Morgan Shepherd: The Last Of The Moonshiners
Morgan Shepherd Labors To Maintain A Link Between Racing And Its Notorious Roots
Slowly, yet with purpose, the racer uses his pocketknife to cut the grass away from the grave marker. Determined, he cuts and removes the grass one handful at a time.
Soon the overgrown crabgrass is cleared from the marker, removing what has obscured part of the racer's heritage, and revealing the name of the man who helped bring him into the world.
The racer — the man who left Ferguson, North Carolina, the son of a dirt poor logger and moonshiner and the same man who would return years later driving a tricked-up classic Jaguar — was searching minutes before for the marker bearing the name of his father, a man of the mountains. "I know it's here," he says. "I know this is the spot."
Just a few feet away, at the edge of the cemetery, sits the Jaguar. "The fastest car in Hickory," the racer says. It makes for quite a contrast — the lush green hills at the foothills of the Blue Ridge, the immaculate bright red sports car in the parking lot of the small country church.
No checkered flags today. Just a few pictures for a photographer, a little insight, some basic information for a writer, and some stories from the life of a racer.
Morgan Shepherd's story isn't a success story about a country boy making it in the world. His story is about working hard, making it, losing a drivers part of what you've built, then relying on your religious convictions to never give up in the quest to build again. His story is about the lessons you learn when you're 12 and your father dies, about the lessons you learn growing up in the rural South during the 1940s and '50s. "Survival — that's what mountain life is," he says. "You take a little bit and stretch it a long ways. That's what I've been able to do over the years."
Morgan Shepherd is a breed of racer from the old mold, a breed all but left behind by the growth and glitz of Winston Cup racing during the last decade. He's survived insurmountable odds, including poverty, problems with alcohol, and a reputation for being difficult to work with.
Yet at 60, Shepherd's still searching for a seat in a competitive race car. He's long past his prime, and long past the age a big-buck sponsor is willing to invest in. Still, Shepherd remains undaunted. He knows he can still get up on that wheel in a competitive car and run with the best of them.
Shepherd, and racers such as Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Cale Yarborough, helped to mold what's now known as Winston Cup racing with their hard-charging style of driving.
Like Morgan, many of those drivers came from hard times in the rural South. In NASCAR's early years, some men became professional drivers literally from running moonshine. Those racers brought their extreme drive to succeed — to make it out of backwater towns — to the racetrack. They had to drive hard to put food on the table. That was their edge. Shepherd was like that. He always knew he could reach for the stars because he would outwork everyone.
Shepherd was born in 1941 in Ferguson, North Carolina. His parents were farm workers. His dad, Jesse Clay Shepherd, also made moonshine. Revenuers were always just one step behind, ready to take away the family's breadwinner. In the hills of western North Carolina in the '30s and '40s, there was logging, and there was moonshine. Shepherd's father did both. "The first time I can ever recall actually seeing my father was when I was 4 years old and he was walking down the road," Shepherd recalls. "He was just returning home from a year in prison for making moonshine. It was a way of life back then."
Shepherd says that when he was 8 years old, his father moved to the Conover-Hickory area of North Carolina and attempted to change his lifestyle. He aimed to do public work and find a job to support his family.
But the lure of the mountains was too strong. Within a year and a half, he was back in Ferguson, building a still in the basement of the family's house. Shepherd says he got into the moonshine business himself briefly when he was in his late teens. He and a friend built a still. "One evening, when we got off work, we were headed over to the still and heard this awful explosion just right before we got to it, like a quarter-mile away," Shepherd says. "The revenuers down there blew our still up, so we took off running. They never caught us and never connected us to it."
Shepherd knew that if he was ever going to get away from the farm or selling moonshine, he had to work hard and find a skill. When he was 10, he bought a '49 Wizard bike and learned how to take it apart and put it back together.
At age 11 he could take an engine apart and reassemble it. By age 12 he bought his first car, a 1937 Chevrolet coach. "I gave $12.50, two flying squirrels, a gray squirrel and a 20-gauge shotgun for it," Shepherd says.
The shotgun belonged to his father. That was the toughest thing he had to part with in the deal.
