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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Morgan Shepherd still earns respect four decades into career

42 years in an impressive length for anyone’s career.
But it’s especially impressive if you’re a racecar driver.

When he started racing in 1967, most of the drivers Morgan Shepherd competes against in the Nationwide Series every weekend weren’t even born. But he still soldiers on, thanks to the help he is receiving from Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, and has no plans to retire.

I’ve always had respect for Shepherd as a driver, but after speaking with him last week I’m rooting even harder for him to succeed. Speaking to Morgan is like speaking to a history book, and reminded me of the conversation I had with the late Smokey Yunick many years ago. Both men had seen it all in their careers, and had some great stories to tell.

When I asked Morgan if he ever had any run-ins with the late Dale Earnhardt, who was known for showing competitors the chrome horn, his response was simple: “One time”

“I was at Darlington in Bud Moore’s car, and he put me in the wall. I made it clear that if he ever touched me again, I’d hang him on the wall every time I saw him,” he said. “He never did it again. He understood what I meant and we never had no trouble. We had an understanding.”

Shepherd said that Earnhardt did make the mistake of trying to tangle with Shepherd one other time, in 1995 at Talladega, but the move didn’t work out for the Intimidator.

“I was running third and he was trying to gain a position. He tried squeezing on me and spun around. I finished 3rd , his car number, and he finished 21st , my car number.”

For the record, Morgan said David Pearson is the “smartest” driver he’s ever competed against, while also reserving high compliments for the King Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.

“Cale would wait for the right time to go, didn’t try to lead every lap. He wouldn’t show his hand,” Shepherd said.

Regarding Harry Gant, he recalled: “Gant was one guy you could run side-by-side all day and he never would intentionally hit you to gain a spot. He was the fairest driver.”

Nowadays, with his tiny operation and barely-there staff at Faith Motorsports, Shepherd is a long way from top-5 finishes at Talladega, but it’s clear he’s still as happy as he’s ever been and grateful for all the help he is receiving. This is mainly due to his strong religious beliefs.

“God has blessed us with good friends,” he said.

Shepherd sees his race team as a sort of ministry, and said his message of Christianity is being heard.
“I’ve had fan mail from all over the world. When they pay attention, they see what we’re about,” he said. “There’s no better way of straightening your life out, whether you’re on drugs or doing wrong, than to come to know Jesus Christ.”

Many people would be reluctant to share their beliefs as openly as Morgan does, but he’s always been a straight shooter and says what he means. He also has no plans to quit racing, as long as he’s able to do the job, saying: “I’ve learned that man’s plans don’t work, only God’s plans.”

There’s a reason Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick are helping Morgan … It’s the same reason Carl Edwards made a $25,000 donation to Morgan’s charity last year. They respect him.

When they see this man, at age 67, still out there doing what he loves and even getting an occasional top 20 finish, he’s an inspiration to them. He’s won hundreds of races in his career, but still wants to race and try to win more.

He’s a racer, plain and simple. When asked about the Cup drivers coming in and dominated Nationwide races, he doesn’t complain, saying: “I am very competitive and always look forward to them coming in and us trying to beat them,” despite his obvious disadvantage when going against those bigger teams.

To fathom how long Shepherd has been in the business, think of it like this:
He related to me that in 1970, a Chevy engine cost $735. Today, used engines are $30000, while new ones are more than double that price.

His best memory of his long career was his second career Cup win, in 1986 at Atlanta.

“At the time, I was 47 and thought I was out of racing. Jack Beebe wasn’t going to finish the season. We go to Atlanta and test, then qualified third and ran up front all day,” Shepherd said.

“In the final laps, tears come in my eyes. I had thought I was done racing and I might win this race. I couldn’t hardly see the corners. That was the highlight of my career, and I’ve won several hundred races.”

But even if he had never won a single Cup race, Shepherd would still command respect from the young drivers he competes with because he represents the history of the sport.

I believe drivers like Stewart and Harvick help Stewart because they respect that history and want to keep it alive … and besides all that, if the Intimidator himself knew to respect Morgan Shepherd, they probably should do the same.


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