Circles in the Dirt
NASCAR’s roots in North Carolina are weaker than ever, as an ever-more-corporate sport looks for its identity amidst declining viewership. Does the back-of-the-pack—the scrappy also-rans and up-and-comers—hold answers? // Photography by Ash Bean
When Charlie Combs drew a circle in the dirt back in 1951, he didn’t have a damn clue what he was doing. He was a businessman, and a few years earlier had been one of the partners in the construction of the legendary North Wilkesboro Speedway. He was a smooth-talker and a deal-maker—not a race car driver.
So when he dragged that stick behind him, carving Hickory Motor Speedway out of the North Carolina clay, it was on sheer faith. That’s why turns 1 and 2, shaded by the treeline, made the track notoriously temperamental in the heat. And why turns 3 and 4, built atop a spring, were muddy long after a rain. But none of that stopped every backyard mechanic within spitting distance from trying to turn a lap.
NASCAR had been founded a few years earlier. With little more than skeletal rulebooks and cash prizes, it managed to unite ragtag racing associations around the country on one simple principle: Anyone with four wheels and guts could race. That ethos was a firmly anti-authoritarian snub to the high-waisted, daddy’s-money leagues that dominated the era. NASCAR became a refuge for undiluted Southern masculinity and eventually the nation’s premier racing league.
Seventy years later, NASCAR has become everything it said it wasn’t. Races are highly polished, choreographed events with box seats and triple-digit ticket prices. The cars are as closely related to showroom models as Deep Blue is to your laptop. And the drivers are clean-shaven, barely-out-of-puberty, polished-to-the-nub PR specialists.
Despite the ritzy sheen, NASCAR has faced steadily declining viewership for over a decade. At its peak in the mid-2000s, nearly 10 million people tuned in for Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 race. Now it’s less than half that. In-person attendees and TV viewership alike are plunging, even as big TV contracts keep the sport's upper echelons flush with cash. Increasingly, that rot is impossible to ignore.
Commentators have attempted to ascribe the demise to an alchemy of inscrutable rule changes, playoff formats, or millennial ennui. Message boards are rife with calls for a return to the good ol’ days, when racing was raw (i.e., deadly) and men were men (i.e., white).
But for all the doomsaying about the state of racing, there are hidden corners of the sport where it’s as alive as ever: the old legends passing the baton, the pit-crew mechanics on mom-and-pop teams, the kids hustling go-karts at their local track. Folks you’ll never see on the podium, but who keep the spirit of the sport alive every day.
And as good a place as any to start looking is Hickory Motor Speedway. Because even though Charlie Combs would eventually sell off the track when he faced federal liquor charges, his gamble paid off. That little bullring became a real racers’ racecourse, known today as the World’s Most Famous Short Track. As the old-timers say, if you can win at Hickory, you can win anywhere.
Scenes from Hickory Motor Speedway // Photos by Ash Bean
Which is exactly what Rajah Caruth was hoping to do last summer, on the 70th birthday of the speedway. It was the freshly minted high-school grad’s first time racing at Hickory and only his second time in a late model race car, fitted with an engine, a bucket seat, and not much else. Those low-slung, sheet-metal monsters are the mainstay of hometown tracks and regional race leagues. Every driver with dreams of competing in NASCAR’s national racing series must first master the late model. Rajah is one of those drivers, but he’s cut from a different cloth. And not just because he’s Black or the son of first-generation immigrants.
Rajah doesn’t come from a racing family. Truth be told, he’s never even changed his own oil. He was racing online with a school-issued computer and a plastic steering wheel when he caught the eye of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity development program. Now he’s behind the wheel of a real-life, loud and leaking, jet-black Toyota race car.
Rajah has run through it in his mind a hundred times. Kiss the concrete patch with your left-side tires coming into turn 1. Fire a straight exit off of turn 2. By the time you’re out to the wall on the back stretch, come back down into turn 3. Enter early and bring it to the bottom late center. Keep it low and point it straight. Rinse and repeat, 39 more times. When done right, it’s nothing short of a ballet, dancing on the razor’s edge of your engine’s power and your tires’ grip. A delicate balance of a driver’s nerve and his ability.
