BRISTOL, Tenn. - Morgan Shepherd has heard all the whispers.
Why, at age 77, is the NASCAR veteran still driving race cars?
“A lot of people ask me when I am going to quit and I tell them my plans never worked out,” Shepherd said. “I am here as long as the Lord wants me to be.”
Apparently that is a little longer.
“This is my 52nd year,” said Shepherd, with a laugh. “I am working on my next 50. I will only be 127 at that time.”
Now in his amazing 52nd season behind the wheel of a race car, Shepherd completed 13 laps before a damaged water pump ended his day at Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, one of his favorite tracks over the decades.
Shepherd, who finished 33rd out of 35 entries in the event, won 15 Xfinity Series races from 1982-88, including victories at Bristol in 1983, ‘84, ‘86 and ‘87.
“I have won four or five races here. I have run really good,” said Shepherd, who also won four Cup races, three times in Atlanta and once in Martinsville, in 517 career starts. “We didn’t have a good car today, but we are here because of our ministry and our charity.”
The Morgan Shepherd Charitable Fund was established in 1986 to provide handicapped adults jobs and daily living skills. Every Christmas the Stuart, Virginia-based organization takes gift bags to the severely handicapped adults and low-income families in the mountains of Virginia.
“Our charity is going into 33 years,” said Shepherd, who drives the No. 89 Visone RV Chevrolet. “This is a way to help people. A lot of people don’t understand why we are still out there.”
While Shepherd, whose car’s hood emblem reads “Racing With Jesus”, struggles to compete on the track, what happens away from the track is what matters most to him.
“There are several different reasons,” he said, “to encourage people to get up off the couch and do something with their lives, and that you are never too old.”
That is far from all.
“Of course you see the Jesus on my uniform and on the hood of our car,” he added. “You wouldn’t believe the people we reach. We have got some help from Russia the other day, a little boy from China about a month ago sent some stuff he wanted me to sign.
“This goes all over the world and this is what helps feed our charity to help other people. It is just a part of God’s work and I am glad that I am still here.”
Shepherd has competed with some of the greats in the sport, from Dale Earnhardt to Darrell Waltrip, who announced his retirement from the broadcast booth on Friday at BMS.
Waltrip has quietly been an important benefactor to Shepherd and his cause.
“Darrell and Michael [Waltrip], they are super people. They have done so much for our charity,” said Shepherd, who will turn 78 on Oct. 12. “Here the other year they gave us a truckload of food, like 21,000 pounds of food so we have got a lot of people that we help.”
Shepherd also has memories of Earnhardt, and most of them are good. Apparently he knew how to deal with “The Intimidator”, who was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
“You just had to let [Earnhardt] know where you stand,” he said. “We only had trouble one time so I made things clear and we never had any more trouble.”
Driving against competitors young enough to be his grandchildren is definitely a challenge. Like most grizzled veterans, he isn’t so sure they realize how good they have it.
“It is different. I heard about some of them complaining because they had to sit on airplanes so long out in Texas,” said Shepherd, whose damaged motor home turned what should have been a 17-hour trip into a 22-hour, two-day adventure from Texas to Bristol earlier this week.
“We drive all over the United States, drive to California, very few places do I fly,” he added. “These young kids are spoiled with the way they fly around everywhere. They need to throw them in a van, let them drive across country and maybe they won’t complain so much.”
Shepherd could share plenty of knowledge gained over the last five decades, but said few of today’s drivers approach him.
“There are few of them that are real good boys like Cole Custer,” he said, “but most of these young guys won’t even speak to you.”
Shepherd has pride, and would certainly like to perform better and not be known as a “start and park driver”. He has approached legendary car owner Richard Childress for some assistance.
“We try to go to all of them [races], but we are down to one car here and it is not doing real good so I talked with Richard Childress to see if they had anything extra,” he said. “We have just got to get something more up to date because this car is just slow…
“If we had the backing, yeah, we would have more cars and go run the whole race. Every time you put on a set of tires it is $2,400. A lot of people have no idea what it costs. Engines are very expensive. There is a lot to it.”
Expect him to be in Richmond on Saturday for the Toyota 250. He has fond memories there, winning an Xfinity Series race there in 1983. He won back-to-back races at Martinsville and Bristol in 1986.
“We go to Richmond next,” he said. “I talked to Richard there a little bit and I am hoping that we can get us another car because this is not good.”
No matter what happens, Shepherd is doing his part, not only to help the less fortunate, but as a born-again Christian to share his love for Jesus Christ. He has been doing it for more than three decades, and doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
“It has influenced people to better their lives, to come to know the Lord,” he said. “I have got a young man that was hit by a drunk driver and we use him in our speaking engagements about how much a carton of beer costs.
“A lot of lives have been changed through what we have been doing here on the track.”