Thursday, April 27, 2017

3/2/97: Morgan Shepherd’s hood flies up, then engine lets go at Richmond

On March 2, 1997, Morgan Shepherd picked up the 10th last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Pontiac Excitement 400 at the Richmond International Raceway when his #1 Delco Remy Pontiac fell out with engine trouble after 131 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Shepherd’s 449th series start, was his first since April 28, 1996 during the Winston Select 500 at Talladega, where his #75 Remington Arms Ford crashed after 20 laps.

2017 marks Shepherd’s 50th year in NASCAR, an incredible career dating back to his first-ever start at the tough Hickory Motor Speedway in 1967.  His first Cup start came at the same track three years later, a race where that year’s series champion Bobby Isaac won by two full laps.  Shepherd, who finished 19th in a 1969 Chevrolet, was 28 years old.  He went full-time in 1981 driving the #5 Performance Connection Pontiac.  The car owner, Cliff Stewart, had fielded Cup entries since 1962, when Jim Paschal scored the team’s only win.  But at Martinsville on April 26, 1981, a 39-year-old Shepherd ended the streak, lapping all 30 other starters but second-place Neil Bonnett.  It was one of the first NASCAR races broadcast by ESPN.

From then on, Shepherd continued to make a name for himself in NASCAR.  By 1997, Shepherd had driven for 32 different car owners in Cup, ranging from owner-drivers Cecil Gordon, Jimmy Means, D.K. Ulrich, Elmo Langley, and Buddy Arrington to some of the biggest teams of the day, including RahMoc Enterprises, Jim Stacy, Hal Needham, Kenny Bernstein, and Petty Enterprises.  He scored another three Cup victories, all of them at the fast 1.522-mile perfect oval in Atlanta, and each for a different single-car operation: Jack Beebe in 1986, Bud Moore Engineering in 1990, and the Wood Brothers in 1993.  He also fielded his own cars, both in Cup and in the brand-new Busch Series, where he scored the first two of his 15 wins during the inaugural season in 1982.  His best overall finish in points was a 5th in 1990, a year the 48-year-old started by racking up eleven consecutive Top 10 finishes, snagging the point lead for a week before mechanical trouble hit the next time out at Sonoma.  But a reunion with Butch Mock’s team in 1996 didn’t go well, leaving him outside the Top 15 in points for the first time since 1988, and he was with a new team by SpeedWeeks ’97.

Car owner Richard Jackson came to NASCAR in 1985, when he and brother Leo founded Jackson Brothers Racing, a two-car effort sponsored by smokeless tobacco companies Skoal and Copenhagen.  It was this two-car effort that brought on another brotherly pair on to drive, fellow racers-turned-analysts Benny and Phil Parsons.  The pair earned two wins together: Phil’s only checkered flag at Talladega in 1988, then a spring 1989 Darlington win for Harry Gant, whose iconic Skoal Bandit #33 changed hands from Hollywood director Hal Needham the previous year.

By 1990, Richard and Leo Jackson parted ways with Gant driving for Leo in the #33 Skoal Bandit.  Richard’s new team, which later became known as Precision Performance Racing, would campaign the #1.  The first black-and-white Oldsmobile, sponsored by Skoal Classic, raced to a close 2nd in the Daytona 500 with Terry Labonte behind the wheel.  Journeyman driver Rick Mast joined the team the following year, the start of a six-year business relationship.  During this time, Mast gave Richard Jackson his first three poles, including the famous 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta and the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.  Mast also earned a career-best 2nd in the penultimate race of ’94 at Rockingham, where he was edged for the win by newly-crowned seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.  But by the end of 1996, Mast and Shepherd switched rides, putting the Virginian in #75 and Shepherd in the #1.  Skoal Classic had left as a sponsor after the 1995 season.  Hooters, which joined in ’96, was gone as well.  While Delco Remy America and Cruisin’ America signed on for ‘97, it was not yet clear if the team could run the full season.

Teamed with crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain, who years later would become a winning crew chief for Ricky Rudd and Bobby Labonte, Shepherd, now 55, qualified for his 15th Daytona 500 and bumped Rick Mast and his old ride out of the show.  After starting next-to-last in the 200-lapper, Shepherd’s white #1 Pontiac was in the lead pack, holding fast to a finish inside the Top 15.  Then, coming to four laps to go off Turn 4, a multi-car pileup unfolded directly in front of him, destroying his new car.  As Jeff Gordon cruised under caution to claim his first Daytona 500, Shepherd was left a disappointing 29th, out of the race.  He rebounded to finish 10th the next time out at Rockingham, then prepared to journey north to Richmond.

With rain washing out qualifying, Shepherd qualified 19th in the 43-car field based on the #1 team’s 1996 rank in Owner Points.  Sent home by the rain were perennial underdog Billy Standridge in Jim Wilson’s #78 Diamond Rio Ford, 1985 July Daytona winner Greg Sacks in the #20 Hardee’s Ford, one of the last Cup cars fielded by longtime car owner Harry Ranier, and Mike Wallace in the #91 SPAM Chevrolet fielded by current Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group co-owner Joe Falk.  According to ESPN, all three were sent home because their NASCAR entry forms were received last.

Starting last that day was Gary Bradberry, who was making his first start of the season after back-to-back DNQs at Daytona and Rockingham.  He would be driving the #19 Child Support Recovery Ford fielded by Mark Smith of TriStar Motorsports, the same team which currently fields Cole Whitt’s #72 Chevrolet in Cup and J.J. Yeley’s #14 Toyota in XFINITY.  1997 would be TriStar’s final season of Cup competition until the team began growing their current operation as a “start-and-park” effort in 2012.  Joining him were two backup cars: Johnny Benson, Jr. in the #30 Pennzoil Pontiac, and Ricky Craven, sent to a backup #25 Budweiser Chevrolet following a crash in Happy Hour.