Rajah Caruth at Hickory Motor Speedway // Photo by Ash Bean
But the race was stitched up before it began. The head of the pack was made up of local favorites and well-funded veterans. The best Rajah could do was keep his equipment in one piece. The final laps came down to a door-banging battle between Josh “Mr. Hickory” Berry and Nolan Pope in the #1 Chevy. Nolan took home the trophy, and Rajah finished dead last.
Loss is the predominant experience in a racer’s career. Even Richard Petty, the undisputed “King” who won 200 races, lost nearly 1,000. To a racer, a dead-last finish is as much a rite of passage as a trip to Victory Lane. And at Hickory, it’s the first step in the making of a hero.
The Real Deal
Mustard, chili, slaw, grilled onions, and a beef patty on wheat bread. That’s the Morgan Shepherd burger, served at Four Peas in a Pod, just up the road from Hickory Speedway. But Four Peas is his breakfast spot, so Morgan Shepherd doesn’t eat the Morgan Shepherd burger much these days. And livermush with mustard isn’t really something to put your name on.
NASCAR fans might know Morgan Shepherd as the roller-skating evangelist driving well past his prime. The guy with the John Deere–green Dodge with “Racing with Jesus” on the hood and “Racing for Souls” on the bumper, where big-ticket brands should be.
But you don’t get a burger named after yourself for being a sideshow. For decades, Morgan was one of the most feared competitors on the NASCAR circuit, with 235 top-10 finishes and a championship under his belt. He raced in every NASCAR season since 1970 until last year, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 78. He came into the sport when it was just a few moonshiners throwing up dust devils in cow pastures—and now, for the first time, he’s being forced to slow down enough to look back on his life.
Ed Yancy, owner of Victory Lane Collectables in Salisbury, NC, holds a poster of Morgan Shepard // Photo by Ash Bean
Back in 1960s Catawba County, there wasn’t much for a boy without a high-school diploma to do. Shepherd’s choices were build furniture, or run shine. So he’d load up his trunk with clear corn and haul ass up and down those dirt roads. But when that thrill spoiled, Morgan fell back on what he knew best: cars.
He bought his first when he was 11 for the pretty sum of “a grey squirrel, two flying squirrels, a 12-gauge shotgun, and twelve and a half dollars.” He learned how to “mechanic” on that ’37 Chevy. But by 16, Morgan had lost his license on account of his predilections for speed. When he finally got it back eight years later, he decided to make something of those predilections.
Morgan’s first shot came at the local track: Hickory Motor Speedway. He signed up for a “run what ya brung” event and brung a black coupe, borrowed from a moonshining buddy, Smut Deal. A faulty transmission landed him in last place in his first attempt. His second race went a bit better … until a fellow racer spun out on the backstretch and took Morgan out of contention. But when he ponied up to run a full season four years later in 1969, he won 21 out of 29 races. “And the left front tire was on the car all year,” he’s still proud to say. At 28 years old, Morgan Shepherd was finally on his way.
At the time, NASCAR was still a down-home affair. The cars were hauled out of junkyards and tricked out in backyard sheds. The sport prided itself on being blue collar and built its name on defining and reinforcing the trope of the “Southern Man.” Every race started with a prayer and ended with a beer. But that hard-charging life caught up to Morgan in 1975.
His wife had just left him, he was teetering on alcoholism, and his racing career was on the rocks. He was working a job at a furniture factory and picking up bottles on the way home to help make ends meet. With nowhere to turn, he fell to his knees and said a prayer for the first time in years. As soon as he said Amen, “I felt like I could jump through the roof.”
That night, Morgan Shepherd was born again. He threw out all his bottles and picked up a pair of roller skates. Every track he went to, they came with him. Pretty soon he was two-stepping and disco-dancing on every speedway from Darlington to Daytona.
