Monday, May 19, 2008

Pete Shepherd: Need For NASCAR Speed

Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR

In what would be the infancy of my interest in NASCAR, I remembered the near weekly visits to my local racing collectible store. Often spending less than 20 dollars on a simple die-cast, my visit was given gifted with the accompanying race talk with the storekeepers. With Formula 1 and other open-wheel series abundant with Canadian maple flags, the following for NASCAR dominated every conversation. One of the most memorable exchanges involved the name of one Canadian stock car prodigy winning late model races at Peterborough Speedway. The competing teenage driver, this NASCAR hopeful received an optimistic comparison to Jeff Gordon by the storekeeper. Keeping my ears opened since, five years later I heard prominent NASCAR owner Jack Roush compare this Canadian to driving like a young Mark Martin. That driver was Peter Shepherd, and the than 20 year-old's showing in Roush's Driver X talent contest for a truck ride would garner the Canadian racer acclaim amongst American motorsports. Falling just short of the coveted truck ride, Shepherd proudly accepted a development deal with Roush Racing to begin during the 2006 racing season.

A far way from native Brampton, Ontario, Shepherd's American racing career was born in 2006 at Homestead Miami Speedway wheeling the RE Technologies USAC Silver Crown racer, co-owned by recent Roush Racing sensation Carl Edwards. A departure from stock cars, Shepherd identified driving a Silver Crown car as “different”, riding paved ovals on the right rear tire through the corners. In spite of this different feeling, Pete Shepherd scored an impressive inaugural race finish of 7th place. Through the course of the Silver Crown season, Shepherd bettered that effort with a 3rd at the newly-built Iowa Speedway in September and a stunning 2nd two months earlier at the 1.5 mile Chicagoland Speedway. Shepherd says the ultimate lesson he gained from the Silver Crown machine the empathized importance in hitting your marks on the racetrack.

Blake Johnson/ R.E. Technologies

Proving proficiency with a 700 horsepower, 1,500 pound Silver Crown sprint car in just a few starts Shepherd was invited to run some ARCA/Remax stock car events. Along with a pair of tenth-place finishes, he recorded his season's highest result of fourth at Gateway International Speedway through a rough and wild race where he, even wearing his rookie stripes, endured without any noticeable race damage on his car. Weighing at 3400 pounds, the 750 horsepower ARCA stock cars are a far cry from the 550 pound lighter fiberglass-bodied race cars he wheeled in the CASCAR Super Series a year before in 2005. Now known as the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, Peter Shepherd speaks highly of his Canadian stepping stone commenting that the series treated him so well.

Completing a tri-fecta in American motor racing, Roush offered Shepherd some select races in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, an inroad to the elite Nextel Cup series. For Shepherd, the 'banging wheels' terminology is a mere figure of speech considering his displayed driving style. “Put in laps and give the folks at the shop an easy time” he said were the only general instructions given.

Having parted with a few moments for an interview during a 2006 Silver Crown race at the newly-commissioned Iowa Speedway, Pete Shepherd spoke with the utmost professionalism as he expresses cautious aggression during his limited runs in top-notch machines. Within the brief privilege of speaking with this hot Canadian stock car racing prospect, his combined articulation of technical facts could pay dividends for a car chief's work while his poise, coupled with praise-filled tone, would please any big dollar sponsor. However, even with that well-rounded talent, a planned larger schedule in the NASCAR Craftsman truck series was largely scaled back by lack of sponsorship for 2007.

With 2007 highlighted early prepping Matt Kenseth's #17 Dewalt Ford during Daytona 500 testing, it would not be until the Milwaukee Mile's truck series race in June when Shepherd's 2007 season started. After four truck starts and selected ARCA starts, Peter was bitten twice by misfortune, marred by a rare Shepherd collision with another race vehicle at the truck race in Kentucky. Proving the end of an awkward set of races Pete will likely vanquish with better memories, a qualifying lap wreck in a very fast Roush-prepped Ford Fusion ARCA car caused him to miss that race altogether. In spite of frustrating events, Pete Shepherd bounced back, recording a personal best weekend in his limited NASCAR career came with a hard fought 15th place finish on the ¾ short track of Memphis Speedway during the 3rd of 4 races.

As an ominous note, Pete's short racing season ended in August of 2007 with Roush Racing later releasing him from the driver development contract. For a sport which depends so much on sponsorship dollars and bankable, American drivers, Pete Shepherd is unsettled so far for 2008. But probably Jack Roush's comparison to Mark Martin will prove as even greater comfort. While Mark Martin's first launch into the big leagues of racing fell flat, the second wind shown by that popular NASCAR driver acts to show the yet truly inspired life in Shepherd's career.
For Canadian Pete Shepherd, whether he is being compared to Jeff Gordon or being mentioned to possess the skills of Mark Martin, this 21 year old succeeds setting his benchmarks.

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