DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — While most of the drivers were meeting with sponsors, signing autographs or escaping the Florida afternoon heat Thursday, Morgan Shepherd as under his Dodge Challenger turning a wrench.
With only an hour before the first practice at Daytona International Speedway, his shirt was soaked with sweat and his pace was frantic. His hands, hardened by nearly 60 years of working on a race car, were busy.
The 72-year-old driver had a lot to finish on his car before pole qualifying at 2:05 p.m. today for the Subway Firecracker 400 Nationwide Series race. Shepherd is one of 10 drivers who must race for one of the last eight spots in the starting lineup. He knows one lost detail could be the difference of being around for the race or going home.
And moving even closer to being out of business.
Despite making 860 career starts between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series since 1970 – and winning 19 times – Shepherd now survives primarily on faith, perseverance and a ragtag bunch of workers who bring more determination than experience.
It is a thankless and difficult existence in a sport that rarely stops long enough to fully appreciate where it’s been and where it’s going.
“He can still work circles around any of those 20-year-olds in the garage,” said Cindy Shepherd, Morgan’s wife.
Shepherd has doggedly refused to quit driving. He quit the Sprint Cup Series in 2006 and now concentrates in Nationwide. Most of the time he starts and parks, just to make enough money to keep the wheels rolling for another week.
He hasn’t had a top-10 finish since 1999 in the junior circuit, a streak of 155 races. Before Daytona, Shepherd has made the starting lineup in just three of his seven selected races.
He planned to drive the road course at Road America last month but was forced to skip the race when he couldn’t put together a pit crew. He went on Facebook to make the announcement – and to appeal for new help.
Jonathan Goodwin answered the ad.
“I’m a Late Model driver at Hickory (N.C.) so I wanted to help out another racer,” Goodwin said. “I’m done for the year because I wrecked my car three weeks ago. I called Morgan and I started on Monday. My first day we worked 13 hours.”
Goodwin not only worked on the car all day Thursday, he drove the transporter from North Carolina to the track. While other teams use charter jets, the rest of Shepherd’s team drove nearly 500 miles in a mini-van.
Most of his crew are men who’ve never been in racing. Shepherd is willing to teach them, knowing if they gain any real experience they’ll probably leave for a more-established team.
“Sometimes that’s all we can get,” said Shepherd’s daughter, Cindy. “He’s willing to teach you, but he’s going to teach you the grassroots way. So many of the other teams hire specialists. My dad doesn’t do it that way. You’re going to do it the grassroots way; you’re going to learn everything.
“And when they get good, you lose them. You never keep the good ones.”
Compounding Shepherd’s challenge are NASCAR rules that require each crew member to be vetted, licensed and pass a drug test.
“Used to, we could just get people from another team or another division to come over and help us,” Shepherd said.
Another problem, he said, is growing government aid.
“I tried to hire a bunch of guys who got laid off and I offered them $500 a week,” he said. “Most of them said they couldn’t because it was less than their sing-up (unemployment). I believe you should go out and earn your money, not have the government pay you.”
Shepherd was the son of a convicted bootlegger. He bought his first car when he was 12. Despite dropping out of school, he became a self-taught mastermind of a car. By the time he was 13 he had disassembled and reassembled the car several times.
He had moderate success in the Nationwide Series, winning 15 times and finishing 11th in the 1982 standings.
Shepherd has been driving for himself since 2008. Unable to find sponsorship, his hood and rear bumper carry a “Racing with Jesus” logo.
While he doesn’t have sponsorship, “I got friends,” he said. Car owners Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress often help provide parts, while drivers Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick have paid for tires.
At $2,000 a set, that kind of help allows Shepherd to keep his doors open.
Shepherd earned national attention three years ago when he saw three shoplifters running from a Walmart in Las Vegas. Despite being 69, he ran down and caught one of thieves and held him until the police arrived.
“I told him he wasn’t going anywhere,” Shepherd said.
“What’s amazing is, he’s never been hurt,” his wife said. “He’s never broken a bone – not in racing, not skating. He’s always said he was going to keep doing this while he’s physically able. And right now there’s not a thing wrong with him.”
The Shepherds know they can’t keep going to races. Even if his ability and desire live forever, eventually the money will be gone.
But for now, there’s not thought of parking the No. 89 Dodge for good.
“Can there be retirement because of finances? Yes. If you talk about ability, no,” Shepherd’s wife said. “Why should he retire? This is what he loves. If he didn’t do this, he’d drive me crazy. He still has the passion to do this.”
And a lifetime of sweat equity to prove it.