By Chad Bonham
If you want to put Morgan Shepherd’s racing career in perspective, you have to take a look at two key historical facts. Shepherd was born in October of 1941. NASCAR was founded in February of 1948. So to summarize, Shepherd was alive on this planet just under seven years before Bill France Sr.’s dream of a national touring stock car circuit could be put into motion.
Did I mention that at the age of 75, Shepherd is still competing in one of NASCAR’s primary racing divisions? In fact, 2017 will mark the 50th year of his impressive career.
But that’s not even the most amazing part of Shepherd’s story. In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, he talks about his connection to the old moonshine days, his crash and burn lifestyle and how he eventually came to Christ, and his thoughts on some of today’s young drivers.
Chad Bonham: By most accounts, you’re the only person actively involved with NASCAR who has direct ties to the old moonshine days. You also do things a little differently than most drivers. How has your unique past contributed to where you are now?
Morgan Shepherd: I’m the last of the Mohicans. I’ve supported myself since I was 10 years old. I learned at a young age that if you were going to have anything, you were going to have to work for it. I wasn’t a kid that got toys. I bought my first bicycle with my own money. I was fascinated with mechanical things. The first thing I learned to work on was a Wizzer Motorbike when I was 10 years old. I’d take it apart and put it together every week. I’d get parts at the Western Auto store. By the time I was 12, I bought my first car. I bought a ’37 Chevrolet Coach. I did the same thing with it. I’d take it apart and put it together. That’s how I learned to mechanic. I gave 12 dollars, my bike, two flying squirrels, a grey squirrel and a 20-gauge shotgun for the car. Before I turned 13, I was able to rebuild engines. I rebuilt engines for high school boys. So I was sort of self-taught over the years. School wasn’t a great interest for me but I encourage everybody to get their education. That’s how I got into racing.
I didn’t have any kind of financial background. I lost my dad when I was 12. He was a moonshiner over in Ferguson, North Carolina. That’s over near Wilkesboro, North Carolina. That was just a way of life back in the 40s. You might say I’m one of the few guys that’s in racing that didn’t bring anything money wise into it. My talent of learning about automobiles and stuff is how I learned to race. I actually got a late start in racing. Most of your young people that’s in racing now started when they were four and five years old. I helped people when I was teenager, 15 or 16. I’d go to races and help them, but I didn’t get to drive a race car until I was 25 years old and almost turning 26 back in 1967. It was pretty ironic that my dad had his first new vehicle—a ’53 Ford pickup—and of course I used to ride with him to make his deliveries. They had old flathead Ford engines back then. He’d put a case of moonshine on each side of the engine and lay them up against the cylinder heads and we’d go make the deliveries. One day the ABC men stopped him. I wasn’t with him, but he had a Pepsi bottle that had moonshine in it sitting on the driver’s seat. They took his brand new pickup, the first new one he’d ever owned in his life.
Bonham: How did you get involved in the moonshine business?
Shepherd: My friend, Clifford Baker and I, that ran around together back then, we worked on old cars. He had a ’54 Ford Mercury that we put a 327 Chevy engine in. We decided we’d build us a still, being that’s what I grew up around. We built our still and one day when we got off of work, we was going back to the still and as we started across the top of the hill, we all the sudden heard an explosion. The ABC men had found our still they blew it up about 4:30 in the afternoon. We still went on and did things. We didn’t build another one but we’d go out and we knew where to buy the white liquor. The last haul we were getting ready to make, we went up to Hildebrand at about 6:30 to pick it up. The guy said it wasn’t ready, but we noticed something was wrong. We saw these maroon Buicks and all these cops along the way. We noticed something wasn’t quite right. So the guy told us to come back around 7:30 and it was only about 10 miles we had to travel from our house. We were coming back down 6470 and right after you pass Hickory Speedway and pass Steve White’s dealership, there’s no turn offs between there and all the way into Conover. They waited ‘til we got past where we couldn’t get turned off or really run from them. There was between 18-20 cop cars and ABC men, the Conover police, the Hickory police. They just closed in from all around us. Clifford had a ’59 Pontiac Catalina—a big ole car. You could lay out in the trunk of those things and not touch sides. Anyway, we didn’t have a load of liquor but happened to have a Pepsi-Cola bottle sitting on the seat and it was full of white liquor. I told Clifford, “Pull off on the grass. I’m going to knock the top of this Pepsi bottle. Just keep going until I get this thing emptied.” So I eased the door open and we kept driving in the grass and I got it emptied and let go of it. For whatever reason, I reckon they was watching the car so much and I was on the right side so they didn’t see me pouring it out or anything. So they just knew they had us. They told us to get out of the car. Of course we got out. They was knocking on the panels. They was in the trunk. They was up under the gas tank. They just knew they had us. But we got rid of the last little bit and so they let us go. That was the last time we ever hauled any moonshine. We quit after that.