Time To Race
By age 16, Shepherd went to nearby racetracks. He didn't race because he didn't have a license. And he didn't have a license because he kept losing his privileges when police officers caught him racing on backroads, or getting into other mischief. In fact, he didn't have a driver's license until he was 26, the age he also was before he actually got into a race car for competition.
Shepherd began his career in 1967 driving Late Models at Hickory Motor Speedway near his home. Hickory has produced some of the sport's greatest drivers and mechanics, including Harry Gant, Tommy Houston, the late Bobby Isaac, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Petree.
Shepherd was a diamond in the rough. Some of his first races were relatively short due to crashes. He would come from the back to the front, and sometimes went back to the rear again. But he kept digging. He survived those early days because of help from friends, some of whom would pitch in just $5 at a time. "I've always had dear friends who cared about me and helped out," says Shepherd. "Glen Canipe bought parts for my race car many times. Glen had a wife and nine kids. He was just a worker like me. I can remember to this day hearing Glen tell his wife, 'Honey we have to cut down on groceries this week because we've got to buy Morgan some parts.' I will never forget that."
Shepherd exploded on the scene full time in 1969, running in the Hobby division at Hickory in a 1955 Chevy, winning 21 of 29 races. "I ran all but eight of those races on the same left-front tire," he recalls.
He ran the same car in 1970, but put a 1957 Chevy body on it. He won seven races early that year before he wrecked and nearly destroyed the car. He put a 1966 Chevelle body on, but the car didn't win another race. He sold the car to another up-and-coming Saturday-night racer, Harry Gant, for $175 — about half the cost of one driversyear Eagle racing tire today.
Shepherd was on his way in 1970, finally making it in racing. He built his own cars and engines, competing at scores of tracks in the Southeast. He ran in his first Winston Cup race in 1970, but his official rookie season wouldn't come until much later.
Morgan's life was looking up. He was winning races, fulfilling a childhood dream. He was 29 years old and on a rocket. But he was getting into mischief — drinking and living fast again.
Shepherd had a drinking problem that didn't show up every day or even every week. But when he drank, he says, he drank heavily. He would disappear for days at a time, spending the night with different women and waking up with no money in his pocket.
Shepherd's career suffered the next few years. His habits cost him victories, and they also cost him his marriage. Losing his wife smacked Shepherd in the face. He knew he needed to change.
On February 23, 1975, Morgan accepted Christ as his personal savior, looking to get control of his life. "I had a full-time job building furniture," Shepherd says. "We were running four nights a week in places all over the Southeast — Columbia, Hickory, Kingsport and Fayetteville. I was a typical American boy in the fast lane. If I had been wealthy, I would have gotten into real trouble. I went to Daytona in 1975, and when I got back my wife had left me. I accepted Jesus Christ into my life. I realized just how harmful my life had become. I wasted a lot of years letting alcohol do my thinking for me. The one thing in life I loved to do the most (racing) was being taken away from me because of my lifestyle."
Then he started to climb back, driving anything he could. He ran 60 races that year for 17 different car owners and finished second in the NASCAR Sportsman national championship to L.D. Ottinger, who was financed heavily by the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company.
Shepherd's big break came in 1978, when he hooked up with Cliff Stewart, who owned a western North Carolina furniture factory. The Stewart-Shepherd combo ran in about 60 races a year from 1979-1980, and won a lot of races and the 1980 NASCAR Sportsman series (now Busch Grand National) national championship. But even then, trouble was brewing. Shepherd's race shop burned down during that 1980 championship run. He worked on his car out in the open on just a concrete slab. He had one employee and one race car. Still, he won nine races and finished second 21 times.
After conquering that title, Shepherd set his sights on Winston Cup. "Cliff came to me in October of 1980," Morgan remembers. "He says, 'Morgan, me and mom (Cliff's wife) have talked about it and we want to help you run for Rookie of the Year. I called Mike Laughlin (Winston Cup car builder) and ordered a Pontiac. Then I found a shop, leased it for $450 a month, and hired my team. In the beginning, I was the only guy on that team who could weld."
