Friday, February 07, 2014

COMMENTARY: Shepherd Debate Raises Questions

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.”


  1. Anonymous6:44 PM

    Well thought out and well stated Moody. No one should doubt Morgan's credentials -- but for the safety of all competitors and the integrity of the sport drivers both old and young should demonstrate that they have the skill necessary to safely compete.

  2. Anonymous6:53 PM

    I know people in their 20's and 30's that can't drive, I say let him be. If he makes the race, good for him. Nobody has questioned him these last few years in Nationwide, why now?

  3. I agree with your "qualification test" Dave. He should be given the "Indy" test in order to ascertain if he can keep the necessary speed and control BEFORE attempting to qualify.

  4. The problem is that no one can tell a driver not to race - because by that standard Danica Patrick should not be issued a racing license given she has less racing competence than Morgan Shepherd (just review her pathetic performances in Indycars, far easier to drive than stockers). The safety argument for age limits is a crock, as it's the drivers who are still reasonably young who are the cause of problems, it isn't older drivers. Indy's Rookie Test is an insult and should have been discontinued long ago.

  5. Anonymous10:21 PM

    However, it should be his fellow competitors that judge whether or not he is a liability to them. That will not be seen until they turn laps in practice or the dual. No one that has not driven at this level has a horse in the race. My hope is that the current garage leaders would let Morgan know if he cannot make the cut.

    But a racer, is a racer, is a racer!

    With that being said, I guess we will find out in a couple of weeks if Morgan makes the field.

  6. Anonymous1:55 AM

    This dumbass writer is just looking for something to write about, get attention for his own personal good. NASCAR does enough already these days "trying call the shots" making guidelines, constant rules on what drivers can do/can't do on the track. Leave it alone & let 'em race..Get A Life!!!!!

    1. Anonymous3:35 PM

      Harsh and ignorant, and we all know it. I guess unfamiliarity breeds ignorance so you think trashing the man's opinion makes you right? How sad for you in life.

  7. Anonymous2:46 AM

    Morgan is not a normal 72 year old. He is sharp, healthy,and able to do the job. He has been competing in Nationwide without any top notch equiptment. He can still do the job if he had the support like the other top racers. The only thing holding him back is "Sponsors want younger drivers" I like to see him in a Finch car. or a Furniture Row car.

  8. Anonymous7:16 AM

    This is stupid. It's not as if Shepherd has been away for years and is coming back out of the blue. He never stopped driving, unlike the totally irrelevant example of the legends race. Same goes for James Hylton. These guys are not the ones causing trouble on the race track.

    All Nascar needs is another level of bureaucracy to make subjective decision about who is fit to drive. When they do, ala Tim Richmond, who by all (rational and honest) accounts was deathly ill and could barely walk, people bitch about it for 25 years.

  9. Robert Eastman8:29 AM

    "A Quarter of a Million Dollars" for last place in the Daytona 500 will "jolt the volts in many an old battery," so it's not surprising when anyone with a reasonable shot of qualifying cranks it up. As a Morgan Shepherd fan I'm positive he's up to the challenge and wish him well! Obviously NASCAR will go out of their way to accommodate him because of all the free mass media attention it will generate.

  10. Anonymous9:46 AM

    I agree Godfather but I can't imagine the circumstance of telling the driver he/she isn't allowed to compete. With all due respect Morgan Shepherd is one thing, but Mark Martin, D.W., or even Jeff Gordon someday would be a pretty difficult thing to do.

  11. Anonymous10:36 AM

    Hey Moodywho the hell do you think you are you not God.I know it's your job to report the facts but it's not your job to tell someone that they can't drive keep your opinions to always have a history of pushing your opinions on people it's time to stop..

    1. Brush up on your reading skills, my friend. Nowhere in the piece did I say that Morgan could not (or should not) drive. This is my blog; designed to disseminate racing news and opinions. If you can't tolerate opinions you disagree with, maybe it's time for YOU to stop coming here!

