Thursday, June 1, 2017

5/31/87: Modified star Ron Shephard a witness to NASCAR history

PHOTO: Historical Stock Car Racing Forum
On May 31, 1987, Ron Shephard picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the Budweiser 500 at the Dover Downs International Speedway when his #31 National Parts Peddler / L.B.S. Graphics Chevrolet fell out with engine trouble after 22 of 500 laps.  The finish came in Shephard’s second series start.

The racing career of Shephard (no relation to Morgan Shepherd) dated back at least as far as 1982, when he started out in NASCAR’s Modified Series.  His first two wins in the series came two years later, when he won a pair of events at the Shangri-La Speedway in Owego, New York, the same track where seven years later J.D. McDuffie won a celebrity race the night before his final Cup race at Watkins Glen.  In all, the Ultimate Racing History website records eight wins at Shangri-La from 1984 to 1991.  He also claimed victory in a NASCAR Grand American Series event at Mount Clemens, Michigan on July 28, 1982.

Shephard’s Cup debut came on September 7, 1986, at the tough Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway.  In a race won by Tim Richmond, Shephard debuted a new Cup team, AAG Racing, fielded by Ken Allen and sponsored by Atlantic Contractors.  The #34 Oldsmobile started 29th and last in the field, then passed both McDuffie and outside-polesitter Darrell Waltrip before overheating issues left him 27th.  Allen’s team would continue to run part-time through the 1991 season, but only three times finished better than that day (their best coming with Connie Saylor at Rockingham in 1988, a 21st-place finish).

The spring race at Dover in 1987 saw Shephard field his own Cup entry for the first time, a red #31 Chevrolet.  Dover races have traditionally attracted a treasure trove of lesser-known drivers looking to break into the Cup Series, and 1987 was no exception.  Consider, for example, the five DNQs for this race.  Shephard’s fellow New York driver Johnny Coy, Jr., whose best finish in three Cup starts was a 17th at Dover the previous September, when he drove for James Hylton.  Eddie Drury incurred his second of four DNQs that year in what was his only recorded season attempting Cup fields.  The same race was the first of Billy Fulcher’s six DNQs, a streak which stretched into 1991, when he fielded his own #45 Oldsmobile.  Phil Good made eight starts, the last of which later that year at Watkins Glen, and along with Maurice Randall, was one of the last Cup drivers to campaign a Chrysler.  Last on the list was Springfield, Missouri native Jerry Holden, who that year made his 3rd and final start at Talladega, finishing 28th.  In qualifying, Shephard outpaced them all, securing the 39th and final starting spot.

Unfortunately, Shephard was sidelined with early engine troubles.  Having lost at least four laps in the early going, he drew the first caution on Lap 26 when the motor finally let go.  38th went to future XFINITY Series regular Curtis Markham, who at the time had made just four starts in the series.  Markham was making his own Cup debut that day, but saw it end when he wrecked Wayne Beahr’s #37 Hanover Printing Ford not long after the race restarted.  37th went to rookie driver Steve Christman in Tom Winkle’s #62 AC Spark Plugs Pontiac, followed by two future Hall of Famers: seven-time Dover winner Richard Petty, who crashed his #43 STP Pontiac after 69 laps, and third-year driver Dale Jarrett, out with transmission issues on the red-white-and-blue #18 Freedlander Financial Chevrolet.  The race was won by Davey Allison, his second of the year, setting a rookie record for wins that would stand until Tony Stewart’s three-win season in 1999.

Shephard made just one more Cup start, rebounding from a DNQ at Pocono in June to make the July race.  His red #31, now sponsored by Hempstead Abstract, started 38th in the field and managed to come home 21st, but only after crashing in the final laps.

Records indicate that Shephard continued to run pavement Modifieds into the 1990s, and also operated his own machine shop as a fabricator.  After winning the 1995 track championship at Shangri-La, he moved south to Charlotte, North Carolina and ranked 9th in the 1996 Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Tour.  That year, he competed in one of the final Modified races at North Wilkesboro, running as high as 2nd in the Lowe’s 150 before a blown engine left him 29th in a field of 31.  He also attempted at least one Slim Jim All-Pro Series start at Bristol in 1997, but failed to qualify.  Curiously, that same race saw a 29-year-old Carl Long score his only win in that series.  He then went back to fabricating, this time for Roush-Fenway Racing, and now lives with his wife in the Charlotte area.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #31 in a Cup Series race since June 18, 1972, when Markey James’ 1972 Chevrolet fell out with engine trouble after 1 lap of the Golden State 400 at Riverside.  It also remains the first - and only - last-place finish for the number in a Cup race at Dover.

39) #31-Ron Shephard / 22 laps / engine
38) #37-Curtis Markham / 29 laps / crash
37) #62-Steve Christman / 59 laps / engine
36) #43-Richard Petty / 69 laps / crash
35) #18-Dale Jarrett / 84 laps / transmission

*The Third Turn
*YouTube – 1996 Lowe’s 150 at North Wilkesboro, posted by Buggy1Boy

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