|The Tampa Hotshoe|
by Jay Sloane
Jack Sheppard Sr. loved cars. In the 1920's he raced them. In the postwar years he built a small but active car dealership in Tampa, Florida, specializing in Jaguars, MG's, and other British sports cars. With the popularity of car racing on airport tracks in the southeastern USA, particularly the 12-hour international race held at Sebring, Sheppard went racing again. In 1953 he entered a Jaguar C-type at Sebring for George Huntoon and Phil Stiles. Sheppard's company, Import Motors of Tampa, received good exposure from that. At about the same time, his son Joe was leaving the Army and looking for a way to go racing. He began with a TR-2 sponsored by his father. In the car with no brakes, as Joe Sheppard remembers it, he raced throughout Florida and even at the Nassau races, which had just started. His parents often traveled with him, and his mother began a scrapbook of newspaper clippings to record Joe's success. The clippings tell the story; Joe Sheppard had a lot of success.
In April of 1996, I had the opportunity to talk with Joe Sheppard and review the scrapbook of his racing career. He's retired now, a quiet man who speaks with the distinctive drawl Floridians had before the state went cosmopolitan. Outside, his pristine '67 MGB/GT gives a hint that this is a man with a sporting outlook. But in his living room you see the photographs of the great racing cars that he drove. Trophies crowd every shelf. This is the man who co-drove with Colin Chapman at Sebring.
It started when I decided I wanted to race a Lotus. This was in 1955. I had read that the Nine was only two feet, three inches high at the cowl. I thought, can you imagine how a car that low must handle ? My father said okay, and he just picked up the phone and called Colin Chapman in England. He said, 'Can you sell us a car?' That's how we got that Nine. I just wanted to race.
The Lotus Mark IX had its competition debut at Sebring earlier that year. The two cars entered didn't fare too well, with one out early after an accident and the other disqualified when it was pushed across the finish line. But they made a strong impression as high-tech racers, particularly with the new Coventry Climax engine. The British pedigree, competing in a class dominated by Italian cars, didn't hurt the appeal either. Import Motors of Tampa took delivery of the Nine, shipped straight from the factory. They polished the body, investigated the little engine, got to know the car. But when Joe raced it, it held some surprises. Something would break, fall off or come loose in every race. It was very fragile. It was a tricky car too. It was harder to drive down a straightaway than around a corner. It went around turns nice, but you had to drift it -- and never let the tail out. If it got out it was all done.
Sheppard entered the Nine in the '56 Sebring race, one of many provisional entries that year. His co-driver was slated to be Warren Smith, a friend who had raced with him before. Warren was a B-47 pilot, stationed at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa. He was a fast driver, and a wild man. In the days prior to the Sebring race, Sheppard's local fame was disruptive. Showing a photo of the Lotus and the two drivers, the Tampa Tribune identified Smith and his Air Force connection. It was too much for the brass. The day before the race they ordered Smith to stay out of the car. He was too valuable to risk. That left Joe Sheppard looking for a co-driver.
Meanwhile Colin Chapman had arrived at Sebring with his new creation, the Eleven. The car had been brought from New York by Briggs Cunningham for Chapman and Len Bastrup to drive in its world race debut. Eleven #156 had the first 1500cc Climax FWB under the bonnet, an MG-A transmission, limited-slip differential and long range fuel tanks. It was built to win the race. Just two years earlier a 1,500cc OSCA had won, and this time Chapman knew his car was faster. But it all ended when Bastrup took the car out for practice on Friday. It looked particularly quick, as Sheppard recalls, going down the pit straight, and on through the two sweeping left hand bends after that. The next turn, a much tighter left, that led onto a short straight where the MG bridge would be built a year later, was where Bastrup came in too hot, dropping a wheel over the edge and plowing out into the hay bales. The Eleven caught the sand and flipped over, trapping Bastrup inside. Onlookers righted the car, but as Bastrup sat up dazed in the cockpit, flames erupted from under the bonnet. The debut Eleven then went up in smoke. Chapman was devastated by that crash. It upset him to no end. Although the car was rebuilt later, at Cunningham's shop in New York, it was through as the Team Lotus entry at Sebring. On race day, spectacular stop-action photographs of the Eleven demolishing itself were featured in newspapers across the country -- including the front page of the New York Times. In many papers, the little English Lotus got more attention than the race itself. Of course Chapman took little consolation from the publicity. He needed a ride.