It was a way of life back where we came from. There wasn’t a lot of jobs in Ferguson, North Carolina. There was only two service stations and my dad had one of them and his brother had the other one. My dad made living with logging. He had a couple mules and an old truck and then he made moonshine on the side. The first time I really remember my dad was when I was somewhere around four and a half years old. I saw this bus pull up across the creek. My mom said, “That’s your dad coming home.” He’d been in prison for a year for making moonshine. Back in the 40s and 50s, that was sort of way of life for people up in the mountains. Of course Junior Johnson, that’s how he got his start in racing.
Bonham: When do you first remember hearing the Bible or anything related to the Christian faith?
Shepherd: When I was around 12 years old, we had a preacher that lived above us. He would come and get me and take me to church. I probably said the words somewhere along the line that I’d accepted Jesus as my Savior and I can remember being baptized, but it was only words. I only cared about Morgan Shepherd. I partied and drank. Whatever I could do for Morgan Shepherd, that’s what I did. That’s what the average person does when they don’t know Christ. I realized I had a problem with the drinking and I stopped for a year. I realized I couldn’t do anything. But through Jesus Christ, all things are possible. God let me get to the lowest point in my life on February 23, 1975. I finally fell to my knees. I had said the words before, but this time I was serious because I was one miserable human being. When I received Christ, He made me see all of the good men in prison that wouldn’t be there had they not taken that drink and all the families and all the things that were wasted and down the drain. I’ve never been tempted by that ever since.
Bonham: How has ministry at the track progressed over the years?
Shepherd: As long as I have been there, there’s always been some sort of ministry. Before MRO came along, I remember Bill Baird was one of the ministry and there was several different ones along the way that would come in and do sort of the same thing that MRO does now. But it was a completely a one-man show where NASCAR allowed a preacher to be there. This sport’s always been different than any other sport. People ask me about what I think about the liquor and the beer and all this stuff in NASCAR. Our country allows all kind of business to be there. NASCAR is the same way. But they really take a firm stand on Christianity. They don’t let anyone shove ‘em around. You can say the word “Jesus” in NASCAR and nobody’s going to come down on your for it.
It’s always been that way. You never really got the cold shoulder in NASCAR when it comes to your Christian faith. Because let’s face it, these are just old country boys that’s been in the sport for a long time. Your country boys, your farmers have been the ones that have really stood up for Jesus more than what you would say the city slickers would. This sport has been a country boy’s sport where everything was done in the backyard. This sport didn’t start out with a ton of money and corporate sponsors like some of the others have more or less made their way. Everything’s been grassroots in NASCAR.
Bonham: What keeps you going despite the odds being stacked against you?
Shepherd: It is my purpose that keeps me driving. It is that I’m a servant of the Lord. It is an opportunity to carry the name of Jesus on our car. I know we reach people worldwide. We were just looking at the hits on our website. Over a span of one year we had over seven million people look at our site. It is our purpose. For whatever reason, God has blessed me with my talent. As far as racing, I know that we’re still good but we don’t have the money to buy the up-to-date engines. Our equipment is good but we can’t hire the people to do the quick pit stops. But the biggest thing is we’re running four-year old engines. Us not being able to buy new engines is the one part that we’re really missing.
Bonham: Did you ever imagine still racing at this age?
Shepherd: I would’ve never imagined it. I’ve watched drivers quit in their late 30s. Ned Jarrett quit in his 30s. But I still have this great passion and love for this sport and undoubtedly, the Lord wants me to be here because I wouldn’t be able to be here and do it. I don’t run out of gas when it comes to running the miles. I can withstand the heat better than anybody out there. God has kept me tough. I think all of its because of faith. I hope my life is an encouragement to somebody else to maybe get up and do something with their life. It’s not about us. It’s about being an influence and helping others.
Bonham: How are you financially able to survive in a sport where sponsorship dollars are usually at a premium?
Shepherd: We get used tires from the Cup guys. Through help like that we’re able to do it. We did the start and the park and we’ve been able to get ourselves in a situation to where we can run the whole race now. Of course, if something bad was to happen, we’d be out of racing because we don’t have the big money that it takes to be here. But we have many friends like Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart and many fans that have helped us to be out there. Richard Childress helped us one year with a couple cars and helped with the points situation. They helped me stay in the sport. We have a lot of friends and we feel like they’re all family out there that help keep us going so we don’t have to do the start and park. It’s just a business.
Bonham: Are you encouraged to see so many younger drivers publicly professing their faith?
Shepherd: It is so encouraging to see in this day and time with what goes on in the world that you’ve got Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse and all the guys that truly love the Lord. Trevor Bayne, he is something else. That young man carries his Bible to the track. He stands up for what he believes in. That really impresses me that we’ve got a young group in our sport that’s not afraid to speak out. They do out and walk the walk and talk the talk. They work with MRO and get involved in a lot of different things. We’ve got a fine group of guys. But it takes all different kinds. It takes those boys to encourage other young people. That’s what we’re all about. Whether we’re young or old, it’s taking your stand for our Savior Jesus Christ.
Morgan Shepherd and many other NASCAR figures are featured in the book Faith in the Fast Lane.
More information about Shepherd’s racing career and his charitable foundation can be found at his official website.
(Photos: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images; Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images; Chad Bonham)