It was an about-face for one of the most aggressive, hardest-partying drivers on the circuit, and not everyone believed it. For weeks, his crew chief did all he could to get him to cuss, but Morgan never slipped. In fact, he didn’t allow his crew to cuss or drink either. It was grounds for immediate termination.
Despite getting his life back on track, Morgan spent much of the ’80s as a journeyman, racing for whoever had an open seat. “They came to me,” he makes clear. “They knew I could run fast.” On the morning of a race at Bristol, a crew chief heard that Morgan Shepherd was available. They sent their driver, Dave Marcis, packing and scraped his name off the roof, leaving only an “M” and an “S”.
Still, it wasn’t until Morgan was 51 that he got his big break with the Wood Brothers and their legendary #21 Ford. Morgan muscled that Thunderbird to 50 top-10 finishes and a win at the 1993 Motorcraft 500 that was nothing short of providence. Despite a blizzard delay, a broken alternator, a cut tire, and a busted radio, he managed to bring home the checkered flag. “I could hardly see the racetrack because I had tears coming into my eyes,” he remembers. But finishing fourth in that race was an up-and-coming rookie from California named Jeff Gordon, who was about to revolutionize racing.
It was Morgan’s biggest win, and his last trip to Victory Lane. Within two years, he’d be out of a job at Wood Brothers. Team owners saw the 20-something Gordon winning races and landing sponsorships, and now everyone wanted fresh blood behind the wheel. Morgan would return to driving as a hired gun, but seats came fewer and farther in between. “I already knew what it’s like to not have anything as an old mountain boy,” Shepherd once said. “I’ve known what it’s like to be wealthy ... Now, I’ve learned to be humble.”
To the new racing world, it didn’t matter so much whether you paid your dues or climbed through the ranks. That old idea of the driver who tuned his carburetor with the same Swiss Army knife he used to pry open his pork-bean lunch was dying. It was a new economy and a new country.
By the late 1990s, NASCAR would abandon legendary tracks across the South. The three national leagues—Cup, Xfinity, and Truck—moved to bigger markets out west and up north, leaving smaller tracks out to dry. Hickory was left with local racing and regional tours. Others, like North Wilkesboro, were abandoned entirely.
To loyal fans, it felt like a slap in the face. For 40 years after NASCAR’s founding, all but one championship went to a Southern boy. The King himself, Richard Petty, proclaimed, “NASCAR is no longer a Southern sport, so it don’t need Southern heroes.” Today, Charlotte Motor Speedway is the only North Carolina track left in the NASCAR Cup schedule.
Victory Lane Collectibles in Salisbury, NC, and the Gift Shop at Wake County Speedway // Photos by Ash Bean
These days, Morgan is still at it, but it’s not getting any easier. He spent most of the last two years dealing with Parkinson’s, which came on hard and fast. But Morgan does his best not to let it get in the way. He may never sit behind the wheel again, but he’s still got a race team to manage, tools to buy, cars to build, sponsors to wrangle, and family duties to fulfill—exactly what he’s been doing since that first race at Hickory 54 years ago. So he still gets up early every morning for his livermush breakfast, because Morgan Shepherd is a man who’s spent his whole life fighting just to get to the starting line. And for a man like that, stopping is out of the question.
The Last-place Heroes
Brian Wertman had decided to take his own life. Things had never gone Brian’s way, ever since he broke a hip on his way into this world, leaving him with a lifelong limp. Growing up with a learning disability and a stutter in a small upstate New York town didn’t make things easier, either. The one thing that did was racing.
His first word, “bird,” came at age five, when Dale Sr. pulverized a seagull on the backstretch at Daytona. Brian studied geography by memorizing the racing tour schedule and every driver’s hometown. And he learned math by adding up the numbers on his NASCAR Hot Wheels.
