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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Morgan Shepherd

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Three days after competing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Morgan Shepherd celebrated his 75th birthday.

The oldest driver on the NASCAR circuit, Shepherd made his national series debut in 1970 at Hickory Motor Speedway. Through the years Shepherd has worked with some of the sport’s most iconic car owners: Bud Moore, the Wood Brothers and Richard Childress. To date, Shepherd has competed in 975 NASCAR races, earning 15 wins between the top two series.

But the question Shepherd commonly faces – or the comments he often hears – is why he’s still competing.

“It’s people, and the media mostly, that don’t think I should be out there at my age,” Shepherd told NBC Sports. “But then if you look at me on the racetrack, I don’t wipe out cars, I don’t wipe out other people. We had that big to-do up at Loudon, New Hampshire (in July 2014) but this was all before we got there that I had no business being out there.”

Shepherd lives by two P’s, passion and purpose. He also lives to serve Jesus Christ and believes he’s doing that by racing. His No. 89 even carries “Racing with Jesus” logos, and Shepherd spends his time away from the track assisting the needy and handicapped through the Morgan Shepherd Charitable Fund.

Next year, Shepherd will hit another milestone, by celebrating 50 years in racing.

“When I start hitting walls and making mistakes, I’ll get out of racing,” Shepherd said. “But right now, I’m here as a servant as long as the Lord wants me to be, and if I can help encourage another 75-year-old man to get up off the couch, do something with your life, go out and help people that need help, that’s what we’re all about. The Lord will tell me (when to stop).”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed

NBC Sports: Your father was a moonshiner, did you ever participate in moonshining?

Shepherd: Of course. I can remember my dad getting his first brand new pickup, a 1953 Ford pickup, and the law stopped him. He had a Pepsi Cola bottle that had some moonshine in it. They took his brand new pickup because of that. As I got into my teens and I started doing my stuff with a friend, Clifford Baker, we had built a still not far from his house. We got off work about 4 (o’clock) and were headed over to the still and as we headed down the hill, boom! There was a big explosion. Revenuers were down there, and they blew our still up. Well, we didn’t get caught, so we found a place up in Hildebran (N.C.) to buy liquor.

We both had big old Pontiacs, and a 1959 Pontiac Catalina you can lay down in the trunk of it and not touch neither side, that’s how big this car was. So we had plenty of room to haul moonshine. We were going to Hildebran up Interstate 40, and just something felt wrong. I saw an old 1962 burgundy Buick and ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) men drove that kind of car.

We got up there, and the guy said to come back about 7:30 and it’ll be ready. So we went down the road, and they waited until we got all the way by Hickory Speedway right there at the last turnoff … they had Conover law, the Hickory law, they had ABC men, they had Sheriff’s department, it was at least 30 cop cars.

You know how much liquor we had in that car? A Pepsi Cola bottle sitting between us, just like my dad. So I told Clifford, just get in the grass and just keep going. I knocked the lid off it and emptied it out, and I did that and didn’t let go of the bottle. For whatever reason, they were so focused on something else they didn’t see me with the door cracked open. They stopped us, and they knew they had us. They were under the car, they were beating on panels, they just knew there were hidden panels and everything else in that car. Well, that was the last of my moonshine. That was enough right there.

NBC Sports: Once you turned to the Christian faith it changed the way you approached life and acted, correct?

Shepherd: Before I got saved I would go on a weekend with the guys, and we’d all get drunk and just waste ourselves away and never thought about doing something for somebody else, it was all about us. Well when God comes into your life, truly, when you’ve truly accepted Jesus Christ, he changes all your thought process. Not that I’m any better than anybody else; not that I’m a perfect – this old man will still jump on your old hiney.

Did you hear about my deal five years ago? (When he ran down a shoplifter) I’ve never handcuffed a person in my whole life. I ran that rascal down, and he was looking at the cop car coming, so I hit him and somehow or another I caught his arm and ran it behind his back. I’m right handed – I had on camouflage stuff, so I reckon the cop thought I was from the military or something – and he jumps out of the car, throws the handcuffs, and I catch them with my left hand, and I cuff him, and he takes off after the other guy. Morgan Shepherd didn’t do that. It was all God’s strength and God had that all planned out.

NBC Sports: Having competed in over 900 NASCAR races, which ones still stand out the most?

