It is often said that to be successful in motorsport a driver has to be at one with his machine, for every input the driver makes, be it steering or pedal movement, the car has to react immediately and do exactly what is asked of it, nothing more, nothing less. It is partly this fact that the machine does some of the work that allows drivers to continue to be competitive a lot later into life than if they played some other sport like football or baseball.
That’s not to say that anybody can just turn up and be physically able to race for three hours, as there’s more to it than just sitting there steering. At every turn of every lap drivers experience G-forces acting on their bodies, sometimes up to 3Gs which is the same as astronauts experience on lift off, only for a driver they have to fight against it for the entire duration of a race. In terms of steering a Cup car the cars do have power steering but they still weigh over 3,000 pounds and have to be muscled around the track.
This makes it even more remarkable that drivers have the physical ability to compete at the highest level while at an age that many would consider to be too old to be a professional athlete. As many would say age is nothing but a number, as Bobby Allison proved when he became the oldest ever champion at 45. Arguably the most famous of these drivers is Mark Martin who at 54 is still going strong and beating drivers half his age virtually every week. Last season he finished 24th despite starting 12 less races than most drivers in the standings and while he is down in 29th position this season again he has started 5 fewer races than those around him.
NASCAR though is a sport that requires experience to succeed, very few drivers come in and win in their early years. There are exceptions of course, Jeff Gordon won his first Championship when only 24, but in the current age of the sport titles tend to come to the drivers who have taken years to acquaint themselves with the nuances of the sport. The current average age of the top 10 is 36.7 years and while there are younger drivers that are running competitively such as Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr, time shows that it will be a few years until they are mounting a serious title challenge.
This weekend though records on the oldest ever driver to start a Sprint Cup race could be torn up and re-written. At 71 years, 9 months and 2 days Morgan Shepherd is scheduled to take the wheel of the number 52 Brian Keselowski Racing Cup car and as there are only 43 cars listed to start than provided there are no last minutes hitches he will automatically qualify for the race. He beats the previous record holder Jim Fitzgerald, who set the record back in 1987, by nearly 6 years.
Shepherd’s first season in NASCAR’s highest level was in 1970, although it wasn’t until the 80′s that he established a regular ride and picked up his first win in 1981. As with today’s top drivers it wasn’t until he had more experience in NASCAR that he started to finishing high up the standings, picking up a 5th placed finish in 1990 at the age of 49 and finishing 7th and 6th in 1993 and 1994 while in his 50s. He is currently second in the oldest race winner table winning at Atlanta when he was 51.
He isn’t coming into this race cold either, he has been racing sporadically in the Nationwide series and has run the last two rounds in that series at Kentucky and Daytona. Whilst he only ran a handful laps at both those races he has said that he will not be a ‘start and park’ driver at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and that he will compete the entire race.
Nobody expects him to win or even run near the front, that is more down to the car than his talent, but the mere fact that he is starting the race should be a message to everyone that if you want to do something badly enough than you should never let age stand in your way.