NHRA's 50 greatest drivers: no. 12 -- Lee Shepherd Lee Shepherd was a soft-spoken Texan who let his driving do his talking. He was a member of the Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd triumvirate -- a remarkable trio of racers who utterly dominated ...
NHRA's 50 greatest drivers: no. 12 -- Lee Shepherd
Lee Shepherd was a soft-spoken Texan who let his driving do his talking. He was a member of the Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd triumvirate -- a remarkable trio of racers who utterly dominated Pro Stock in the early 1980s with their tri-colored Camaros.
Shepherd won four straight Winston championships in 1981-1984 and was on his way to a fifth consecutive title when the drag racing world was rocked by the news that he had died in a testing accident in Oklahoma on March 11, 1985.
The shy, slightly built driver still is remembered as a giant in the sport 16 years after his passing. From 1980 to 1984, Shepherd reached the finals in 44 of 56 NHRA national events, winning 26 of them. In 1983, he became the first driver to win both the NHRA and IHRA Pro Stock championships -- a feat he repeated the following year. He won every race on the NHRA tour at least once, compiled a 173-47 record in NHRA competition, and is still ranked fourth on the lists of all-time Pro Stock winners and finalists.
But it is not just Shepherd's record that survives. He still is remembered as both a friend and a fierce competitor by those who knew him. He was a driver who honed his racing skills on a racquetball court, sharpening his reflexes to gain an advantage on the starting line. He was a skilled craftsman who labored long hours on the handcrafted cylinder heads that gave the RMS Chevrolets an insurmountable horsepower advantage.
Shepherd also had the patience to spend tedious hours grinding a mirror by hand for his telescope, and the killer instinct to cut down his competition on the starting line. Long before he became a Pro Stock champion, Shepherd was a weekend warrior with a knack for driving and a talent for porting cylinder heads. What he lacked, however, was confidence. His chief rivals on the Southwestern Sportsman circuit were Buddy Morrison and David Reher, two University of Texas students who campaigned a mongrel Chevy-powered Maverick driven by Bobby Cross.
Reher and Morrison eventually persuaded Shepherd to tow his Chevy II station wagon to Ohio for the 1972 Springnationals. Shepherd's lime-green F/MP Nova made it to the final round in Modified eliminator, and his self-esteem soared.
With Cross devoting more time to his fledgling business, Reher and Morrison needed a driver, and Shepherd was the obvious choice. The three Texans pooled their limited resources and forged their longstanding partnership.
The Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd team promptly won the 1974 Winternationals with their pumpkin-orange F/Gas Maverick. Recognizing the advantages of the Stingray Corvette's shorter wheelbase and rearward engine location, the Texans borrowed a Corvette body, transplanted the Maverick's powertrain, and notched another Modified victory at the 1975 Springnationals.
The three amigos soon realized that any chance of landing sponsorship and factory support hinged on competing in a high-profile professional class. Although they were sportsman racers at heart, Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd knew that their future was in Pro Stock.
Following the standard Pro Stock recipe, RMS commissioned Don Ness, then an obscure chassis builder from Minnesota, to construct a small-block Monza in 1976. Shepherd's rookie season turned sour, though, when an apparent suspension failure led to a high-speed crash at the Summernationals in Englishtown. Uninjured but shaken by the experience, Shepherd temporarily retired from Pro Stock.
Shepherd returned to his sportsman roots, winning Modified eliminator at the 1977 Cajun Nationals in a G/Modified Production Camaro. Reher and Morrison recruited New Yorker Richie Zul as a replacement driver for their rebuilt Monza, but the personalities and cultures didn't mesh.
Shepherd was enticed to return to the Pro Stock wars in 1978 when Reher and Morrison launched their secret weapon: a Z28 Camaro powered not by the ubiquitous big-block Chevy V-8 but by a small-block engine. The Camaro's long, 108-inch wheelbase dramatically improved its high-speed handling, and a generous weight allowance for the little engine made it a killer combination.
Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd were virtually unbeatable in 1980 with their innovative Camaro. They notched a record six wins and three runner-up finishes in 10 NHRA national events. Only a broken transmission in the final race of the season denied the team its first NHRA championship.
