Brooklyn — Morgan Shepherd is as busy as ever these days, still driving at over 200 mph at Michigan International Speedway at age 76.
Shepherd finished second in multiple Winston Cup races — now the Monster Energy NASCAR series — at MIS, including the 1993 season when he was 51 and finished seventh in points with a win at Atlanta while competing for the Wood Brothers. He is now competing in the 33-race Xfinity series in the No. 89 Chevrolet Camaro.
Shepherd was in his transporter prior to Saturday’s LTi Printing 250 race, taking cover from the rain when he was asked about his time racing at MIS, which now covers four decades of the track’s 50-year history.
So, what does Shepherd like about the two-mile superspeedway?
“We’ve been pretty consistent over the years, never won, but usually was in the top five,” Shepherd said of his time running at MIS in NASCAR’s top series. “It’s a fun race track because it’s not a one lane, it was four or five abreast sometimes.
“I always liked coming up here. We used to go to the Golden Nugget off of (U-S) 12. I think it’s closed now. They used to have a live band. I used to put my roller skates on and danced with them. It was a fun deal.”
Roller skate dancing?
“I never roller skated when I was a kid, started when I was 33,” said Shepherd, who won four Winston Cup races and 15 more in what is now called the Xfinity series, actually leading a race at age 75 last year at Darlington. “I got saved, saved my life when I quit drinking and everything. I lived on a lake in North Carolina, had a boat and skied and all of that stuff, but I needed to go somewhere to get my exercise so I went to a skating rink and learned how. Then, in ’76 the disco scene came out and I decided I was going to dance with my roller skates.”
Shepherd is a born again Christian and serves as a lay minister to the racing community.
“I got saved in ’75, February 23, stopped drinking,” recalled Shepherd. “It was 8:30 at night and I had to either shoot myself in the head or do something about it. I had been to church all my life, but it didn’t really stick. I fell down on my knees and started praying. When I got done I felt like I could jump straight through the roof. It felt like a thousand pounds had been taken off my shoulders. Then, I learned to hate everything about alcohol.
“It changed my life and that’s why you see the cross on the hood of my car. We’ve had a charity that’s going in its 32nd year, the Morgan Shepherd Charity Fund where we help handicapped people. We do a lot of different things. We have a clothing company back home, Tommy Hilfiger, that gives, shirts, underwear, pants. They really help us out.”
Shepherd said it costs him $9,000 a race weekend to compete in the Xfinity series — the Triple A of NASCAR — including $2,400 for a set of tires.
“We don’t have the type of backing that other teams have, try to operate off what we get (prize money) and if we miss a race we have a hard time recovering because of the expense of getting here and everything,” said Shepherd, who said he did fail to qualify at Pocono last weekend. “We’ll spend eight or nine thousand dollars just getting here. Different tracks pay different amount of money for entries, this place probably $11,000 for making the show so we can barely break even.
“It’s been tough lately. We’re going to Richard Childress’ shop Monday, test down there to see what we can do to get faster. We’re running wide open out here and just 37th fastest. It takes a lot of dollars for engines and stuff. I asked some of these guys what their lease program is and they lease engines for $18,000 for one race and we can’t do that. The Cup (Monster Energy series) guys lease engines for probably close to $80,000 a race.
“When I was with Wood Brothers in the ‘90s the budget for a Cup car was $7.5 million and now the sponsorships needed are between $30-and-$35 million for everybody. They all have all these engineers and stuff. I don’t know what the wind tunnel time is now but in the ‘90s while I was with Bud Moore and the Wood Brothers it was $1,500 an hour. It’s got to be at least $5,000 an hour and they may spend 24 hours in the wind tunnel getting things worked out.”
So, why does Shepherd remain in the sport … at his age?
“We’re here because of our ministry and the cross,” Shepherd said. “We reach people from all over the world. We get stuff from China, Germany, Australia. They appreciate what we’re doing, and it doesn’t mean they’re Christians. A lot of people look at it that I’m encouragement to them that I’m 76, still driving 200 mph and still dancing with my roller skates. I’m encouraging people to get off the couch and do something with your life. Our charity is helping people and that’s important to us.”
Harvick fastest in practice
Kevin Harvick topped the field in Monster Energy NASCAR series practice Saturday morning before the rains hit, circling the track with a mark of 200.719 mph in his No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick owns a series-high five wins this season.
Kyle Larson, who won the last three races at MIS, was the lone other driver to top the 200 mph mark in practice with a lap of 200.083 in the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet for Ganassi Racing.
Kurt Busch will lead the field from the pole spot in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 which is set to get underway at 2 p.m.