A few years ago, he put his faith in some people who invested his life savings, which he’d earned racing 20 years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. He ended up losing almost everything.
What he didn’t lose was his faith.
Faced with the prospect of starting over from scratch at an age when most drivers have long since retired, Shepherd, 67, placed his racing career in the hands of the Lord and started a mission.
Instead of winning races, his main goal now is to win souls and spread the gospel using the gift from God which hasn’t faltered in more than four decades — his ability to drive race cars.
When Morgan Shepherd travels to the racetrack every weekend, he has two jobs. The first is to get his Faith Motorsports entry into the starting lineup and finish as high up in the standings as possible.
But the second job — and the one he places the most emphasis on — is using his Victory in Jesus Racing ministry to spread his faith in Jesus to as many people as possible.
Anyone who’s heard Shepherd share his testimony knows he’s not afraid to tell it like it is, and he makes no bones about the fact that there are a lot of souls out there for the taking among the ranks of NASCAR fans.
It’s hard to calculate success in the ministry. They don’t put box scores in the newspaper for saving souls.
But the Lord is beginning to reward Shepherd’s faith in his ability to drive a race car. After running a very limited schedule most of this decade, Shepherd is in his third season driving the full Nationwide series schedule for his own Faith Motorsports team.
The first two years were pretty tough — a lot of DNQs and a lot of start-and-parks, where he made the race, ran a few laps, and parked because he could afford $1,800 to buy an extra set of tires.
The beginning of the 2009 season has been a different story. After a 20th-place qualifying effort at Daytona, Shepherd spent most of the first half of the race around the top 10 before a fluke mechanical failure cost him 28 laps in the pits and relegated him to a 39th-place finish.
That misfortune didn’t hamper his momentum, which carried over to California and Las Vegas, where he notched 19th- and 13th-place finishes, respectively. It was the first time Shepherd scored consecutive top-20 finishes in an upper-echelon NASCAR series since 1997, when he was competing in the Sprint Cup series.
Shepherd said he owes much of his good fortune thus far in 2009 to Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, who have provided support in the form of brand-new cars, three new engines and tire money.
Shepherd told the Times-News he likes to think his recent good fortune will only serve to increase his ability to serve God.
“I wasn’t giving up on what I was doing,” he said. “I’ve seen such a good opportunity being in the sport — it’s my mission field — to encourage people to better their lives, and doing that by carrying the Jesus logo on the hood of the car we’ve been able to reach people all over the world. I was just amazed that I’d get fan mail from Russia, Germany, Australia and all over the world saying they appreciate our stand in racing.
“That encouraged me that much more, plus we’ve had a charity we’ve been doing for 22 years, and all of it helps feed off each other. I more or less started over with nothing in 2001, and I just started working my way back up.”
Although he initially attempted to make a stand with Faith Motorsports in the Cup series, Shepherd found that with the amount of funding available, he was going to have a better chance of staying in NASCAR by focusing on the Nationwide series.
Shepherd’s faith-based Nationwide effort started in 2003 with one car that he pieced together himself.
“Two years ago, Kevin Harvick helped me some to get a few more cars built, and then last year he helped me a little more — built me a car and surprised me with it,” Shepherd said. “Then him and Tony (Stewart) got together and helped me even more this year. The car that I finished 13th and 19th with at Las Vegas and California is a car that Kevin and his team built for us this year. Of course, we switched from Dodge to Chevrolet, and then Tony Stewart helped buy me three motors this year.”
Saturday afternoon, Shepherd will be driving the same car at Bristol that he ran at Las Vegas and California, and he fully expects to be competitive. But if there’s one racetrack that can put a driver’s faith to the test, it’s Bristol Motor Speedway, and Shepherd knows much of his hopes for the 2009 season hang on bringing that car home intact.
“That’s all we’ve got right now for these type tracks, so I’ve got to take care of it,” Shepherd said. “We’ve had three full-time employees working in the shop, and we just hired another one, so now we’ve got four. So that car is pretty much irreplaceable.”
Even though things are looking good for Shepherd with the race team, he’s still counted among the have-nots compared to the Cup-supported teams. He doesn’t even have a pit crew.
“We have to borrow guys and come in on the second (caution) lap with the lapped-down cars,” he said. “Guys from other teams are pitting the car, and I know it must look strange because every one of them is wearing a different uniform. The bad thing is, all the ground we gain on the racetrack, we lose in the pits. So that’s a problem that’s got to be solved if we plan to continue getting better.”
Shepherd said he believes his Faith Motorsports team is on the verge of working itself into top-10 race finishes and contending for the top 10 in the points. Despite the Daytona misfortune, he’s off to a good start — sitting 19th in the driver standings ahead of drivers young enough to be his grandchildren.
But there’s another race he’s leading every time he leaves his shop for a racetrack.
“I like to think that Jesus logo on the hood gets people to thinking,” he said. “Who would ever have thought that it would draw this much attention? I notice when military come in and attend races they come get their picture taken next to the car, and they need that faith — they need something to draw them closer to the Lord.”
Shepherd can think of several examples where he’s had a positive influence on a person’s life. One that sticks out in his mind is a 39-year-old man from Africa who saw Shepherd on TV talking about a young man named Josh Hill, who was hit by a drunk driver.
The viewer was an alcoholic, which was one of the afflictions that plagued Shepherd’s life before he was saved.
“This guy heard me tell about it, and then when I prayed he received Christ,” Shepherd said. “He sent us an e-mail, and he even sent one to the church I go to. All the way from Africa he sought us out and encouraged us with what a difference it had made in his life.
“We know we’re doing something to point people in the right direction, and I’ve got many, many stories like that — what’s happened to people by us being there.”
But does Shepherd believe his faith is being rewarded with recent good fortune on the racetrack? Not really. The real rewards will come later.
“I’m rewarded just by being here,” he said. “To be 67 and to have the good health God has blessed me with, and be able to go out and drive the cars and roller skate and do all the things I do, I’m really blessed.”