There were other Lotus cars entered in the race: Doc Wyllie and his wife were entered with their Nine, the ex-works XPE 6, which had been in many ways the design test bed for the Eleven. There was even another Lotus Eleven owned by Ralph Miller, a car described in various records as a Mk. IX, and a Mk. II, which was entered but not yet included in the starting lineup. And there was Joe Sheppard needing a co-driver. Chapman knew of the Sheppards as customers and approached them, offering /asking to co-drive their Mk. IX. (It is odd that, while Miller was desperately seeking another driver for his car, Chapman chose to drive the Nine. It is probable though that Chapman took a secure ride with Sheppard, because only later, after other cars wrecked in the last practice, was the Miller car allowed in.) The Sheppards had many questions for Chapman about the set-up of the Nine and its exotic engine. He told them of ways to adjust the valve train when the correct shims were not at hand. He also agreed that the twitchy handling was the nature of the beast, telling Joe that the swing axle suspension was good in being simple and lightweight, but that it was "no good at over 100 mph." Still they drove the Nine hard in the race, pleased at its speed, until that afternoon and a pit stop for a driver change at lap 60. The Nine's jinx struck again when Sheppard pushed the starter button. It just locked up. The bushings had vibrated out of each end of the starter. I had never heard of this happening, but it did. So we jacked up the back end and started it by spinning the wheel. DIS-qualified ! Chapman was fit to be tied ! He was a very high-strung man.
After Sebring, Chapman went to work trying to hire a U.S. distributor for Lotus. Chapman wanted us to peddle his cars. He said that we'd better do something, that this man Jay Chamberlain will be the distributor for the whole United States. We said to Chapman, 'well, you'd best just give it to him.' We had a small operation, selling Jags and MG's. We didn't want to specialize in a little race car that you didn't know what was going on with. We just wanted to race his cars. They raced the Nine a few more times, but never seemed to finish. In the longest trip from home, in June at the Eagle Mountain races near Ft. Worth Texas, the Nine raced again with the first two Elevens in the country, driven then by Brownloe Whitehead and Ralph Miller, but dropped out with a stripped distributor drive gear. In another race a pivot pin fell out of the clutch on a four-to-three shift causing Sheppard to fly off the road at speed -- he was flustered to say the least. In another event, competing with a wide variety of "drive-to-the-track" racecars, the Nine sputtered to a halt after a handful of laps. I pulled it off the road and just left it there for the rest of the race. A (Ford)T-Bird came by, out of shape, flipped and landed right on the back end of it. Just mashed it flat. We had to get a new tail for it and rebuild the rear frame. This was the first of many Williams & Pritchard panels the Sheppards would order over the next few years. Even after turning Chapman down on being a distributor, Jack Sheppard was still a Lotus dealer. He became his own customer by ordering a new Lotus, this time an Eleven. The Nine meanwhile, was quickly sold, as demand for the little car was surprisingly high. Who bought it was one of those business details that only Jack Sheppard paid attention to. Today no one remembers.
Eleven chassis #240 was delivered to them through the port at Jacksonville in Summer 1956. Like the Nine, this Eleven was kept in brightly polished aluminum. The car and Sheppard made a great impression at a big race at the Gainesville Georgia airport track in October. In the race for cars under 1500cc, Sheppard led from the start and lapped all but one car -- this in a 15 lap event ! In the final Sheppard worked the Lotus through the field, picking off Arnolt-Bristols, Jags and a Ferrari . But the car dropped out with gearbox failure while in the lead. The Sheppard's raced it once or twice in Florida before taking it to Nassau for the third annual Speed Weeks races in December. At Nassau two events were noteworthy; the Governor's Cup race and the Nassau Trophy race. For '56 the Governor's Cup race attracted 120 entrants, and was split into two 70 mile events, the first for 69 cars under two liters. The Nassau Trophy race, which attracted Shelby and Moss, and cars from Ferrari, Mercedes, Maserati and Porsche, was a 210 mile affair. In the Governor's Cup small bore event, Jay Chamberlain finished first in another Eleven with Sheppard second. In the Nassau Trophy race , Sheppard finished, but was well back in the field, second again in class behind Chamberlain. Other Elevens in these events were driven by Frank Baptista and Tom Flemming. A "Lotus-OSCA" was also entered. Sheppard recalls an incident afterward. Chamberlain was towing at least one Eleven back to California from Nassau on his custom trailer. He must have been cutting across Florida on one of the small roads. The trailer had a wide track, and the right-side wheel caught on the abutment of a narrow bridge, caught it dead-on. The impact tore it back up into the Lotus then the wheel went flying out into the Everglades. And there they sat. So they called me up in Tampa, and I drove down, picked the car up while they towed the remains of their trailer to my shop to rebuild it. Then they loaded it up and headed for California. Eleven #240 was raced next at the inaugural SCCA race at the Boca Raton Airport track in March of '57, where Sheppard came in second in the main event between a D-Jaguar and a Ferrari Testa Rossa. This Eleven's history then becomes more difficult to trace, as new and very special Elevens arrived at Import Motors.