They came roaring back the following year with their next breakthrough -- an arsenal of small-displacement big-blocks. The three Texans won six more NHRA national events in 1981 and claimed their first Winston championship.
NHRA introduced new Pro Stock rules at the 1982 Winternationals and replaced the previous system of complex weight breaks with a simple 500-cid/2,350-pound formula. Reher-Morrison's burgeoning big-block program gave them a head start on developing engines for these new-generation Pro Stock cars. Shepherd ran a 7.86 elapsed time in the season opener in Pomona, which was the first seven-second Pro Stock run in NHRA history.
The dawn of Pro Stock's big-block era also opened another world for Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd to conquer. The team pursued parallel NHRA and IHRA engine programs, assembling 500-cid engines for NHRA events and behemoth 615- and 632-cid mountain motors for IHRA competition. Shepherd compiled a 48-6 record in IHRA competition in 1983-1984 and won back-to-back titles.
Shepherd was a member in good standing of Pro Stock's Gang of Four -- a quartet of drivers that included Warren Johnson, Bob Glidden, and Frank Iaconio. This foursome won every NHRA national event on the schedule over a span of six seasons and 64 races. Shepherd set the Pro Stock national e.t. and speed records a total of 14 times.
There were accolades off the track as well. Shepherd was the Pro Stock Driver of the Year on the Car Craft All-star Drag Racing Team four consecutive seasons. He was voted to the All-American Team three times by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. Super Stock magazine proclaimed him the "Real World Champion" in 1982-1984 based on a points system that tallied the performance of drivers in all three Professional categories.
RMS Racing was on a roll. The team's winnings financed the construction of a sparkling 20,000-square-foot shop in Arlington, Texas. There were new machines, new dyno cells, and new race cars under construction. Life was good. And then the unthinkable happened. Shepherd was killed in an accident while testing his '84 Camaro on a dragstrip in Ardmore, Okla.
According to eyewitness accounts, Shepherd had just finished making a series of 60-foot test clockings, then made a full pass. On that run, he recorded a 7.87, the parachute deployed, and the car picked up on the right front and went airborne. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Shepherd's death traumatized the sport. Mourners came from California, Michigan, and New York to attend his funeral. Racers put black slashes through the numbers on their cars, and the Pro Stock drivers memorialized Shepherd with a missing-man parade at the next national event, in Gainesville, Fla.
Following Shepherd's death, the team regrouped with Sportsman standout Bruce Allen behind the wheel of the familiar red, white, and blue Camaro. "Racing is what we do," explained Morrison. That was all that was needed to be said.
Shepherd continues to cast a giant shadow over Pro Stock. He is still the standard by which drivers are judged. Few can match his grace under pressure or his gunfighter reflexes at the starting line.
"Lee was an excellent driver," remembered five-time Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson, one of the few active drivers who raced against Shepherd. "He seemed very relaxed when he was driving. I think that was when he was having fun."
Like Blaine Johnson, "Sneaky Pete" Robinson, and others whose careers were cut short by tragedy, there is no telling what heights Shepherd could have achieved. For the generation of fans who saw him in action, Shepherd was the consummate Pro Stock racer -- and one of the greatest drivers in NHRA history.
NHRA's Top 50 Drivers are being unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.
As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks. <pre>
NHRA's 50 GREATEST DRIVERS 50. Elmer Trett 49. Richard Tharp 48. Malcolm Durham 47. Billy Meyer 46. Ken Veney 45. Scotty Richardson 44. Dave Schultz 43. Frank Hawley 42. David Rampy 41. John Mulligan 40. Frank Manzo 39. Danny Ongais 38. James Warren 37. Edmond Richardson 36. Blaine Johnson 35. Terry Vance 34. Willie Borsch 33. Brad Anderson 32. Darrell Gwynn 31. Dick LaHaie 30. Chris Karamesines 29. Art Chrisman 28. George Montgomery 27. Jim Dunn 26. Gene Snow 25. Tommy Ivo 24. Gary Beck 23. Jack Chrisman 22. Pete Robinson 21. Connie Kalitta 20. Raymond Beadle 19. Ed McCulloch 18. Don Nicholson 17. Jim Liberman 16. Tom McEwen 15. Ronnie Sox 14. Eddie Hill 13. Pat Austin 12. Lee Shepherd
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