Shepherd: I should have won Daytona several times. I ran second down there twice in the (Daytona) 500 and once in the (July) 400. My most memorable race would be 1986 Atlanta Motor Speedway. At that time, I thought I was on my way out of racing, I was somewhere around 47 years old. Jack Beebe came to me, I didn’t have a ride, and he said, ‘Morgan, I’m not going to run all year, this is going to be my last year racing, but do you want to run with me?’ I said yeah. Suitcase Jake (Elder) was over there, everybody knows Suitcase Jake, and so we ran Daytona and then we went to Atlanta to test. We’re testing, and the car wasn’t turning right, and I told Jake, let’s put 75 pounds of weight behind the left-rear wheel. He goes, ‘I ain’t putting no 75 pounds of weight behind no left rear wheel.’ I said, ‘Well don’t you want to get the car turning better?’ He said ‘Yeah, but that ain’t gonna help it.’

I stayed on him because I knew it would make the car turn better. Finally, he said ‘I don’t care if you put it on the roof,’ so I put the 75 pounds behind the left-rear wheel, and the car picked up. We qualified third when we ran that race, and we were really the car to beat all day. With about three laps to go Dale Earnhardt was second, I think Bill Elliott was third, and just tears come to my eyes, I couldn’t see the racetrack. I just was overcome that I thought I was on my way out of racing and all of a sudden my stock went up. These days, they’d never put an older driver in the car, it’s all about the young boys. But that was the moment because I just couldn’t believe it was happening.

NBC Sports: Having competed for many team owners, is there one, in particular, you really enjoyed working with?

Shepherd: The nicest guy there ever was in racing was Richard Jackson with the No. 1 car. He was the best along with the Wood Brothers. The Wood Brothers family are the most wonderful people that there is in racing. We clicked. Eddie was crew chief, but I was the crew chief more or less as they did everything I said; we did well together. We didn’t win but one race, but we had many top fives and seconds.

NBC Sports: How does it feel to be approaching your 50th year in racing?

Shepherd: I cannot believe it! I can’t believe I’ve been here 50 years. Man, when I was a kid I thought at 40 years old you pass on. (Next year) We’re going to do the cars in gold. We don’t know the design, but it’s not going to be just a gold car, it’ll have some fancy designs on it. If we do it with paint, PPG, they will supply all my paint product, they may come up with Shepherd’s gold, kind of like the Richard Petty blue.

Morgan Shepherd works out of this garage, which sits across from his house in Conover, N.C.
Morgan Shepherd works out of this garage, which sits across from his house in Conover, N.C.

NBC Sports: What is the makeup of Shepherd Racing?

Shepherd: I don’t have but two guys. Brandon helps us keep things cleaned up and whatever; I use him for spotting sometimes. This other boy, Nick, he is a trip. He was 19 when he came to work for me last year. He had not worked on a racecar; he went to school in Nashville for diesel engines. So he came to me about a job and that he’d do whatever I needed him to do. Since he hadn’t worked on racecars, I said I couldn’t give him a lot of money but if he did well I’d up it. So I give him $300 a week and a place to stay, and he has really just learned so fast. He’s going to be one of the top in the business. I told him if he’ll stick with this through my 50th year that I’ll get him a job because I know what he’s capable of. So he’s supposed to stay with me all through next year. It’s just him and Brian and me and my wife. We’re very small.

NBC Sports: What has surprised you the most about how much NASCAR has changed since you first started?

Shepherd: When I started racing I had no idea that corporate America was going to be here like this because even back in the late 1960’s when I was paying attention to Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, all these people, there were only about four or five cars that could win a race. The biggest thing that changed, I started in the 1960’s (in Late Models), well those races the tires were $25 a piece. My left front tire was on that car all year; the left rear was changed once and the right side maybe two or three times. We could build a car in two weeks. Now, the man hours in these cars, it is just incredible. All the pieces you buy for them are so high dollar. The changes in the sport have many, but the money situation has been the biggest, you didn’t have to have a lot of money back then.

Previous spotlight interviews:

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Daniel Suarez

Brandon Jones

Elliott Sadler

Rod Sieg

Chris Gabehart

Garrett Smithley

Brendan Gaughan

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

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NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto on Indy success with small team

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Matt DiBenedetto has just three top-10 finishes in his three years of competing in the NASCAR Cup Series. But two of them have come this year in two of the biggest races in the sport.

DiBenedetto, who drives the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, finished ninth in the Daytona 500 in February and eighth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

DiBenedetto, who was also celebrating his 26th birthday, joined NASCAR America to discuss his run at Indy and what is considered a successful race for his team, which has 15 crew members.

“You’ve got to keep it in the perception of your versions of wins are a little bit different than everybody else’s version,” DiBenedetto said. “We look at it as who we’re racing around. I would say on a regular week where there’s not a ton of chaos like Indy was, a top 20 is a really good day. A top 25 is if we just do our job.”

Watch the video for the full segment.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.