Few drivers make an impact on drag racing like a soft-spoken, determined individual named Lee Shepherd of Arlington , Texas did. When teamed with the formidable duo of Texans David Reher and the late Buddy Morrison, Shepherd excelled at an incredible pace in a short span of time. Combining his talent behind the wheel with a non-confrontational personality and a sincere dedication to the Chevrolet brand, Shepherd didn't take long in earning the admiration of race fans, young and old. He gained a huge amount of respect from fellow racers as well.
It's a pretty safe assessment to say that many teams underestimated the triumvirate that combined under what were unusual circumstances. Shepherd first joined Reher-Morrison through necessity, and the relationship blossomed from there. The talented driver headed up a team that had developed a reputation in Division 4, and when Shepherd blew the engine in his ride and Reher and Morrison found themselves with an engine and no car, the forces morphed into one. They found success with a few national event wins, and in 1976 they made the huge leap into Pro Stock. The foundation had actually been laid many years before, however.
Reher actually met Shepherd while he was in college at the University of Texas – Arlington . The two actually had a calculus class together.
“I knew that he had been running his car at the local track, but I had never really met him at a race,” recalled Reher. “I had met him in class.”
Reher admitted that he was impressed with Shepherd the first time he met him. His assessment was that his future driver was a super person. He wasn't an outspoken person and was always quick to treat others the way he would like to be treated. That temperament is something that made it easy for Shepherd to build some lasting relationships, including a longstanding one with Reher.
“Even after he became a star, he never wavered in his treatment of others. He was an extremely intelligent guy and that caused others to gravitate toward him.”
Shepherd's ability to block out distractions is something that primed him for legendary status in NHRA Pro Stock competition. According to Reher, that ability is something that enabled Shepherd to excel as quickly as he did. Even Reher had to confide that that level of concentration is something that kept him from being a driver.
Of course, the perfect examples of Shepherd's techniques were often most evident in his battles with Bob Glidden.
“Those guys had major staging battles,” Reher said. “Lee would let him know that there was no way that he was going to stage first. He was always quick to say that he didn't care what happened, he just wasn't going to stage first. Glidden would try to rattle his chain from time to time.”
Shepherd more times than not came out on the winning end of things against Glidden, but the one time he lost a championship to him would be the last time. In 1980, Shepherd and Glidden battled it out for a championship that went down to the final round of the final event of the season. Glidden overcame nearly insurmountable odds to win a championship that was Shepherd's to lose. Just to think a second round win would have sealed the deal, but a broken transmission in the first round left him a sitting duck.
“Their battles were entertaining,” explained Reher. NHRA starter Buster Couch would come over and look in his window and motion for him to stage, but he wouldn't move. He was determined to do what he was going to and that was that. The rest of us were going crazy though.”
Don't think for a moment that the loss to Glidden is something that Shepherd took lightly. Journalist/Publicist Dave Densmore had a front-row seat to those battles.
“They were pretty devastated,” recalled Densmore. “They had the better car all year and they won more races, but Glidden just played the points right and caught them at the end. As devastated as they were, it served as fuel for their commitment for the years to follow. They knew at that point they could do it. They just underestimated Glidden's resolve.”
Shepherd's loss on that day actually served to make him a better racer from that point on. He began a winning streak of world championships that spanned from 1981 until 1984. He very well had the momentum for a 1985 championship, and in fact his successor Bruce Allen did win an IHRA title in 1985.
It has been said before by others, and Reher asserts that the word unemotional in the dictionary most likely could have included Shepherd's picture beside it.
“He was always happy to win, but he wasn't one of those that jumped up and down and carried on,” explained Reher. “He took it all matter-of-factly.”
And, just to think, many just believed Shepherd wanted to win. His game plan just made winning a bonus.
“I'd venture to say that most people didn't know that winning wasn't what motivated him the most – it was making the car go faster and faster,” Reher said. “If we had a weekend off, he could most likely be found spending hours and hours on a flow bench trying to extract horsepower above and beyond what we had.”
Reher admitted that Shepherd was a self-motivated person that never shied from work. He pointed out there were times that he had called it a day and left for home, only to return the next morning and see Shepherd still at it.
“He came up with things that are still being used today,” added Reher. “He was a pioneer and was well ahead of his time. I don't think anyone really understood just how hard he worked striving for perfection.
“He was a forward thinker and was plenty capable of thinking outside of the box. He didn't concern himself much with what other people were doing. He was focused and in tune to his program. Some of his ideas were hair-brained, but then again, he had some really good ones.”
No matter how bad the rivalries got, Shepherd never held any animosity towards Glidden or any racer, for that matter. In fact, Reher recalled the team dining at Glidden's home during the course of the season.
Even when a fellow racer allegedly paid the starter of one of the smaller sanctioning bodies to give a quick tree against Shepherd, he didn't even raise a brow publicly, or privately for that matter. He just accepted it as a part of drag racing that he had really no control over.
Quiet, unemotional and driven to win were three of the many traits that could have propelled him to winning records that might stand in today's 23-race schedule seasons. However, Shepherd would be forever noted for his innovativeness and commitment to excellence more than he would be for his interviews and candidness with the press.
