It’s been a tale of two seasons for Morgan Shepherd in 2009.
The year began with a bang. Armed with a Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet and motors and tires furnished by Tony Stewart, Shepherd had the resources to tackle the full Nationwide Series schedule… and tackle it he did. In the first three races of the season, Shepherd qualified in the top 20 at Daytona and followed that run up with back-to-back top-20 finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas, outrunning a number of Cup team cars on the very same intermediate tracks they’ve come to dominate. Locked into the Top 30 five races into the year, things looked all systems go for the No. 89 team.
Fast forward to Dover this past weekend, and the picture was nowhere near as pretty. Shepherd and Faith Motorsports pulled into Dover Downs less than a month after laying off nearly the entire crew, riding a streak of five consecutive DNQs and unsure whether or not they’d be able to run the distance that Saturday (the No. 89 had run every race in 2009 to completion headed into the weekend).
How did this happen? How did one of the feel good stories of the spring disintegrate into a situation where even survival was in question?
“I blame myself,” says Shepherd matter-of-factly. “I mismanaged it at the start of the year. Tore up some racecars.”
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Shepherd has taken on the task of improving Faith Motorsports largely on his own back. The longtime veteran released his crew not just because of the financial necessity of cutting back when the No. 89 was missing races, but because he felt he “had to try something different.” It’s worth noting that even prior to the race at Dover this past weekend that finally saw the team qualify and take home some purse money, Shepherd told Frontstretch that he was looking to hire an engineer formerly with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to help bring his cars up to speed.
Shepherd’s individual actions go further. When discussing his plans to get his two primary racecars back up to speed, the plan circulated almost entirely around his being able to implement suspension changes offered to Faith Motorsports by KHI team manager Rick Carelli. Crew or no crew, Shepherd is convinced that his working on the cars will turn the team’s performance around – even if he does it all himself.
“[We’ve] got to get where I can get these cars handling back where they should,” says Shepherd. That effort to improve the No. 89 was unquestioned leading up to Dover: Shepherd told Frontstretch that he was up until 3:30 a.m. the morning prior to heading out for Dover all but rebuilding the front end of his primary car, fixing parts that didn’t fit right when the team failed to qualify at Richmond.
This consuming focus on his car and keeping Faith Motorsports on the track even seems to have changed Shepherd’s view on the larger picture regarding the sport. Case in point, his views on the deluge of start-and-park teams that have hit the Nationwide circuit (12 of them made the field for Saturday’s Dover 200).
“They’re showing up with 25 extra horsepower in a qualifying motor [and] making it really hard for us guys showing up to race,” says Shepherd, who also mentioned that in the case of other teams in his predicament, such as RAB Racing’s No. 09 Zaxby’s car, the start-and-park practice is going to run sponsors out of the sport. “We’re [Faith Motorsports] staying put [in the NNS], but eventually, people stay agitated long enough and they’ll leave.”
It’s hard to argue with Shepherd’s case against start-and-parking, seeing as how he is an owner whose ability to compete in the Nationwide Series is being compromised by the practice. But, it’s also hard to overlook the fact that from 2003 to 2007, Shepherd himself was at the forefront of start-and-parking in all three of NASCAR’s top-three divisions: in the 89 races he started across the three series, he only ran three to completion. During that stretch of races, Shepherd and his No. 89 cars would show up to the track knowing full well they would not be able to complete the race, and also was caught by NASCAR during a Cup race at Loudon in 2003 scuffing tires for other teams under green-flag conditions.
But with the practice now turned on him, it’s fairly obvious that Shepherd’s focus right now is keeping himself and his ministry on the race track. But with the nearly 70-year-old driver playing the roles of driver, owner and mechanic, there’s no doubt that he’s taking the hard route, contesting the Nationwide Series on a shoestring budget with only two primary cars. What’s more, as contradictory as it sounds, Shepherd can’t afford to scale back and focus on qualifying for a limited number of races, a practice that single-car teams Furniture Row Racing and Wood Brothers Racing have employed successfully in remaining on the Cup circuit.
“In Cup, that’s the smart way to do it,” says Shepherd of the limited schedule practice. But with the No. 89 team having such a low budget and a need to keep overhead down, the team is far more heavily reliant on purse money than most operations – and because NASCAR’s purse payouts offer a bonus to teams that contest every race on the Nationwide schedule, Shepherd has no choice but to attempt every race, as that translates to an increased payout of roughly $6,000 per event.
“We need that [bonus] money to pay the few people we do have,” observed Shepherd.