For the '57 Sebring race, Chapman would enter four factory Elevens -- but all were pre-sold. That was the deal; you could drive this car at Sebring for the factory, but you had to buy it first. Before the race they're factory cars. After the race they're yours. With smooth execution that indicates careful planning between Chapman and the Sheppards, four new Elevens arrived at the Jacksonville port in mid-March. The cars were loaded onto trailers and towed across the state to Import Motors. The newly arrived factory cars carried the famous (for Lotus at least) registration numbers of the three '56 LeMans entries plus the '56 works car, XAR 11. The four cars appeared in Lotus publicity photos for some time with XAR 11 painted white with blue stripes, one car red, two in BRG. Lotus had accumulated some fame with these registration numbers, and by rotating chassis under those registration plates made it possible for as many buyers as could afford it to own one of the "works cars." The Sheppards' had agreed to buy at least one of the four, XJH 902, which would be chassis #276. Colin Chapman would co-drive it with Joe Sheppard and Dick Dungan. By then Chapman was well aware that Joe was a first-rate driver, and circumstances will show he probably concluded Joe was the only teammate needed. Days later the Tampa Tribune reported that "in Tampa the Jack Sheppard garage was a beehive of activity as the four Lotus cars from the English factory were being prepared for the Sebring race. Colin Chapman, head of the Lotus factory and designer of the tiny race cars, is supervising the work." Sheppard recalls that Chapman brought three more Lotus men from England with him.
One afternoon Chapman asked where he might be able to test one of the cars. Sheppard suggested Bayshore Drive, a scenic, waterfront boulevard just a few streets away from the shop. I was sitting in the left hand seat giving him some directions as he was driving, you know, turn left here, watch that turn there. But he was going a hundred miles an hour ! (laughter) I finally hollered, 'Colin, we've got to stop here, turn around and go back the other way'. He turned around but then he did the same damn thing. BALLS TO THE WALL ! The car was never under 6500 rpm. I think I must have chewed through the edge of the seat.(more laughter) You should have seen the faces of the people we passed !
The cars were back on trailers the Wednesday before the race to be towed a few hours away to Sebring for inspection by the race committee and a few laps of practice. The track was 5.2 miles of old airport runways connected by 12 flat, slippery turns. Rows of mothballed WW II & Korean War aircraft lined the straights. Even then, when the race was still a relatively young event, the place was being called seedy and decrepit. Yet the crowds flocked there. A striking contrast could be felt, almost spooky at times, when the fastest sports cars of the world screamed through the desolate surroundings beneath the ghostly hulks of bombers. Nighttime was unforgettable. There was nothing pretty about Sebring, the racetrack, but it could leave magical memories.