Benson held the 43rd spot on the opening lap, and by Lap 6, the spot went to Dick Trickle in Junie Donlavey’s #90 Heilig-Meyers Ford.  On that same sixth circuit, contact from a fast-closing #10 Tide Ford of Ricky Rudd spun 7th-place starter Rusty Wallace in Turn 2, and Wallace’s #2 Miller Lite Ford had to stop on the apron as the entire field went by.  Wallace avoided any damage, but avoided losing a lap.  Not so fortunate was last-place starter Bradberry, who was held a lap by NASCAR prior to the Lap 10 restart.  By Lap 48, Bradberry was still last, three laps down, but Jeff Burton was then poised to take the spot.  That time by, Burton pulled his #99 Exide Ford behind the wall with brake issues.  Burton passed Bradberry for last on Lap 52.

Around Lap 125, Morgan Shepherd was running in the middle of the pack in a tight race with rookie Mike Skinner in Richard Childress’ #31 Lowe’s Chevrolet.  Skinner bumped Shepherd, and as the two entered Turn 3, Skinner slowed in front of Shepherd and the two made contact, caving in the nose of #1 and shearing the hood pins.  Moments later, as the two exited Turn 4, the hood flew up on Shepherd’s car.  Somehow, the veteran continued to run with the hood blocking his view, pulling to the inside and running a slower speed.  No caution was thrown, but the black flag came for Shepherd, and he was forced to make an unscheduled stop to remove the hood.  That same incident must have damaged the radiator as Shepherd ran just a few more laps before retiring with engine trouble.  Jeff Burton returned to finish 152 laps down, dropping Shepherd to last in the closing stages.

Behind 42nd-place Burton were Bobby Hillin, Jr., whose ride in Doug Bawel’s #77 Jasper Engines / Federal Mogul Ford ended with rear end trouble; 41st-place Kenny Wallace, who lost the engine on his #81 Square D Ford with 24 laps to go; Joe Nemechek in 40th, 20 laps down in Sabco Racing’s #42 BellSouth Chevrolet; and Gary Bradberry, 11 laps down, rounded out the Bottom Five.

The race ran at a torrid pace with 371 consecutive green-flag laps after Wallace’s Lap 6 spin.  Wallace raced back through the pack to take the lead in the final 100 laps, but was soon caught by Dale Jarrett.  With seven laps to go, Jarrett was leading when Ernie Irvan crashed in Turn 3, allowing the leaders to race back to the line.  As Jeff Gordon zipped past to get his lap back, Wallace caught Jarrett and raced side-by-side past Irvan’s wreck.  Gordon slowed at the crash site, allowing 3rd-place Geoffrey Bodine to catch all three, and the four drivers fanned out four-wide.  Jarrett held the lead over Wallace and Bodine, who also put Gordon back down a lap.  In the ensuing three-lap sprint to the finish, Wallace caught Jarrett sleeping on the restart, cut down low, and sped to his only win of the year.

The very next week, the Winston Cup teams arrived at Shepherd’s favorite track, the Atlanta Motor Speedway.  The veteran impressed once more, leading 10 laps and challenging Ernie Irvan for 2nd all the way to the finish line.  The 3rd-place finish turned out to be the 12th and final Top 5 finish for Precision Performance Racing, which closed its doors at season’s end.  Richard Jackson passed away on May 31, 2010.  It was also the 63rd and most recent Top 5 of Shepherd’s Cup career.

Today, Shepherd is known for his longevity and his devout religious beliefs.  A born-again Christian, Shepherd has carried “Racing With Jesus” on the hood of nearly all his cars since 2002, when he returned to Cup as a team owner of the #89.  Shepherd Racing Ventures transitioned from Cup to XFINITY competition in 2007.  As of this writing, he has competed in 517 Cup races, 404 in XFINITY, and 57 in the Truck Series.  At Loudon in 2014, he beat his own record as the oldest driver to start a Cup Series race at 72 years, 9 months, and 1 day (in addition to the oldest driver to finish last in Cup, set earlier that year at Phoenix).  Now 75, Shepherd can still be seen either roller skating down pit road or preparing another car painted like those he’d raced over the past five decades.  For more on Shepherd and how you can support his team, check out his website at and follow the team on Twitter @MShepherd89.

*This was Shepherd’s first last-place finish in a Cup Series race at Richmond since September 13, 1987, when his #26 Quaker State Buick crashed out after 12 laps of the Wrangler Jeans Indigo 400.  He was the second driver to finish last on both Richmond’s half-mile fairgrounds configuration and today’s three-quarter-mile oval, following Derrike Cope (Spring 1988, Fall 1992).  As of this writing, Shepherd has four Cup Series last-place finishes at Richmond, which ties J.D. McDuffie for the most all-time.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #1 in a Cup Series race since February 24, 1991, when Rick Mast’s Skoal Classic Oldsmobile – also owned by Richard Jackson – finished under power, 179 laps down, in the same event, the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond.

43) #1-Morgan Shepherd / 131 laps / engine
42) #99-Jeff Burton / 248 laps / running
41) #77-Bobby Hillin, Jr. / 336 laps / rear end
40) #81-Kenny Wallace / 376 laps / engine
39) #42-Joe Nemechek / 380 laps / running

*1997 Pontiac Excitement 400, ESPN