Question: What do autocrosses, hill climbs, drag races, sprint car races, NASCAR races, SCCA and IMSA sports car races, and measured-mile speed events, all have in common besides cars? Answer: Stephen Shepherd as a major competitor, and sometimes, the victor.
It’s hard to know where to begin when telling the story of Stephen’s career in motorsports. He grew up around cars and machinery, and driving seemed to come naturally to a kid who drove a tractor on the family farm at age 6. His dad’s automotive shop west of Wilkesboro, in Wilkes County, North Carolina, turned out hot rods in the late thirties and forties. And yes, some of his customers were moonshiners, the same guys who helped found NASCAR. “It was like the movie, Thunder Road”, Stephen recalls. And then there were the unsanctioned street races that everybody knew about. Stephen was even granted a run in a ’49 Olds when he was just 13 years old. And Bill France, Sr. was a family friend. So you could have known racing was in his blood. But you couldn’t have predicted the direction it would take. Not to NASCAR, though he participated in that off and on. No, Stephens’s passion was for sports cars, especially small coupes and sedans. As he puts it, “I saw my first copy of Sports Cars Illustrated (the precursor to Car and Driver magazine) in 1957 and I was hooked.”
But before he could do any serious racing, Uncle Sam called Stephen to Germany, where, as luck would have it, he had a master sergeant who was into European amateur racing, specifically ice-racing in a prepared VW, and road racing in an OSCA, a small Italian sports car. “It rains in Germany, all the time,” Stephen recalled, “and so I learned to race in the rain. At one time they called me ‘der regenmeister’ (the rain master).” Judging by Stephen’s success in later years, this was an excellent way to learn the delicate art of road racing.
Returning to the US after his stint overseas, Stephen got involved in SCCA in a variety of ways and in NASCAR racing, when time permitted, and he raced a variety of cars, mostly small sedans, including a ’72 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, an Opel Kadett, a Ford Cortina and a Lotus Corina or two, as well as various Mustangs. He ran an ex-TransAm Cortina between 1968 and 1970, at SCCA events. He was B Sedan champion at CCR’s Chimney Rock Hillclimb in 1970. He raced at VIR in NCR races too. He has the silver-plated trophies from 1971 and 1972 to prove it. Check out the tow car for this Lotus Cortina! (above, right)
And these weren’t just in amateur events, though he did his share of rallies and autocrosses and hillclimbs. A friend and early supporter of John Bishop, he was there for the birth of IMSA. He ran a Cortina at Daytona in 1970 in the IMSA International Sedan GT race. He was at VIR for the inaugural IMSA GT Championship in 1971. He raced that Fiat 124 Sport Coupe at VIR in 1972 as well, competing against fellow Region members Dennis Shaw and Amos Johnson.
As time went on, he raced in The Champion Spark Plug Challenge, the Camel GT, the Renault Cup in both a Le Car and an Encore, the Firestone Firehawk, and other IMSA events including the 24 hours of Daytona. He ran a ‘69 AMX there in the late 70s, with a crew of friends. Stephen likes to say that he brought one of the first “big rigs” to the 24 hour race at Daytona (left). It was the tractor-trailer from his trucking business, and they never had time to build ramps to put the car into the trailer. So they towed it behind a pickup and used the big box trailer to work and sleep in! That summer he autocrossed another AMX as well.
But before all that, Stephen had to make a living, and he opened an auto repair business down near the coast, eventually getting married and settling in Castle Hayne, North Carolina, near Wilmington, where he got involved in autocrossing with the Cape Fear Chapter. You might not expect a pro-racer to be an avid autocrosser as well, but that’s Stephen in a nutshell – he’s an eager competitor in motorsports, easily mixing the professional aspects with the amateur ones. Always smiling, you might find him, wearing his sunglasses and big Panama hat, on a starting grid at any event in the Southeast.
What about NASCAR? Well, Stephen was a rookie at Darlington in 1976, only one of 11 rookies who passed the test, and was allowed to compete. But fate intervened and another team showed up, so he remained 1st alternate, but never got a ride. Still it was quite an experience learning to drive a stocker at Darlington. His instructors were some of the legends of NASCR…Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Elmo Langley, and Bennie Parsons. He ran other races and faced stiff competition to gain recognition. Other rookies that year included Janet Guthrie and Ricky Rudd! Guthrie had Rookie of the Year almost sewn up, but Bill France wanted to keep the competition alive to the end, so he put up a $15K prize, a scholarship if you will, for second place. Stephen saw his chance to win at the 1976 National 500 at Charlotte, but he blew the motor in qualifying. “No problem,” he thought, “we’ll rebuild it overnight.” But the next day, a hurricane came through and washed out the race.