Shepherd missed the first two races of 1981, Riverside, California, and the Daytona 500. He went to the third race of the season at the old Richmond fairgrounds raceway and sat on the pole. He finished the race in fourth place. "Just after the Richmond race, some of the newspapers made fun of my rag-tag crew," Shepherd says. "They said we were mostly misfits. Some of those boys are still in the sport today in top positions."
That year turned out to be a great season for Shepherd's rookie year. He had 29 starts, with three Top-5s and 10 Top-10 finishes. He led 690 laps and won $165,329 that season — about the cost of one fully equipped race car and spare engine in today's world. And he finished a respectable 13th in the point standings.
But more importantly, Shepherd served notice that he was for real. He won the Virginia 500 on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway in his rookie season — a season that also included rookie drivers Tim Richmond and Ron Bouchard. Shepherd was on his way, but it wasn't smooth sailing. Shepherd says his crew wanted more money. Stewart ended up hiring a new crew chief in the middle of the season. The new crewman and Shepherd didn't get along. "I almost whipped his rear end in the garage area at Talladega," Shepherd says. Shepherd won the points system for Rookie of the Year, but didn't get the award.
Some say his rough-and-tumble style and his relationships with his crew and owner were to blame. Bouchard won the title; Shepherd and Cliff Stewart split up. "We had something special," Shepherd says. "We would've been a force in racing, but all the hard headedness destroyed it all. Sometimes situations like that only come along a few times in life."
Ups And Downs
Shepherd then entered into another career slump. He drove next for independents Cecil Gordon and Buddy Arrington with little success. He also teamed with country music star T.G. Shepherd in 1982. "T.G. tried to persuade me to advertise beer on my car," Shepherd says. "Coors called to sponsor our car. With alcohol in my past, I just couldn't do it."
In 1984 he picked up whatever he could find. Most of the rides were sub-standard. In 1985 he stepped in to replace an injured Butch Lindley. Larry McReynolds, today's FOX television analyst and former Dale Earnhardt crew chief, was the crew chief.
A big break came again only a short time later when Jack Beebe called to put him in the Race Hill Farm Winston Cup ride Ron Bouchard vacated in 1985. "I was getting up in my 40s at the time and was wondering if a break was ever going to happen," Shepherd says.
Suitcase Jake Elder was the crew chief. Elder had been crew chief for almost every famous driver in NASCAR: Buddy Baker, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, and many more. But Shepherd and Elder clashed. The team often wrecked or ran poorly.
Then, at the Motorcraft 500 in March 1986, Shepherd held off four of the sport's best — Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott — to win. His unexpected triumph came in a dramatic four-lap dash after a caution. "With 40 laps to go, I couldn't see," Shepherd says. "I was trying not to cry. I knew I had to keep my self-control because we were so close to finally winning a big one, a major race. My racing career was nearly gone just a year before, and I was getting ready to win a big one." Shepherd was 44.
The triumph, plus a win in the Busch Series event at Bristol just days later, and a victory in the Sportsman portion of the Miller 500 tripleheader at Martinsville, was the third win for Shepherd within a 20-day stretch. He was on top of the world, but it wouldn't last.
Drag racer Kenny Bernstein called Shepherd for a ride in 1987. They split up after only one season. The bad season with Bernstein rolled over in 1988 when Shepherd tried to make a go of it with his own team. The team failed and the whole deal ended up in litigation. Next he drove in 1989 for Bob Rayhilly and Butch Mock.
Then, in 1990, famed team owner Bud Moore hired Shepherd to drive his potent Fords. Bud Moore Engineering had over 60 wins, and was a top ride in its heyday with drivers such as Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Geoff Bodine, Dale Earnhardt, and Joe Weatherly. "My crew and I were really happy when it became apparent we were getting a driver of Morgan's caliber," says Moore. "We were looking for a drivers year in 1990, and we were going to do a lot of testing, which we hadn't done before because we didn't have quite enough budget and personnel."
The team, which had Motorcraft as a sponsor, led the championship point race until mid-season. Mechanical troubles in the last half pushed them back to fifth place in the final standings.
