Jeff Shepard's potential is as awesome as the 700-horsepower sprint car he drives.
He is one of the most promising sprint car drivers competing on the tough central Pennsylvania circuit.
In a short span of four weeks, he picked up three wins at three tracks, including the Coors Pennsylvania State Sprint Car Championshipat Lincoln Speedway in Hanover.
And what makes this accomplishment so remarkable is he did it in a car he built from scratch. While most of the drivers buy their chassis, motor and parts from racing manufacturers, Shepard has built his own the last two years.
"My father sent me to school to be a certified welder so there wouldn't be anyproblem with safety," he said.
In addition to building and maintaining his own car, he operates his own metal fabricating company, Finksburg Fabrication, which makes racing parts and does metal fabricating for construction work. He also helps operate the family business, which owns the 140 Exxon in Finksburg and the Crown service station in Owings Mills.
Someday, Shepard hopes to build chasses and components for other drivers and is well on his way to accomplishing that goal.
"People all look at my chassis after I win," he said. "But they aren't ready to buy anything until it begins to dominate."
Shepard has come as close to dominating as possible when he races. He hasfinished in the top 10 in more than 80 percent of his races. He traveled to western Pennsylvania to race twice and was eighth-fastest qualifier out of more than 30 cars the first time out on the track. The next time he was fourth. In between, he set fast time at Lincoln during the World of Outlaw show.
By the end of the year, Shepard was the talk of sprint car racing. Unfortunately, the publicity wasn't allgood. Shortly after Shepard won his first race at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa., his brother, Judd Shepard III, was badlyinjured at Lincoln Speedway.
"We didn't know what to do," Jeff said. "We thought about quitting racing all together. But rather than go to the hospital and be mopey, we raced the next night because we knew that Judd would want that."
The family pulled together and Shepard went out and won at the Susquehanna Speedway in Newberrytown, Pa., the next night. It was a time of mixed emotions. The post-race celebration was filled with tears of victory and tears of concern over Judd's condition.
Judd was able to leave the hospital two weeks later and Jeff celebrated with the biggest win of his career at Lincoln, the Pennsylvania State Sprint Car Championship. It will take several months before Judd is completely recovered.
Shepard and his brother have been around racing all of their life. They watched races everyweekend at Lincoln when they were kids.
"Me and my brother raced everything around the house," Shepard recalls.
Like so many top-notch drivers, Shepard started racing when he was young. Eventually hisparents purchased go-carts for the two boys when Jeff turned 10, andbefore long they were racing at the Hunterstown, Pa., cart track.
Jeff and Judd raced as a team and from the dirt tracks they graduated to professional cart racing and competed on superspeedways from Michigan to Florida. Still, whenever Jeff was home for a weekend, he went to watch the sprints at Lincoln, hoping that someday he would race there.
Just before Shepard turned 16, his family purchased a sprint car. He has had tremendous support from his father, Judd II, and mother, Helen.
Judd was the first to get behind the wheel, and when Shepard turned 16, he took his turn in the cockpit as Judd returned to go-karts.
The first time Shepard got into a sprint in 1987, he made the sprint car community sit up and take notice. He showed a lot of promise.
He had one win at Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway in three years going into the 1991 season. Not bad for a 20-year-old driver, but not good enough for Shepard. He felt his racing wasn't progressing the way it should.
"I was frustrated from not winning," he explained. "I talked to a few people to get my brain running right, got rid of the negative factors on the team and replaced them with people whowere serious and wanted to win. We changed everything."
It apparently worked. Shepard has come into his own, fulfilled the expectations and matured into one of the top drivers in one year.
Right before Shepard broke into the winner's circle, you had the feeling that hewas close. He was leading three races going into the final laps at Lincoln only to lose them.
"The axle broke the first time, but I still finished second," he said. "The next time I went out of the groove and the third time they just plain got past me. "
Mistakes and mechanical problems are part of racing. It just made Shepard work harder, and his determination paid off.
His fantastic year is coming to an end. It will be one that he will never forget.
But he now hasto look forward to next year. Even though he builds all of his own equipment, he stills needs money to race.
"We need a sponsor," Shepard said. "If we don't get one we will have to pack it in."
Shepard is a long way from reaching his potential. Every time he straps himself into his 700-horsepower winged machine, he is working toward hisgoal of running professional with the World of Outlaw circuit. From there, he wants to advance to the NASCAR Grand National circuit.
If anyone can make it, Jeff Shepard should be able to.