But for all the problems, all the struggles, Shepherd keeps finding a way to stay on the track, and that was no different at Dover on Saturday. And that’s thanks in large part not just to Shepherd’s tireless perseverance, but because there are so many out there in the racing community that continue to rally around one of the few remaining links to the sport’s past.
This weekend, it was thanks to a volunteer crew that didn’t come together until three days before the race that Shepherd was not only able to qualify for his first race since Watkins Glen back in early August, but also to run the distance and finish a very respectable 21st. With Faith Motorsports’ secretary Shannon Feldmann atop the pit box, and a pit crew that included Herd Racing driver Brett Rowe, former driver Chad Beahr and Shepherd’s daughter and wife all handling duties during race weekend, Shepherd said pre-race that he felt “in good hands.” He was, as those who went over the wall for the No. 89 performed admirably in doing a two-tire change under green flag conditions.
This hodgepodge pit crew that allowed the Racing With Jesus car to finally make a competitive return to Nationwide racing is no exception to the rule, it is just another example of racers coming to the aid of Shepherd. As previously mentioned, Shepherd was consistently in communication with KHI’s Rick Carelli in the days leading up to Dover, obtaining valuable information regarding suspension setups that seemed to really improve the handling of the No. 89 car; Shepherd qualified in the top 20 for the first time since Daytona in July.
And of course, there’s Cup stars Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. Prior to the start of 2009, Harvick provided Faith Motorsports with one of his own KHI racecars, while Stewart footed the bill for a season’s worth of tires and three motors for Shepherd to contest a full Nationwide schedule.
When asked about this constant outpouring of generosity, Shepherd doesn’t pull any punches: “[To think] that you’ve got Tony from the North and Kevin from the West, and they want to help Morgan Shepherd.”
“I’ll be on the road… and it’ll nearly bring tears to my eyes.”
Despite all the struggles, all the trials, all the mistakes, Shepherd remains on the road and looking towards the future with confidence, convinced he’ll be there and part of it. When asked about the upcoming NNS CoT, Shepherd was remarkably upbeat, noting “it’s 100 times better than the Cup car. I tested it at Richmond [in] one of Johnny Davis’s cars and we were second quickest.”
“It [bridged] the gap between the high-dollar teams.”
Shepherd’s also been active in communicating with NASCAR regarding the future of the Nationwide Series, as he was one of the NNS owners that convinced NASCAR to move back the debut of the NNS CoT from the first Daytona race in February to the second in the early summer, knowing that his team had no chance of completing a car by the first race of 2010. What’s more, Shepherd has also been speaking with NASCAR officials regarding the challenges that the combination of start-and-parkers and the Top-30 rule are posing to teams like his own that are trying to race.
“NASCAR won’t do anything this year,” said Shepherd. But he’s cautiously optimistic that changes will be coming for the NNS along that front come 2010.
The long and short of this story is that Morgan Shepherd is not going anywhere. He will be in the Nationwide Series as a driver and an owner for the foreseeable future, age and resources notwithstanding. And while a large part of that is owed to Shepherd’s devotion to the sport, his ministry and yes, even his individualism and seeming stubbornness, it’s also because of how so many racers, race fans, etc. continually step up to back up the wily 67-year-old.
How is this possible? Why are so many, be it star drivers Harvick and Stewart, fellow Nationwide regular Rowe and enclaves of race fans from Virginia to Wisconsin ready to volunteer, to commit time and resources to keeping an aging underdog in the Nationwide Series, driving for an independent organization that can only hope to, as fellow writer Matt McLaughlin coined it on Monday, “piss into the wind” when it comes to competing?
For Shepherd, he continues to push forward because he’s doing bigger things. There’s no questioning the man’s faith, and he has no doubt that his carrying the Lord’s name on his car means more than showing up to race.
“They’ve [supporters] said they’re helping me because its helping [someone] who built the sport, but it’s more than that,” said Shepherd. “Tony Stewart said on his radio show that one of the best parts of his weekend is seeing our [the Racing with Jesus] hauler pull into the garage.”
And while there are those around him who follow his racing and his car because they share the Christian faith, there is also a racing answer to this question. For perhaps the only thing that rivals Shepherd’s faith is his confidence. In speaking to him, for all the problems coming forward, there’s not a hint of doubt in this driver’s mind that he can and will get his cars back to competitiveness, with or without a crew at the shop. There’s not a hint of doubt in his mind that he can’t still get the job done, even against drivers less than a third his age. There is a larger than life confidence still burning in Morgan Shepherd that has allowed him to remain relevant in NASCAR racing even after having been in it for more than 30 years.
And it is also for this reason that fans and racers are still stepping up to keep him on the track. Because what’s racing without the larger than life men that made it happen then – and still are to this day?