Members of the media love telling 72-year-old NASCAR racer to get off the track.
Last year, NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Morgan Shepherd Shepherd competed in the Camping World RV 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He started 41st, finished 41st. He won $60,675.
At 71, he was the oldest driver to compete in a Cup race.
Now, one year later, Shepherd is back at New Hampshire, and will be racing Sunday. He is now 72, and will raise his record as the oldest competitor again.
And just like last year, sportswriters and broadcasters are apoplectic.
Last November, you will recall that football player Donovan McNabb suggested that NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes, because even champions like Jimmie Johnson just “sit in a car and drive.” Such an accusation from a well-known personality like McNabb wounded NASCAR drivers and fans, who already have to explain why buff body-builders like Carl Edwards or gruff, deer-slaying man’s man Clint Bowyer occasionally, like last week at Daytona, get beat by 110-pound Danica Patrick.
And now, adding fodder to McNabb’s argument, comes a guy who is 22 years past the minimum age to join AARP. Like last year, New Hampshire only attracted 42 entries for the 43 available slots, so it isn’t as though Shepherd took a starting spot away from anyone. But even that doesn’t seem to matter.
I normally pay little attention to most of the sportswriters and broadcasters who only write about racing when someone dies or the series happens to come to their town – I expect them to pick the low-hanging fruit, and I’m seldom disappointed. But it’s a little discouraging when people who cover NASCAR regularly feel the need to slam Shepherd for doing something he enjoys. A few days ago Autoweek called out NASCAR Sirius Radio host and ESPN broadcaster Jim Noble for a tweet that read: “Cup entry list at @NHMS is out. 72yr old Morgan Shepherd in 33. Why? This has got to stop. Give a young or unknown driver an opportunity.”
So I am pleased to announce here that Noble, who claims more than 20 years in broadcasting, is stepping aside from his TV and radio duties to “give a young or unknown” broadcaster an opportunity. Bravo, Jim!
Oh, wait. I may have jumped this particular gun. I just assumed Noble would be doing the right thing, since he is clearly no spring chicken, but I can’t find that announcement anywhere. Danged Google! Gotta be here somewhere.
As an alternative, may I suggest: Get over it. Quit whining. Without Shepherd, we’d have a short field at New Hampshire. Young drivers have next week. And next month. And the next decade. If Shepherd can pass the physical, fill out the entry forms and find a car owner willing to hand him the keys, so what?
Countless retired drivers think they still have what it takes. Fred Lorenzen, bless his heart, told me last year from his bed in the retirement home that he still thinks he has the skill. This what Morgan Shepherd said one year ago: “When I start hitting the wall and stuff like that, I'll realize I'm going downhill. But God has blessed me with my health and my ability, good eyesight and all to do this. I'm just as good as I ever was.”
And now, he’s a year older. And he hasn’t hit the wall yet this week at New Hampshire, unlike last week’s winner at Daytona, Aric Almirola. Nor does he drive down the straightaway with his left-turn signal on.
Bottom line: NASCAR is, at least on paper, inclusive. We can sit in the stands and dream that with some talent and a few million in disposable income, we could be out there, too. I don’t think that when I watch the Seattle Seahawks play, or Vitali Klitschko fight. Instead of trying to prove that NASCAR is just like every other pro sport, embrace the differences. And leave Morgan Shepherd alone.