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Monday, July 14, 2014

Age not what matters on track

George Scione

NASCAR has always had a large following. It’s one of few sports an Average Joe can actually relate to.

Drivers piloting cars as fast as possible – trying to get to the final destination faster than the vehicles behind, along side and in front of them. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? ...

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NASCAR has always had a large following. It’s one of few sports an Average Joe can actually relate to.

Drivers piloting cars as fast as possible – trying to get to the final destination faster than the vehicles behind, along side and in front of them. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Try Interstate 93 North on a holiday weekend, cars weaving in and out of stop-and-go traffic. Yeah, the speed stays down but the road rage sure doesn’t.

Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway there was a bit of road rage and even a hint of ageism against 72-year-old Morgan Sheperd.

Of course, no driver would come right out and say “He’s old, get him off the track.” Instead it was about slow cars, lapped cars and poor driving skills. Let’s face the facts, sometimes age does play a legit factor in stripping somebody of their license.

But in NASCAR, age is just a number.

There is no age limit. Jim Fitzgerald was 65 in 1987 when he drove a Cup race at Riverside International Raceway in California.

“The King,” Richard Petty raced until he was 55. Other legendary figures, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace drove until they were 52, 51 and 48 respectively. Dale Earnhardt raced until his very last day, dying due to a Basilar skull fracture from a crash in Turn 4 on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He was 49.

Age was never a question with any of those guys.

And that’s nothing
compared to James Hylton. He is officially the oldest driver to start a NASCAR series race. At 76 years old, he competed in the 2011 Truck Series race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. Sheperd extended his record as the oldest driver in the top series Sunday.

His age came into question in Loudon.

Joey Logano – just a pup at 24 – put a strong run together in the Camping World RV Sales 301 at NHMS. He needed it, racing a backup car after wrecking in practice earlier in the weekend. Sitting in second place with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski leading the pack, Logano’s day came to an abrupt end on Lap 213 when Shepherd came from behind and spun out Logano on Turn 4.

Shepherd was at the back of pack, down roughly 15 laps at the time of the crash. In the garage area, the youngster called out his elder.

“Slowest car on the race track took us out,” Logano said. “Go figure. We had a pretty good AutoTrader Ford. We were just doing what we can to hang in there. We were obviously running second. Brad is really, really fast. He definitely is the car to beat right now. We were just doing what we can with strategy. Keeping our car up towards the front.”

He went so far as to do what society does on a daily basis – demand road testing for the elderly. OK, well any driver, but it’s obvious with whom he was referring.

“Running some good lap times,” Logano said. “Felt like we could have a Penske 1-2 again and then just to get taken out by the slowest car. I feel like there should be a driver’s test before you get out in a Cup car and make sure you know how to drive before you drive one, but I don’t know. I guess there isn’t.

“It’s not NASCAR’s fault that he slid up as the slowest car on the track. I don’t know. If you can’t control your stuff, don’t even be out there. You’re 10 laps down. What are you doing?”

NASCAR’s response was just that – nothing. At least nothing more than was expected from the higher ups.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition and Racing Development Robin Pemberton held a last-minute press conference in the NHMS infield to stress Sheperd has every right to be on the track as long as he’s meeting the same guidelines as every other driver in the series. He passed his preseason physical and “was above minimum speed.”

“He pulled over to let Joey go by and it’s a responsibility for all competitors to lay off each other,” Pemberton said. “It’s an accident, those things happen. It could have happened to anybody with any competitor.”

That was Sheperd’s response. Approached at his hauler after the crash, Sheperd dodged the age question with a question.

“Was I the only wreck out there?” he asked. “OK, that answers that.”

Yes, it does. There were three accidents total, including one that sent Jimmie Johnson to the garage after just 14 laps, and seven cautions altogether.

But it was the old guy who gets called out.

He made his Cup debut in 1970 and has won four Cup series races, finishing as high as fifth in the standings back in 1990 – that’s right, the same year Logano was born.

“Morgan Shepherd has always been approved; he’s been approved for decades,” Pemberton said. “Under our situation here, you take a physical at the beginning of the year, you pass your physical, you pass inspection with your car, you qualify for the race and you run the event. He met everything he needed to meet.”

Logano, somewhat of a local favorite considering he’s from Connecticut and this is his home track, just has to realize that racing includes some slow pokes – who aren’t actually going as slow as it seems.

Sheperd, who completed 278 of the 305 laps to finish 39th, was never below the minimum speed of 115 mph. Whether Logano wants to believe it or not, that’s the official call.

Perhaps what the youngster needs to do is realize this is all part of racing. Lapped cars are part of the field. If drivers can get ahead of them it’s an advantage to help with separation. Unfortunately, Logano got caught up with one and it cost him.

Rubbin’ is racin’. Everybody knows that – young and old.

George Scione can be reached at 594-6520 or gscione@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Scione on Twitter (@Telegraph_BigG).