As NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, Morgan Shepherd will be attempting to race in his second event of the 2017 season.
The 75-year-old driver has attempted to qualify for four XFINITY Series races in 2017, with his only start at Phoenix International Raceway, finishing 36th. However, the series is heading to Shepherd’s best track in the series, and back in his prime he was among the elite in Thunder Valley.
Shepherd picked up four victories at Bristol between 1983 and 1987, including the first win for his race team, Shepherd Racing in 1987. That day, he outlasted the likes of NASCAR Hall of Famers, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt St. and Mark Martin, who all finished in the top six positions.
“That was back in the day when we could build cars in a few weeks and it’s not like that now,” Shepherd told Frontstrech, reflecting back on his dominance at Bristol. “We pretty much did our own thing. That used to be a real fun track and I think they are starting to get some of that back.”
Shepherd pointed out how the preferred groove was next to the wall back then. He would hold the car “wide-open” heading into Turn One, which was his favorite part about the track.
However, Shepherd believes that while driving for Ed Whitaker, Lindy White and himself, they had the advantage when it came to setting the car up.
“I didn’t do things back then that they do now,” Shepherd said. “I made my own bump stops when the car would go down and sit on the bump stomps, nobody else was doing that. I was way ahead of a lot of those guys on the chassis end of it.”
In his career at Bristol, Shepherd has led 616 laps, including three races with over 100 laps led. Three of his six career poles have come at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile, where he won from the top starting position in 1984.
In that same race in 1984, Shepherd recalls spinning out Phil Parsons for the lead with a few laps to go. Parsons led 30 laps on the afternoon, coming home third after the spin, the last car on the lead lap. Sam Ard finished second that day.
“I was like a half-second quicker than him [Parsons], and he was trying to block me,” Shepherd said. “I bumped into him and he spun out. I didn’t really get cheered back then, I got the boos, but we did have the fastest car. Bristol is just one of my favorite places to get around. The track always changes depending on what they do to it.”
Shepherd admitted that he took the Earnhardt-approach when he was booed. He didn’t care whether the fans were cheering or booing, as long as they were making noise and he was victorious.
Shepherd’s final victory at Bristol was arguably the most crucial for his race team. It was the first checkered flag for his race team, which he still runs today with current crew chief Nick Hoechst, who is in his second season as the crew chief on the No. 89 car, and the only full-time employee.
Since his last triumph at Bristol, Shepherd has picked up three more victories in the XFINITY Series, coming at Road Atlanta and Rockingham Speedway in 1987, while his last victory was at O’Reilly Raceway Park in 1988, all with Shepherd Racing.
“It had never really stopped, but it’s gotten to the point where you’ve got to have some help,” Shepherd said in comparison from back then today. “My engines were from Richard Childress, and of course I’m not going to get real up front stuff, but they were good reliable engines.”
This weekend, Shepherd will head to Bristol with a newly acquired car from Chip Ganassi Racing. He believes that it is among the best pieces he has ever had to work with in any race.
Currently, Shepherd has four XFINITY Series chassis, using only two of them. Missing the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway was a bummer for the North Carolina native because it was a good race car that has two victories at Daytona with Tony Stewart driving when he competed with Kevin Harvick Inc.
The car from Chip Ganassi Racing is the machine that Shepherd will run in most of the other races, as the goal is to attempt to qualify for the remaining 27 races on the schedule.
However, Shepherd is running on a limited budget.
“Not having a regular sponsor, people that you’ve got weekly or monthly income, it makes it really hard because we’re in a rich-man sport,” he said. “Just to get an entry in is $1,950. Buying one set of tires is $2,300. Then you’ve got all the added expenses.
“Nothing you do is cheap, but I appreciate all the people out there that do help us with what we’re doing. Our reason for running is not about me, it’s about carrying the cross on the hood of our car. of this goes along with our charity, which is 31 years old.”
While Shepherd still has a passion for racing, he doesn’t know when his final race at Bristol, or last race, period will come.
“I always get the question ‘Morgan when are you going to quit?’’ he said. “Well, my plans never seem to work out. I’m here as long as the Lord wants me to be and carry the Cross and continue the charity. That’s my real worth.”