But by the time college rolled around in 2007, Brian was struggling. He was failing his classes. He had no friends to speak of. His parents were about to split up. When he was at his lowest point, he saw a sign from above: Morgan Shepherd’s car.
A few years earlier, Morgan had started his own race team in a bid to stay in the game. But it was becoming increasingly difficult for small teams to survive. The prices for things like tires, engines, and mechanics were going through the roof, and winnings and sponsor deals for those at the back were dwindling. At a race in Kentucky, Morgan tried to bring some attention to the issue. He pulled into the pits during the race, got out of the car, and changed his own tires. Then he sat on the pit wall and had some chips and soda before strapping back in. Without major sponsors, Morgan started racing with his own “Racing with Jesus” paint scheme. If he wasn’t winning races, he could at least win souls.
When Brian saw that car on TV, it saved his life. “I took my time and prayed”—just like Morgan had done 30 years earlier—“and after that, it feels like 500 pounds was off my shoulders.” He started donating whatever money he could to Morgan’s team, and in 2013, he was invited to come down to a race at New Hampshire. Brian shook his hero’s hand and told him that he wanted to work in NASCAR. Morgan told him straight, “It’ll take hard work and persistence.”
So Brian enrolled in the NASCAR Technical Institute, in Mooresville, NC. Brakes, Engines, Tires, Pit Strategy—Brian aced every single class. By the time he graduated, he’d earned four Crew Chief Awards, four Volunteer Awards, and two Course Awards. So he jumped right into the racing world.
For a newcomer, small, back-of-the-pack mom-and-pop teams in NASCAR’s national series are the place to punch your ticket. Which is how Brian found himself as the tire specialist at Motorsports Business Management, LLC, owned by the unofficial record holder for fastest Domino’s delivery in Durham: Carl Long.
Carl Long (right) and his crew, including Doug Richert (bottom left) // Photos by Ash Bean
Carl had been a mainstay in racing for decades. His father was a well known Volkswagen Beetle racer and mechanic in Orange County, North Carolina. His big break came in 1998, driving for Thee Dixon, NASCAR’s first Black team owner. Carl’s been in NASCAR ever since, and he’ll be the first to tell you that owning a team is the hardest way to stay in the sport.
There’s no end of rules to contend with, against sharing tires and reusing old engines. And the sponsors aren’t any better. Here’s a riddle for you: Fast cars win races and get TV time. But building fast cars is expensive—and unless Carl runs well, sponsors won’t give him money. It’s downright Sisyphean—and it means that most weeks, more money is going out than coming in. What’s the old joke? “How do you make a small fortune? Take a big one and go racing!”
But Carl keeps it going for one reason. “I got 40 people depending on me,” he says. Over the years, he’s assembled a motley little crew. He’s got young, middle-of-the-grade kids from NASCAR Technical Institute who couldn’t find work elsewhere. And he’s got older guys who’ve raced with every star under the sun, who can’t much keep up, or retire either. Doug Richert, who was just 19 when he Crew Chiefed Dale Sr. to the Rookie of the Year award back in 1979, is now sitting on top of Carl’s trailer, making pit calls for his drivers on race day.
“After a few years with me, I got Roush Racing and every other team trying to headhunt my guys,” Carl says. Which brings him back to square one, looking for new talent. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t think about going back to Domino’s whenever one of his drivers wrecked or one of his cars got rejected at a technical inspection.
But that’s exactly why the back of the pack, the slowest cars on the field, are a necessary and healthy part of the sport. It’s a place where names are made and knowledge is handed down. It’s where former legends and young guns battle for a small pool of attention and an even smaller pool of money. It’s a bellwether for the health of the sport, and the last place on the track where a blue-collar ethos still reigns. There’s no glory in it, but at least there’s family.
Morgan Shepherd ran his team almost entirely on volunteers—folks in Iowa, Chicago, Kansas, and New Hampshire who came out every year to help change tires, man the radio, and otherwise help out how they could. Not to mention all the donations he receives from fans like Brian Wertman that help pay for tires, gas, and food. All because they believe in Morgan’s mission as much as he does.