  12. Anonymous12:35 PM

    There is always an exception to the rule. That being said, I am positive his reactions are no where near those of anyone half his age or younger, which is probably the NASCAR median age. Just because a man has a ride doesn't necessarily permit him to go out and run 200MPH three wide no matter how much experience he has if he's over the age of retirement. You can't play ANY other sport (except poker) at his age why should NASCAR be the exception once again? Test him, physically and mentally, if he passes, fine, but test him.

  13. Moody more often than not I tend to disagree with a lot of your opinions, but unfortunately I do not have the advantage of pulling the plug on anyone who disagrees with me ; However you are spot on in this article. I have all the respect in the world for Morgan Shepherd. He has done it all , often with much less than others. At some point in time an aging driver does lose his skills and it is unfair to the other drivers to take a chance on injury because of a driver with diminished skill sets. Dot does not allow truck drivers to drive commercial vehicles past a certain age without extensive physical testing and they are not driving at 200 MPH.

  14. Anonymous6:10 PM

    I agree with all you said. Listened to your show yesterday and honestly I was disturbed by the comments of some people suggesting Morgan would kill himself and others. Each driver neeeds to be evaluated on their ownnhealth and ability. NASCAR needsvto evaluate that fo all drivers regardless of age.How to do that I have idea. I know Morgan and can say with certainty he wouldn't be out there if he was a risk. Furthermore the man is in better shape than most people 20yrs younger. He is not some hunched over old man with a cane. His problem on the track in Nationwide has been lack of $ plain and simple. Not lack of ability. Am I saying he can contend for wins, no. Can he safely run in 20s or a little better when he has the $? Yes. Bottom line folks, if he was such a danger wouldn't other drivers wouldn't be screaming to NASCAR? So long as they are fine with it I say let the man race!

  15. Anonymous7:49 PM

    hi there GF

    hi there GF

    hi there GF if tests are to be given,

    Any driver that DNQ'ed (or did not attempt the last race qualifying) should have to pass the test. So a certain driver out of the last race due to injury, would also have to take the driving test. Make the test mean something about driving ability, not just an old guys test.

  16. Jerry Kaminer8:46 PM

    Loved your show Friday as always Dave Moody , you are right about the testing after age 60 or so , but why not use a Simulator, they have them for air planes and big trucks so NASCAR could make one for race cars, and use to test for driving skills at fast speeds , be it because of age , a new driver or even after a crash to check for Concussion Symptoms

  17. Anonymous9:05 PM

    It pains me to admit it, but age absolutely must become at least a consideration. I was not surprised to see that one of the best, or at least most recent examples of hanging on well past the prime was not included in this article. Two words. Darrel Waltrip. Remember the "Tabasco Fiasco"?

    Moody, you are one of the best at calling a race for radio. I truly look forward to hearing you, specifically. But, try to be a little easier on the boneheads that call in to the Sirius show.


  18. Anonymous12:37 PM

    I would be less worried about drivers like Morgan who have have lost ability running Daytona than a few of the drivers who will be in the Nationwide\Truck races who will "never have ability". Some of them will be out there because of sponsorship deals\family money, but their credentials are suspect at best.

  19. Moody, your approach, while not the only possible one, I'm sure, takes the correct focus. It's not about the age of the driver behind the wheel, it's about the ability of the driver behind he wheel. Of course, it would still leave working out a criteria for determining who should be subjected to such an assessment.

  20. Dave, Not 100% agreeing with on everything, But you nailed this. Enjoy the site,show & raceday calls. Good luck 2014.

  21. Michael in SoCal1:13 PM

    I wonder if reading comprehension is still taught in school. After reading a couple of these comments, I wonder if it ever was.

  22. There are so many products designed for seniors that you think would be jumping on the sponsorship bandwagon to help Morgan with his efforts. Could you imagine the "Help I've fallen and I can't get up" on one side of the car then Viagara on the other?