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After two decades, he's in the lead pack

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Morgan Shepherd is a racing purebred. As pure as the Carolina moonshine his late father used to make in their basement and run between Ferguson and Hickory, N.C. Born in one of the most rural and remote corners of NASCAR's holy land, Shepherd is the quintessential if not the stereotypical stock car driver. A guy who learned how to build engines instead of learning to read and write; who fell in love with the mere idea of racing long before he fell for the money he could make from it; a guy who would _ and has _ gladly lived on crackers and water for a week if it meant affording a new carburetor.

Most of all, Morgan Shepherd, 49, is a survivor. And more than 20 years after he started racing and 40 years after he learned how to drive, Shepherd is at last tasting NASCAR's champagne. He's coming off the two most successful years of his arduous career and is among the top 10 in the Winston Cup points standings entering today's coveted Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Shepherd won the Atlanta Journal 500, only his third Winston Cup win ever and his first in four years. The season-ending victory secured his place among the top 10 in the points standings for the first time ever. When that elite group was so honored at NASCAR's year-end banquet, Shepherd, bless his heart, broke down and cried.

"Look where I came from. I came from nothing. Here I am 49 years old. After 20-some years of racing, the last few years of my racing have finally become rewarding. Who would have ever dreamed that?" Shepherd said. "To go up on that stage and look down at all those corporate people and everything was very emotional for me. I wasn't number one, but I was number five out of all these people who want to do this.

"It took me all my life. How many people would go 20-some years before they would get anything out of it?"

Shepherd, wearing black silver-toed boots, a green polo shirt and a pair of blue jeans with his name embroidered on a back pocket, sat comfortably inside the motor home that totes him, his wife Sonja, and their 4-year-old daughter Shanda from race to race. The vehicle has two sofas, a bed, a kitchen, a television and a bar.

Shepherd said the motor home is about the same size as the house he grew up in Ferguson.

Ferguson is a logging community just outside of North Wilkesboro (pop. 3,500). Most of the roads are unpaved. For a spell there, his grandmother's house doubled as the post office.

"It's just a place where people live," said a woman at the North Wilkesboro Chamber of Commerce. "There's a store or two where you buy gas and a loaf of bread on your way home. That's it."

When Shepherd was born in 1941, just he, his mother and his three brothers and sisters lived there. He didn't meet his father until he was nearly 3, when he came home after serving a two-year jail sentence for making that moonshine. He committed suicide when Shepherd was 12.

Shepherd was doing his own thing by then anyway. He was working and driving by the time he was 10, and stopped for speeding at 11. Local police later revoked his driver's license for eight years, until he was 25. He bought his first car, a 1937 Chevy Coach, at 12 for "12 dollars and a half, a gray squirrel, two flying squirrels, and a 20-gauge shotgun."

School took a back seat. Shepherd stopped going altogether after the eighth grade. He said that now he can read "most anything," but he can't write at all. "All I can do is sign my name," he said.

As one story goes, a young autograph-seeking fan once asked him to write more than just his name. Shepherd had to explain to the boy that he simply couldn't.

"I'm sorry to say I didn't have very much interest in school," he said. "I'd give anything if I'd been interested enough to get an education. I would encourage everybody to go to school, but at the same time if there's something you want to do in life, you need to try to stick to it, whatever it may be.

"I educated myself in different ways. There's not a lot of people that can take a pile of metal and build a race car out of it."

Shepherd was so gifted around automobiles that he supported himself from age 13 by repairing cars. And "being that they wouldn't let me drive on the highways," he went racing in 1967 at nearby Hickory Speedway, which is about 10 cow pastures away from his present hometown of Conover.

The operation was simple. Shepherd was the driver, crew chief and mechanic of a '52 Chevy owned by "Smut" Deal. After mechanical problems knocked Shepherd out early in his first two races, Deal gave the pink and white car to Shepherd for free.

Shepherd rebuilt the Limited Sportsman car himself, to his specifications, and finished third after starting last in his first complete race. In 1969, his first full season, he won 21 of 29 races.

"It was obvious he was going to be a racer," said former racing great Ned Jarrett, who managed Hickory Speedway at the time. "He was so determined. He didn't have anything to do anything with, but he'd win."