For his part, Carl’s got a bone to pick with the back-of-the-pack community. “There are some teams you gotta watch,” he says. “I’ll lose my floor jack, I’ll lose my nitrogen bottle. I’ll look, and they done grabbed it and got it over there with their stuff. Go buy your own shit! I can’t afford this either!”
A member of Carl Long's crew // Photo by Ash Bean
Nevertheless, Carl has no shortage of fond memories. Like how he and Morgan would stop by the same hardwood-floor diner on the way to Michigan every year, and Morgan would dazzle patrons with some roller-skating. Or the time Brian sat down in an ant pile at Texas Motor Speedway while trying to check on some tires. Carl and the guys had to roll him halfway down pit road to get the bugs off him.
Racing changed Brian’s life. He has friends around the country. He has skills that kept a roof over his head. He has ambition and a reason to live. Sure, he had to leave Carl’s team after a few months—but that’s racing. The back of the pack is its own little ecosystem, and if you get cycled out of one team, you can land on your feet with another.
In 2016, a nationwide trade-school association chose Brian Wertman as its Student of the Year for his performance at NASCAR’s Technical Institute. He was asked to give a speech at the reception. He told the audience how he’d been talked down to his whole life, how no one believed he’d get out of his parents’ house and support himself. “Everyone said I’m crazy, it’s not going to happen. And I proved them wrong.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and Brian went back to work—this time, as Car Chief for Shepherd’s #89 “Racing with Jesus” Chevy.
Birthplace of the Stars
Since 1951, Hickory Motor Speedway has been shortened, reconfigured, paved, and repaved: a geological record of racing history. And last summer, a team of contractors arrived for its greatest transformation yet. They unloaded their Class 3, Leica C10 laser scanners and set up around the track.
Millimeter by millimeter, they scanned the speedway and beamed the data back to Chelmsford, Massachusetts. There, a team of coders and programmers, wizards and magicians, set to work building a near-perfect digital re-creation of the World’s Most Famous Short Track. That little circle in the dirt that Charlie Combs had drawn out 70 years earlier, and every tweak made since, would be memorialized in code. When finished, the digital version will be raced by pimply teenagers and seasoned veterans alike on iRacing, the world’s largest online racing simulator.
But as Rajah Caruth prepared for his return to Hickory Motor Speedway, he didn’t have digital aids—just old-school veterans and video clips. So he took his previous last-place finishes and turned them into a masterclass. Every bump, hump, and crack was a lesson in waiting. And this April, he finally got a second chance at making his name in the regional circuit: Saturday night twin 40-lap races. Hickory’s bread and butter.
Hickory Motor Speedway // Photo by Ash Bean
While he sits in his car, waiting for showtime, he’s got time to think and get his breathing under control. He looks over at his parents, huddled together in the pits, no doubt still surprised at where they’ve found themselves.
The Caruths are both academics in the DC area, and they envisioned a similarly comfortable life for their son. But they made the mistake of gifting Rajah a copy of “NASCAR: The Complete History” when he was just six years old. He thumbed through it so many times it fell off the spine.
When they realized that racing wasn’t just a phase for their son, they did their best to make it a reality. The answer was simple: iRacing. It’s an easy way for a kid to train their reflexes for the real world without the mess of trailers, tires, axles, and engines. So Rajah buckled down and raced every day for hours on end. Pretty soon, he started having that dangerous thought: “Hey, I might have what it takes.”
Real racing, however, is an exclusive sport. It takes money, tools, and the arcane knowledge of chassis setups and valve tuning that only generational experience can bring. Which makes it a tough culture to break into. Especially if, like Rajah, you’re Black.