Undaunted, Stephen went back to sports car racing. He got his ’69 AMX out of storage to run the June sprint races at Road Atlanta in 1977. And he prepared a ‘79 AMC Concorde for joint duty in SCCA’s GT3 and IMSA’s Champion Spark Plug Challenge (right), easily “changing hats” from amateur to pro wherever time and resources permitted.
And he continued his motorsports career in other venues, notably autocrosses and SCCA hillclimbs at Chimney Rock. He was CSP Solo II champion in a joint season with NCR and Tarheel Sports Car Club in 1982 and 1984, and he went on to be Solo I champion in SEDIV in 1985 in four different Renault Encores, two of them borrowed. He was such an affable ambassador for the SCCA that the Region gave him the second-ever Ellis Roach award (left) in 1982 (the first recipient was Phil Hennrich, by the way). Stephen was “an active racer, autocrosser, rally worker, and occasional race worker – and he did all of the above efficiently, quietly, and with a smile on his face” wrote Bulletin editor John Davison at the time.
That got Stephen even more interested in Club affairs. He went on to become Chief of Driver Licensing, a school instructor, Assistant RE in 1984, and RE in 1985, but still found time to race professionally. He ran in the IMSA Renault Cup race at Road Atlanta in 1982, even as he was the Region’s Solo II C-Street Prepared champion in a series we ran jointly with the Tarheel Sports Car Club.
For a lot of guys, that might have been enough, but Stephen had one secret desire he wanted to fulfill. As a young man he’d seen sports cars barreling up North Carolina’s other famous peak, Grandfather Mountain, back when the roads on it were just dirt. These were NCR’s inaugural racing events, though they had gone away with the advent of VIR. But Stephen had always wanted to run the hill, even though the roads were now paved. So he became Regional Executive of NCR in 1985, with the express purpose of resuming the hillclimb at Grandfather Mountain.
Like before, NCR sanctioned that event, and Stephen ran it, taking second place in ITC in a Renault Cup Encore (right) he shared with fellow IMSA racer, Mark Hughes, the car’s owner. Stephen still has that car. He ran across it years later, totally by accident, after it was retired from professional competition and sold for street use. Stephen acquired it and restored it to “as raced” condition. It’s the only remaining Renault Cup Encore S, with all the factory-supplied racing goodies, still in existence and it’s in storage behind his house in Castle Hayne.
Stephen went on to become Solo I champion in ITC that year, after a first-in-class finish at the Chimney Rock Hillclimb, put on by CCR. But the SCCA National Office deemed the Grandfather Mountain Hillclimb too dangerous and shut it down for 1986, and Stephen turned RE duties back to Ken Payne. Still, the Region’s Solo I program earned a silver trophy from the Southeast Region for being the best in the division.
1985 saw Stephen running the IMSA Firehawk Series, first in an Encore and later in a 5-liter Mustang in 1986 (left). He was on the Ford team in an SVO Mustang along with famous racer Wayne Lockhart. During 1989-90, he was an instructor and mechanic with Skip Barber, wokring for the Barber Saab series for them. But he still found the time to be in the NC Region Solo II program running G-Stock in 1990.
Stephen was H Stock Solo II Champion in 2002 in a 1990 Jetta (right), and then took second in 2003, and a 3rd with Tarheel Sports Car Club. Later, in 2005 and 2006, he held a land speed record (118+ mph) in his class (G) with that same VW Jetta over the measured mile at the Maxton airport with the East Coast Timing Association. He also ran a Fiat X1-9 occasionally, in a car that had previously run in the SCCA Nationals 1985. His last outing in 2005, in a Renault Encore, earned him an FSP Solo II title.
Now retired, Stephen hasn’t been very active in the last few years because of his health, but he says he still has the desire to compete in autocrossing and he’d like to get back out there again. He smiles when you ask him about his motorsports career and all the different kinds of cars and events, both pro and amateur, he competed in. “I’m a wheelman,” he says. “I can drive anything and whatever I drive, I drive it just as fast as I can.” He still owns many of the race cars he competed with, carefully tucked away at his place in Castle Hayne, so you may see him on course once again. Good luck, Stephen!
1969 – Lotus Cortina (above) and AMX (right)
(below) 1971 – Fiat SC1
(below and right) 1972 – IMSA Baby Grand at VIR
(right) 1979 AMC Concorde
Renault LeCar from the 80s
Fiat X1-9 NCAC, circa 2002