Drivers in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series rev their 680-horsepower stock cars around 35 different tracks throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada from February through November, one of the most grueling schedules in professional sports.
It’s a peripatetic, physically demanding existence for racers still in their 20s, but 66-year-old Morgan Shepherd wouldn’t have it any other way. For the circuit’s elder statesman, whipping his “Racing With Jesus” Dodge Charger around a racecourse is his version of heaven on earth.
Shepherd revels in spreading the Lord’s word from a high-octane, 192-mph pulpit while swaddled in fire-resistant Nomex. “That’s what my racing is about, it’s a ministry,” Shepherd says from his three-bedroom home in Conover, N.C. He and his three-person team “use our racing as a tool to reach people around the world.”
That outreach would be easier if the racing team that Shepherd owns, Faith Motorsports, had a major sponsor. “It bothers me that corporate America won’t take advantage of what we’re doing,” says Shepherd, who won’t accept alcohol-related sponsorship. “I’m at the age where they could use me to encourage people—you’re not dead after 50!”
Instead, Faith Motorsports depends largely on appearance fees and the largess of others, such as fellow drivers Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, who’ve helped subsidize Shepherd’s racing efforts this year.
Shepherd is convinced that his reflexes and ability to make snap decisions while driving at high speeds rival that of any competitor. The Ferguson, N.C., native has won several major races over the course of a stock car career stretching back to 1967. He’s in it to win it.
“We’re still for real,” Shepherd says.
It’s as real as the seminal day of Feb. 23, 1975, the dividing line that neatly bisects Shepherd’s life. Before then, he was spiraling out of control. He drank too much. He chased after women. His wife got fed up and left him. And his racing career appeared to be on a fast track to oblivion.
“The only time I felt good was when I was drunk,” Shepherd says of the weeks and months preceding his rebirth.
But on that February night, hung-over after a weekend of debauchery with another woman, he decided he’d had enough. In the privacy of his home, Shepherd says, he dropped to his knees and prayed that God would change him. His craving for alcohol disappeared, and his life took a turn for the better. That was 33 years ago, which coincidentally occurred when Shepherd was 33.
After that spiritual encounter, Shepherd started to make a name for himself at the highest level of stock car racing, which was then known as the Winston Cup Series. Later, after five failed marriages, he settled down with his current wife, Cindy, 47, in 1994.
This season, Shepherd has pledged to compete in all 35 races. “We’re going to be here as long as He wants me here,” Shepherd says. “With money or without money.”