Historically, NASCAR has not been a progressive vanguard of civil rights. Strom Thurmond and George Wallace were honored guests at Darlington and Talladega for years. Until recently, NNN (No N*****s in NASCAR) signs were an infield mainstay, and Confederate flags were plastered across trophies, posters, and tickets. As Alabama columnist Joseph Goodman has noted, NASCAR played a significant part in cultivating a sense of “heritage” around a symbol of racism and division.
Fortunately for Rajah, NASCAR came up with a radical, groundbreaking solution back in the 2000s: a steering committee! That committee, chaired by Magic Johnson and operated by an offshoot of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, eventually became the Drive for Diversity (D4D) program. Its mission was bringing more minorities and women into the sport. Drivers selected through an annual combine would be signed to the Rev Racing team and provided financial support, race cars, and coaching in regional race leagues.
On its face, D4D was a great idea; it opened the gates of a sport built on secret handshakes and family connections. But out of the nearly 100 drivers to pass through the program, only a handful have landed full-time contracts in NASCAR’s national leagues. Joe Henderson II, the father of one of D4D’s first graduates, told The New York Times, “The program is not designed to be successful because it’s not properly funded. They claim it’s a pipeline. Well, nobody came out of the pipe.”
It’s the same Catch-22 that Carl Long faces. To break into the national limelight, you need money—but sponsors don’t want to take a chance on you unless you’re already there.
There’s reason to think that may be changing. More and more young women and drivers of color are rising through the ranks in NASCAR’s lower leagues, outside of D4D, and developing avid online fan bases along the way. Bubba Wallace Jr., currently the only full-time Black driver at the national level, has set the tone. His outspokenness pushed NASCAR to support Black Lives Matter and ban Confederate flags. This season, he’s racing in a car owned in part by Michael Jordan. For much of its history, NASCAR was changing America and crystallizing a Southern identity. Now, America at large is redefining NASCAR. And not a moment too soon for Rajah, who signed with Rev Racing last year.
Now, after months of physical training, mechanical education, and simulator training, he’s back at Hickory, ready to press the issue. Rajah tugs on his belts and lets off the clutch as the pace car leads the field onto the track. His Rev Racing teammate Isabella Robusto is in the pole position as Rajah rolls off in fifth.
As soon as the green flag drops, a three-way battle for the lead heats up, with Robusto defending her pole position. Once Rajah’s got some clean air ahead of him, he starts working Zack Clifton. On lap 14, Rajah makes a textbook crossover and runs away with fourth. But after twenty laps, Rajah hasn’t come any closer to third. It’s beginning to seem like this is the best he can do.
But then Mitch Walker sees an opening up front. He misjudges and dumps Chase Dixon coming into turn 3, drawing a caution with only six laps left. Robusto and Dixon are hauled off into the pits, putting Rajah in the front row for the restart. He takes long, slow breaths, gets his heart rate back down. No room for mistakes now. When the green flag drops again, Rajah takes off and leaves Clifton and Josh Kossek to sort out the matter of second place among themselves. He blocks inside and out, and lays down five flawless laps. When he comes around again, he’s conquered Hickory for the first time in his career.
Lest you think the win was a fluke, Rajah won the second race that night too. Even the announcers are impressed with his aggressive driving. Rajah told the crowd afterwards, “I drove until I saw Jesus, and then I went two car lengths deeper.” The next weekend, he took home the trophy at Tri-County Speedway. Now the young gun is on a streak.
Rajah Caruth sits in his car at Hickory Motor Speedway // Photo by Ash Bean
He’s not a shade-tree mechanic tinkering around under the hood, or a Southern boy with a packed lip. He’s a kid with a computer game and ambitions for the big time. And by God, he’s making it work.
According to Henry Ford, the first car race started five minutes after the second car came off the line. The sport’s been going ever since. As long as people get around on wheels, there will be those who devote their lives to doing it faster than the rest. Only a select few of them will make it into the record books; even fewer will ever have a burger named after them. But if history is any precedent, Rajah Caruth is well on his way.
Rajiv Golla is a journalist and podcast producer based in Durham, NC. His work can be found at RajivGolla.com.