The scrutineers found some problems and quick improvisation by the crew was needed. See that little piece of aluminum riveted behind the side glass ? The cars wouldn't pass tech inspection without that. The car was too low behind the driver. Chapman just cut that piece out, bent it over and stuck it on there. The metal trim pieces are unique to the Sheppard car and the other three cars entered. The Sebring cars also were distinctive in having brake cooling duct holes in the noses, and double sets of retaining straps for the nose and tail. The Sebring cars all had convertible tops. Race rules required it. But you couldn't drive them with the tops on. There was a silly piece of plastic above the windshield you had to look through. Chapman just hated all those rules and regulations. Two of the cars, XAR 11 chassis #275, entered by Charles Moran for himself and Doc Wyllie, and 9 EHX chassis #274, entered by the Puerto Rico Auto Club for Victor Merino, Luis Pedrerra and Rafi Rosales, had "wide chassis" frames. Like Sheppard's car, the one to be driven by Chamberlain and Ignazio Lozano, DEC 494 chassis #278, was the normal narrow chassis. All were Series-1 specification. My car had the A-30 gearbox in it, which was light. The other cars Chapman shipped over had MG boxes, which were sturdier. 'Watch this gearbox,' Chapman told me. 'In the hairpin try to get it through in third. If you have to use second don't stomp it, or it'll tear right out of there.' But in the race we didn't have any trouble with it. As ludicrous as it may sound to struggle through the Sebring hairpin in third gear, it reveals the concern for the weak link in the Lotus Eleven: the overstressed Austin 'box. Racing this way would have required having the engine in a fairly torquey state of tune, but still taking the turns at a mad pace. It is interesting that Chapman would have picked this car to race, choosing a normal width frame and the most lightweight drivetrain. Chapman told me that when he started building the Lotus spaceframes he made some models out of 1/16th" balsa wood. He twisted the frames in his hands to see where they would crack. He'd add a little here or there. So the frame designs weren't by accident, but they weren't all theory either. I asked him when we were riding out to the race course, 'Why in the world did you name this company Lotus ?' He said, 'I won't tell you'.
The '57 Sebring was an important event: one of only two international races in the USA. Fangio had returned as defending champion, this time driving one of the Maserati V-8's with Jean Behra. The bulk of the then current Formula 1 drivers were in the race, including Hawthorn, Collins and Moss, Names like Lloyd Ruby, Piero Taruffi, and the Marquis de Portago filled out the field. Pete Lovely was there racing a Corvette, but also beginning his long association with Lotus. Paul Frere, the racer/journalist, driving a Renault Dauphine started next to the Elevens. Sixty five cars started. It was the biggest race Joe had been in.
Perhaps because he was the customer, Sheppard was chosen to start the race, which in those days meant a LeMans-style dash across the track. God, I was nervous ! I ran across the track. Chapman was standing behind the car, motioning 'come on, come on.' I was a bundle of nerves. No seatbelt on, no nothin. Just jump in and take off ! Whew ! Ahead there was already a big traffic jam, as we came to the first turns, slow, like second gear. I remember looking over right beside me , going about forty miles per hour, at Mike Hawthorn in a D-type Jag. I said, 'oh boy . . .' and we went side-by-side through the esses. Behra in the Maserati soon overtook Collins' Ferrari for the lead and he and Fangio held it to the finish. I remember following Fangio through those esses, on down to the hairpin. I was fightin' like hell with the wheel, but I watched Fangio take it, just holding the wheel gently, a little turn this way and a little turn that way, just like that. I'd heard about him being able to do that. Moss would battle the car like mad. But Fangio just seemed like he was out for a Sunday drive. He didn't ever look like he was racing.
We were just racing our own race. While the Nine would spin on a straightaway in a gnat, the Elevens weren't near that bad. In fact this factory car was real easy to handle. You could slide the tail end out with no trouble. That Chapman was fast in the Lotus too. I had to work all day at it, but I finally got one lap in that was faster, late in the race. I still don't know how that happened, maybe a timing error. For the record it should be noted that the third driver on the team, Dick Dungan, never got behind the wheel. Sheppard and Chapman drove the twelve hours themselves.
Chapman told me that once during the night he'd done a real 'long lap'. He was the only driver on the team who would take the two sweeping turns after the pits without lifting. Everybody else would lift a little bit -- it would make you feel better. But on that one lap Chapman left the road there and almost ran head-on into another car clear over on the back straightaway. After twelve hours the pair had covered 174 laps, for eleventh overall and first in class. Only one other Eleven had finished, the Puerto Rico Team car in 32nd place. The Moran / Wyllie car had been disqualified, and the Chamberlain / Lozano car went out with a broken fuel tank. A similar problem had nearly eliminated Chapman / Sheppard. After the race when we were tearing the car down, I saw where a screw that was too long anyway had come through the firewall and had been eating a hole in the gas tank at one of the welds. You could see the mark of the threads in the hole but it still hadn't gone through. The gas tank had just been bouncing around in there.