Igloo came on as a sponsor in 1991 for $1.5 million — a hefty chunk in those days. But Morgan says the team only bought one new car. "I really liked Bud," Shepherd says. "But he was known for taking his money and putting it on his farm. I was so disgusted at the time that I called Ford and told them to get me out of the situation."
The team did win once at Atlanta, before the Moore-Shepherd combination dissolved at the end of 1991.
The Wood brothers came calling next. The combo produced one win in three years at, you guessed it, Atlanta. In the end, however, sponsor Citgo wanted to go with a younger driver. Shepherd was replaced by Michael Waltrip for 1995. At that point Morgan was 53. He hitched a ride with Butch Mock for the 1996 season. He drove sporadically in 1997 for Richard Jackson. "From a personal standpoint, it's been really tough for me," Shepherd says. "I've done everything I could do to get a ride since then. I tried to get on ESPN to get publicity, but it wouldn't help me. It was really depressing because I've been in this sport for so long."
Shepherd tried to do his own deal in 1999. He had sponsorship from a group of South Carolina insurance agencies, or so he thought. "It was a $25 million multi-year contract," Shepherd says. "They pulled out and left me hanging with a big debt. That put me in a bad financial situation." The failed deal is still in litigation.
The list of disappointments has ranged from the ordinary to the bizarre. Shepherd got a call last year from a fan in Pennsylvania who said he'd won the lottery and wanted to help. Shepherd set up meetings with NASCAR and then found out the guy was a phony.
He's been picking up things wherever and whenever he can since. He has tested for the Wood brothers, driven ARCA and Busch cars, as well as several events in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He went to the Daytona 500 in 2001, but failed to qualify. "I would be a drivers car owner, if someone believed in me," Shepherd says. "I've been talking to Ford, but nothing concrete yet."
Since 1981 Shepherd has driven for 23 different car owners, counting one-race deals and the times he fielded a team himself. He's won four Winston Cup races and more than $7 million in his career, and is tied with Larry Pearson for eighth place on the Busch Series Grand National Division victory list with 15. "Morgan's a much better driver than he gets credit for," says famed car owner Leonard Wood. "I thought he did a great job for us. The thing about him was the longer the race went green the better he looked. He was tough. And he was a great chassis (setup) guy."
Says Shepherd, "I still want to race. I haven't lost that desire. And I want to prove that life isn't over after 50. Harry Gant lost his desire to race at age 53, but he still could've won races. It's hard in later years in life as a driver because corporations won't spend their money on older guys."
For Shepherd, it's hard to be on the outside looking in — especially when you've been on the inside for as long as he has. "I can't even get a hard card (garage credentials) from NASCAR," Shepherd says. "They forget you pretty quick." But no matter, Shepherd's been there before. "I was able to get involved in racing and learned the only way you were ever going to have anything was you have to be persistent and stay after it. I learned to build cars, to build engines," Shepherd says. "It's a rich man's sport, but I'm one of the few people who's come into this sport without any kind of money background or any kind of support, other than just the poor people who helped me get there."
The Story Doesn't End Yet
In 2001, 2002 and 2003 Morgan did campaign his own Craftsman Truck in forty-seven races. He ran fourteen Busch races in 2003 and so far in 2004 he has had one Busch Series start in Ware Racing Enterprises #57 at Bristol. He started five Cup races in 2002, two in 2003 and his last start in 2004 was at Martinsville with his own car.
At age 62, Morgan can still run with the big dogs, at least some of them. Morgan, with his one car and one engine finished only one lap less than two of RCR's cars and ahead of two of Roush Racing's drivers. Morgan ran 492 laps and was running at the end of the race. We have to wonder what he could have accomplished with better equipment. Morgan may not be competitive at every track and that's understandable because of the lack of funding. But keep in mind that Martinsville is a demanding track, like all short tracks, on man and machine. It was easy to see that a racer's heart still beats inside Morgan Shepherd.
Morgan's 32nd place finish paid him $55,050.00. He probably spent more. He could have stayed home and broken even. But he didn't, and that says a lot about Morgan, the man, the racer, and why he was at Martinsville Speedway on a rough, demanding track in the heat.
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