Rarely, though, could Shepherd celebrate. His prize money for that first year's efforts: $7,000.

"I've picked up bottles and stuff to put food on the table. I've done a lot of different things, not illegal (things), to keep going in racing," he said. "I've traveled to many a racetrack with not enough money to get back home on. And just been able to eat cheese crackers and drink water or whatever.

"But this is what I love to do."

Added Jarrett: "Those people seem to really make the best drivers, the guys that have to dig and scratch to get everything."

It has been that way for Shepherd, and his hands-on, run-whatcha-brung approach is now a trademark of his 20-year Winston Cup career. From 1984 to 1986, he drove for 18 teams. Unlike some drivers, Shepherd wasn't born into anything.

There were years he won $150,475 for his team, which of course was split between Shepherd, crew and car owner. And there were times like 1982-85 when Shepherd never won a race. Two third-place finishes and a second-place result were all he had to show for that four-year stretch.

It was embarrassing at times, too. Such as when Shepherd would arrive at NASCAR's most famed speedways and have to park his yellow 1963 pickup truck, with race car in tow, next to the massive, state-of-the-art 18-wheelers that almost every other team had.

Then there were his buddies _ guys like Harry Gant, who started out at Hickory when Shepherd did, and Richard Petty, who were always blessed with better-funded and better-equipped teams.

"Boy, he'd be out there running with junk cars, but he made it look like he had got something," Petty, 53, said between spits of tobacco. "He'd have cars that could barely qualify, but he'd been running with us _ 'til something fell off of it."

The hard life has led to four failed marriages. He has five children besides Shanda. Shepherd admits he doesn't always take too kindly to folks. "I don't smile much, and I'm hard to get along with," he says unapologetically.

But there have been good moments, too. Earlier this year, a Louisiana woman, whose jacket Shepherd had autographed some time before, gave him $200,000 because she knew his racing team could use the help. Instead, Shepherd bought a limo, previously owned by Donald Trump, and drove her around town in it.

In 1980, he won the NASCAR Sportsman Championship.

And then there have been times like Thursday, qualifying day at Talladega, when Shepherd and Sonja celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary. They went to Morrison's cafeteria for dinner.

"The biggest thing about Morgan is he's never given up," said Gant, 51. "He has kept hanging in there. You got to give him a lot of credit. I don't know if I would have hung in there as hard as he did. He used to build his own cars before he got here. And now he's got a great ride and he's running well."

At 49, though, there's not a lot of tread left on Shepherd's tires. With more than $2.5-million in career earnings, he can talk about eventually starting his own racing team or simply spending his days tinkering with his seven-piece vintage car collection _ the toys he never had as a kid.

But Shepherd isn't ready to talk that talk. In another career-best year with the Bud Moore Racing team, he's up to his elbows again, starting 33rd today in a 41-car field at NASCAR's fastest race.

The most remarkable piece of work Shepherd has done hasn't involved a race car at all. It's what he has built out of a wide-eyed, marginally educated kid from the backwoods of North Carolina.

"If you're determined enough in this life and you really want to do something, I think you ought to do it and I think you ought to work hard for it," Shepherd said. "For me to be a part of it all, whether I ever make it to being a Winston Cup champion, at least I made it this far. I didn't buy my way in. I wasn't born into it. I reckon I did it Morgan Shepherd's way."

Shepherd bio

Age: 49.

Residence: Conover, N.C.

Racing team: Bud Moore Engineering.

Car: Motorcraft Ford, 15.

Winston Cup experience: 21 years.

Winston Cup wins: 3.

Career prize money: $2,688,080 (19th).

Last win: 1990 Atlanta Journal 500.

Current points position: 8th.

Career poles: 7.

Best season: 1990 _ Won one race, finished 10th or better 16 times and was a career-high fifth in final points standings.

Philosophy on racing: "Races are won in the garage, not on the track."

Today's race

What: Winston 500.

When: 2 p.m.

Where: Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

TV: ESPN.

Radio: WQYK-AM (1010).

Front row: Daytona 500 winner Ernie Irvan won the pole at 195.186 mph. Harry Gant, fastest during practice, qualified second at 194.963.

Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt.

_ The lineup, 8C