Twists, turns lead Shepard back to top of sprint scene

Auto Racing

May 17, 1998|By Stanley Dillon | Stanley Dillon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jeff Shepard of Upperco has experienced more ups and downs in ten years than most drivers do in an entire career. Shepard, 27, was thrown in with the best in sprint car racing at 16. Whenever it looked like he was reaching his potential, misfortune would strike in one way or another.

After years of highs and lows, Shepard is now showing something he has lacked in years gone by -- maturity. And he is taking his experience and harnessing all the raw talent he is gifted with and finally reaching the level he knew he could achieve.

After years of working magic with underfinanced teams and teams formed at the last minute, Shepard has put together his own team with backing from a successful business owner. He has responded with nothing but wins and top-five finishes.

Just four years ago, Shepard was sprint car racing's rising star. He was labeled as a can't-miss prospect. In 1993, he started traveling with the All-Star Circuit of Champions. His success carried him into the Slick 50 TV Series from Arizona the following winter.

In 1994, he started the season on the World of Outlaw circuit before ending up with car owner Al Hamilton, a first-class deal complete with corporate support. But six weeks later his world came crashing down.

Shepard was running third at Eldora Speedway in Ohio and closing in on the leaders. Then suddenly the car turned right and he hit the backstretch wall at full speed. As the car flipped violently down the track and disintegrated around him, the wing bracket came into the cockpit and shattered his face. The impact broke his nose, eye socket, cheek, jaw and forehead.

Jeff Shepard was fortunate to be alive, and many wondered if he would ever race again. And if he did, would he be able to pick up where he left off?

When the odds are against him, that's when Shepard excels. He spent 12 days in shock trauma and another three months recovering at home with his jaw wired shut. Six months later, he was ready to climb back into a race car, but he had to start over with his former ride long gone.

Shepard got a call from Memphis by a car owner willing to see if he could still drive. He gave it a try and he looked good, good enough to go back on the road with the Outlaws. But 15 races into the '95 season, the team was out of motors. He caught on with another team to finish out the season on the All-Star Circuit.

Near the end of '96, Shepard looked to be on the rise again. He won three All-Star races, finished eighth in the prestigious Knoxville Nationals and was finishing in the top five with consistency. But, the team opted for a veteran driver and Shepard was out.

The start of the 1997 season had to be Shepard's worst since he started racing. He was at the bottom of his roller coaster career. There were no Outlaw rides, no All-Star rides, nothing in Pennsylvania. He had no ride, no job, nothing.

But it is under adverse situations that only someone like Shepard can bounce back. He didn't give up as he bounced from ride to ride, trying to find the right combination to prove he could still race.

Then came a ride with a super sportsman driver and car owner, Jim Shuttlesworth. It wasn't the best deal, but Shepard wanted to prove himself. They clicked immediately and won at Williams Grove the third time out, in used equipment.

Near the end of last year, Shepard caught the attention of excavating contractor Les Stewart of York, Pa., who wanted to put together a team. For the first time in his career, Shepard had the opportunity to form his own team, get the people he wanted and have the financial backing he needed.

All Shepard has done since is finish out last year with three quick wins and develop into one of this year's hottest drivers.

He went to Florida in February and won the Winter Nationals at Tampa's East Bay Speedway. In seven races in Florida during Speedweeks Shepard finished in the top three six times.

When the season opened in central Pennsylvania, Shepard continued his winning ways with one win and seven top five finishes in seven races. He added another win and at one time led in points on the All-Star Circuit and at Lincoln and Williams Grove Speedway.

Rather than race locally and win more races, Shepard prefers to race with the best and that means going on the road. He raced with the All-Stars this weekend at Attica, Eldora and Sharon speedways in Ohio and will be catching up with the World of Outlaws as they begin their Eastern Swing on Tuesday at Lernerville (Pa.) Speedway. The swing includes stops at Williams Grove and Hagerstown Speedway Memorial Day weekend.

"I want to be the best there is," said Shepard. "If I race around here, I would only get so good. You have to get out and race with the best. That is the only way you can get better."

Rather than stay in sprint car, Shepard is working on a deal that would start his career in a completely different direction, Winston Cup Racing.

"I have over 200 laps at Charlotte and Rockingham. I want to try it while I am still young," said Shepard.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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