In those days, the Reher, Morrison and Shepherd trio were represented in the media by Densmore. Densmore currently represents Funny Car legend John Force.
According to Densmore, Shepherd rated a 10 as a driver and cylinder head specialist, but O as an interview. “I could honestly say that he was probably one of the worst interviews out there when he first started in Pro Stock. He had never been exposed to that kind of stuff and he was already quiet by nature. That's why it was great to see him evolve over the course of a half-decade and see him come out of his shell around the media.”
Densmore laughs when he adds that Shepherd's “coming out of the shell” meant that he gave the media more than yes or no answers. He continued, “He was never going to threaten John Force when it came to talking.”
As mentioned, Shepherd's true area of expertise was in cylinder heads and their development. Public speaking and public relations just weren't his forte. “Lee was a very talented machinist and designer,” Densmore recalled. “He was a quiet person. Between rounds, you'd always see him up in the front of the Chaparral trailer by himself.”
In a true measure of his domination, Shepherd won both NHRA and IHRA titles in 1983 and 1984. Shepherd's successor Allen won the IHRA title in 1985.
That success relates to one thing – determination. Outside of racing, there were no hobbies and very little spare time was devoted to lounging. He was continually on the go and that suited Reher and Morrison just fine.
“Lee's life outside of racing actually tied back into racing,” explained Densmore. “It was full circle. He built motors during the week to sell to customers and then he raced on the weekend. They always considered their racecar as a form of advertising.”
Densmore recalled the first time he met Shepherd and Reher-Morrison while working as a writer for an Amarillo newspaper.
“I kind of thought they were in over their heads at the time,” Densmore explained. “This was in the era that Bob Glidden was dominating and Bill Jenkins and the Dodge guys were all pretty tough. I just looked at these guys as a group of local Modified racers trying to hit it big.
“At the time, they went to the NHRA Cajun Nationals when it was run at LaPlace Dragway outside of New Orleans. It wasn't a national event, but rather a national open at the time. They won the race. To be fair, the field wasn't loaded with heavy-hitters, either. Later in the year, they had a crash in Englishtown.”
The trio re-evaluated their decision to run as professionals. Shepherd returned to Modified as a hired driver for another team and won a national event. It wasn't long after that until they met up again and made the decision to take another stab at it.
“They made the decision that if they were going to go for it, they had to be serious about it,” explained Densmore. “They knew that being an also-ran was not an option. They had to go after the championship.”
Pro Stock racing was never the same from then on, or at least that's how many race fans saw it. Glidden had been brutally dominant for much of the Seventies, but Shepherd emergence in 1980 would signal a changing of the guard.
Shepherd had effectively entered the game flying under the radar of the front-runners and before they knew what had happened, he had amassed over 36 NHRA and IHRA national event victories and scores of AHRA titles. Just as quickly as he entered the hearts of those in the racing community, however, he was snatched away as the victim of a testing accident in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
In those days, the printed media and the syndicated Diamond P race coverage were the only means of presenting drag racing news. Many people in the industry didn't find out until weeks later, but those in the know got the news quickly.
“I was absolutely stunned,” Densmore recalled. “When they told me that he was gone, I was in shock. The whole drag racing community was in a state of shock. That was the kind of stuff that happened to other people, not championship teams like Reher & Morrison.”
Rumors permeated the racing community that safety was a lax issue and those close to the situation raised a brow at that notion. The car reportedly became airborne and struck an earthen berm. The impact was so severe in a head-on manner that it caused Shepherd to suffer fatal injuries.
The team had been doing sixty-foot shots all day and for some reason Shepherd decided to take it to the finish line under full power. A severe crosswind proved to be fatal.
Reher, who had seen more than his share of crashes, had no idea that the crash was fatal from his starting line vantage point. “No crash is a good crash and certainly people have survived a much worse looking crash,” admitted Reher. “Anything can happen and we see it happen time and time in today's racing world. Dale Earnhart's wreck didn't look too violent on television, but we know how it turned out.
“Racing is a dangerous sport, as we all know, and all it takes is one blow and it can be fatal. That is something that will never change in racing. It will always be dangerous, even for a champion like Lee. Cars are built better and hopefully we keep learning from these deals. Every impact brings about a new set of circumstances and teaches new things to hopefully prevent fatal accidents in the future.
“As humans, we're pretty good at using hindsight, but we still cannot predict the future.”
Shepherd was certainly not a driver that could be easily replaced, but Reher is pretty certain the driver to take over following the crash was one that Lee would have personally selected if he would have decided to quit.
“I'm almost certain that Lee would have selected Bruce Allen, as we did,” Reher said. “Bruce was exactly the kind of person that Lee liked. Bruce is a low-key, non-egotistical person and that's the way Lee was. He was a hard-worker, too.”
One can only guess where Shepherd's career would have blossomed to, but as Reher sees it, he might have been impressed with the class today.
“I can't really speculate what he would say, but he would have certainly have been right in the thick of things working his butt off. I'm sure he'd be doing very well at it too.”
We're sure he would have been there, too.