how to read.
Once again, troubled times laid ahead. He kept the faith however, and would eventually land a ride with Bud Moore in 1990. The team ran exceptionally well, leading the points until the road course race at Sears Point Raceway, and eventually finishing fifth in the final series standings. He slipped to 12th in 1991, his last season with Bud Moore, after becoming unhappy with how the race team was being run with the resources they had at their disposal.
Ford helped land him a ride with another legendary Blue Oval organization, the Wood Brothers in 1992. The combination would be a success and together he finished the year 14th in points. The next season would produce another victory for Shepherd at a familiar venue. He won again at Atlanta, in a race that was delayed a week due to a blizzard, and finished seventh overall in the standings. He went winless in 1994 and 1995, although coming close to victory in both seasons.
His last Top 5 finish came at where else but Atlanta in 1997 driving for RayMoch Enterprises.
The ’97 season unfortunately would be the last with any marked success for Morgan Shepherd. He again bounced around for a few seasons driving cars for different owners on a race-to-race basis. He tried his hand at the Truck Series a few years ago, going so far as having to serve as driver AND crewman, to help attract some attention to his plight and land a sponsor. Sadly, it never came to be. Failed sponsorship sunk his chances at making future races with his own team, and he is still paying for it to this day with a lengthy court battle.
Morgan sporadically competes these days. The last few years he has served mostly as a "field filler", his last start coming in 2006 at Loudon. When he does compete, it is in a car carrying the message, "Victory In Jesus". His faith in Christ that helped to guide him through his earlier trials and tribulations, looks carry him over this patch of rough road as well. Whether he competes in another race, even while approaching 66 years of age, is inconsequential. Having already overcome lawlessness, alcoholism, a failed marriage, and illiteracy, Morgan Shepherd will most certainly retire a champion.
Whenever he decides that will be.
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