Soon after the race, the Sheppard's apparently sold the Sebring Eleven to Jim Quackenbush, a wealthy enthusiast. Joe meanwhile began racing the actual 1956 Team Lotus Eleven that Bicknell & Jopp had taken to 7th overall and first in class at LeMans. Had it been brought over as a spare for Sebring? This car, known to the press as the LeMans Eleven, was the best handling, most forgiving one Joe had driven. In May of '57 Sheppard used it to lead a sweep of the Gainesville (Georgia) Enoche races. Warren Smith, now driving a white painted Eleven, came in second. Quackenbush finished third. Smith's car was one Sheppard had sold to Duncan Forlong, better known for racing AC Bristols. It may have been either chassis #240 or #251, a car ordered by Import Motors without engine or transmission.
Through the remainder of 1957, Joe Sheppard was unbeatable in Florida sports car races. As Tampa's home-town hero, his exploits were regularly featured in the local papers, giving the little Lotus more publicity. The title of this article is from one of those stories. Winning became so routine that one report described him as "the man who has forgotten how to lose." Whenever a mechanical problem kept him out of the standings, that in itself became the story. During this period, other Eleven drivers in Florida included (sometimes with the same cars) Forlong, Smith, Quackenbush, Ross Stone, William Bowman, Joe Packo and Roy Schecter. The other drivers all turned to Import Motors for parts and advice. The disc brakes on the early Elevens gave a lot of trouble. The rears got too hot. The factory had the two ducts coming up from the bottom to cool the rotors. Warren Smith had the bright idea of putting scoops with ductwork on top, to feed air down to cool the calipers, and not worry about the rotors. It worked, it was better. We never had overheating with the engines though. As successful as he had been with them, Sheppard nonetheless drifted away from Lotus. His Elevens are still around today.
Early in 1958. Sheppard spent some time racing a Maserati 200SI, that, despite slow steering, could run with the fastest. This car was successful until a race at Boca Raton, when the engine exploded at 7000 rpm in fourth gear, hard enough to blow the starter and oil filter off, with a piece of the block punching through the bodywork. The engine was sent away to Italy, sidelining the car for years. He missed the Sebring event in '58, and never had any experience with the Series-2 Elevens that raced there. In 1959 he and Duncan Forlong raced an Aston Martin at Sebring but it blew its engine early on. Sheppard purchased a Porsche RS that year, a car built for Jean Behra that had sat in storage at the factory after Behra's death. This became Sheppard's favorite car. His winning presence in the Florida SCCA continued with it through 1962. In 1960, driving for Lloyd "Lucky" Casner's CAMORADI team in a Porsche Carrera, Sheppard finished ninth overall and won his class again at Sebring, this time with Dick Dungan, who finally got some seat time. Fred Gamble, one of the other CAMORADI drivers and co-founder of the team, later called the class win "a fabulous achievement, and the best showing of the whole team. In hindsight, if we had had Sheppard and Dungan in our lead Maserati instead of Moss and Gurney fighting each other for fastest lap, we probably would have won in a walk." Sheppard's last effort at Sebring was in '62, when he drove one of the works Sunbeam Alpines. The car covered 151 laps but finished well back. By then Import Motors needed more of his time and racing had lost some appeal. I raced for the fun of it. I don't like to brag, but I'd been winning for a while and people began to expect it. The fun wears off when that happens.
Always modest, Joe had a surprise for me the day we met. Weeks earlier I had asked him in a letter about the Paul Whiteman Memorial races at New Smyrna Beach in '58, a long-forgotten event that was the predecessor of the Daytona Speed Weeks. It seemed that every pro and amateur racer in Florida had been there without leaving a trace. Could he tell me anything about it ? Towards the end of the interview, this race came up in conversation, and Joe's wife directed my attention to a huge trophy that sat like a piece of furniture in the corner. Joe had won that race too.
Like other racers from the early sports car scene, today's interest in historic cars and racing has caught him a bit unprepared. Who was concerned about posterity in late-50's sports car racing ? Much of the time frame and details of his years behind the wheel would have been forgotten were it not for his mother's scrapbook. Today Joe will downplay the role he had in establishing Lotus as a winner in the U.S.A., but he has no trouble in enjoying the memories. When we were recovering from the laughter about his wild ride down Bayshore Drive, he added, You just don't know what you missed. Those were such fun times.
Reprinted from the North American Lotus Eleven Register, Summer 1996
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