NASCAR veteran Morgan Shepherd finds himself in the middle of a debate this week that he neither requested, nor deserves.
The North Carolina native announced recently that he will attempt to qualify for the 2014 Daytona 500, at the age of 72. If successful, he will become the oldest driver ever to qualify for “The Great American Race.”
Morgan Shepherd is not your average 72-year old. He is in prime physical condition, as evidenced by his weekly roller-skating forays through the NASCAR garage. Mentally, he remains as sharp as a proverbial tack, and can cite statistics and events from races decades past with astounding clarity. He works on his own cars, drives his own cars, and often bankrolls them, as well.
The issue here is not Morgan Shepherd. The issue is whether any driver old enough to be cashing his second decade of social security checks should receive a blanket endorsement to race at over 200 mph on one of the most volatile speedways in NASCAR.
NASCAR has long legislated a minimum-age requirement for the sport. Drivers as young as 16 years of age are allowed to compete in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series only on ovals of one mile or less, and on road courses. On the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series – and in Truck races on tracks longer than a mile – the sanctioning body requires drivers to be at least 18 years of age.
But at the other end of the spectrum, NASCAR allows drivers to compete into their 50s, 60s and 70s, without so much as a check of their eye-hand coordination. A substance abuse test and a simple preseason physical – blood pressure, heart rate, turn your head and cough – are all any NASCAR driver needs to continue twisting the wheel for another season, regardless of age.
|Shepherd was a Cup winner at Atlanta in `93|
Most observers would agree that racers lose some of their physical skills as they grow older.
The most notable example of this came in March of 2010, when Bristol Motor Speedway staged a “Legends Race,” with retired drivers competing in Late Model stock cars on the high-banked, .533-mile oval. Many of those drivers were 60 or more years of age, and most had not driven a race car competitively in decades. Late in the event, two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion Larry Pearson spun and was hit in the driver’s door by Charlie Glotzbach. Both drivers suffered serious injuries, and Pearson was airlifted from the facility with a fractured pelvis, fractured right hand, and compound fracture of his left ankle. He spent weeks in the hospital and months recuperating, and there has been no further talk of “Legends” racing; at Bristol or anywhere else.
At some point, it’s time to climb out of the car for good. Unfortunately, that “point” is different for every driver, and professional athletes are notoriously unreliable when it comes to honestly assessing the impact of age on their abilities.
In 1990, 77-year old Minnie Minoso made an appearance with the independent St. Paul Saints of the Northern League, becoming the only individual to play professional baseball in seven different decades. His appearance was little more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by team ownership, and similar plans had been quashed by Major League Baseball twice in the previous two decades. But Minoso kept trying, somehow convinced that he had just one more at-bat left in him.
|Ali stayed too long|
Muhammad Ali – arguably the greatest boxer of all time – fought long past his prime, coming out of retirement at one point to suffer a pounding at the hands of Larry Holmes that actor Sylvester Stallone called “like watching an autopsy on a man who was still alive.” Ali was a shadow of his former self; badly out of shape and battling tremors and speech difficulties that foreshadowed his eventual diagnosis of trauma-induced Parkinson’s disease. To the end, however, the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” believed he had what it took to fight – just one more time -- at the highest level.
He was wrong, of course, but he was far from alone. In fact, the list of athletes who stay too long at the dance is endless.
NASCAR stars Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen and Rusty Wallace all departed at the height of their abilities, but they were in the minority. Like Ali, most drivers remain active long past their primes, spending the latter portion of their career running in the back of the pack and tarnishing their once-stellar reputations.
Morgan Shepherd has nothing to prove. He was a perennial National Championship contender in NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman division, swapping paint with legends like Harry Gant, Butch Lindley, LD Ottinger and Bob Pressley. When Shepherd’s hauler rolled through the pit gate, everyone knew they were in for a fight.
His skill and competitive spirit carried him to the very pinnacle of the sport. He won four times in NASCAR’s Cup Series and 15 times in what is now the Nationwide Series. His last Cup win came in the 1993 Motorcraft Quality Parts 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, driving for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team. He finished seventh in championship points that season, one of four Top-10 point finishes in his Cup career.
By the turn of century, however, Shepherd had been relegated to running his own underfunded equipment on the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. With average finishes in the twenties and thirties, he was no longer a threat for Victory Lane, but he was also not a threat to himself, or others.
|Nothing left to prove|
Last fall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Shepherd’s Bob Keselowski-owned Toyota was the slowest of 43 cars to qualify. On race day, the veteran driver was black flagged multiple times for failing to maintain minimum speed, before finally withdrawing from the event with an alleged “vibration.”
On that afternoon in the White Mountains, 1993 seemed like a very long time ago.
Shepherd’s issues that day had more to do than the quality of his ride than the quality of its driver. But at some point – one of these days – NASCAR must address the issue of “how old is too old.”
Drivers like Shepherd are always going to look for one more shot at the brass ring. After sitting on the sidelines for much of the 2013 campaign, Shepherd is headed to the World Center of Racing this month with one of the best cars he’s been privileged to drive in recent seasons. He thinks he can do it, and I’m not about to argue with him.
I do believe, however, that he will lose that ability one day. Every driver does. And because of that, NASCAR must find a way to determine when that day comes.
At the Indianapolis 500, first-time drivers are required to pass a “Rookie Test,” turning laps at escalating speeds under the watchful eyes of a panel of experts. Only after the veterans sign-off on a driver’s ability can the newcomer attempt to qualify at the Brickyard. Perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to adopt a similar policy for older drivers.
In the aftermath of sweeping changes to the 2014 Chase format, qualifying system and penalty/appeals process, perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to require drivers over the age of 60 to complete a brief, Indianapolis-style test to prove that their abilities remain intact, before being unleashed to compete with the greatest stock car drivers in the world in “The Great American Race.”