By Alex Lee
Becoming the subject of a six-page story in Hot Rod magazine may well be the dream of many car enthusiasts. On page 20 of the April 2023 edition of the magazine is a picture of a machine that will pique the curiosity of any reader.
The article is headlined, “No-Prep Hero,” and the sub-headline reads, “Austin Shepherd’s budget-built RX-7 defies gravity, wins races, and pleases crowds.”
Austin is a 2013 graduate of Vicksburg High School. His team’s tire pressure and moral support specialist, who is also Austin’s fiancée, Amber Ballard, is a 2013 Vicksburg High School graduate as well. Austin was a strong pitcher in his day and went to college to play baseball until a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery redirected his career goals.
Austin says his interest in cars started around the age of 12. He and his friend, Will Prater, spent a lot of time in Will’s father’s garage. Will’s father, Robert Prater, spent more than 20 years as a Kodak film, Chevrolet, and drivetrain specialist on a NASCAR road crew. According to Austin, “Once we got our drivers licenses, we started upgrading our daily drivers to make them faster. It wasn’t about racing at the start, it was just about having something a little different than everyone else in the parking lot.” Things became more focused when he saw an ad for a job opening at a Fort Wayne, Indiana hotrod shop. He applied and was given the job.
Austin remains a humble young man and credits a number of people who supported him. First and foremost his mother, Adriann Shepherd, who has always been a fan, moving from the baseball stands to the racing stands to cheer him on. Austin also credits stepdad Joel Nelson for “molding me into who I am today,” and says, “Robert Prater was also a big part of growing up, learning about cars and allowing us to get in the in the way while he worked.”
When asked about Austin, Robert Prater said, “Most racers throw money, lots of money, at their cars to make them go fast, but Austin throws as much thought, knowledge, and experience at his car as he does money. And that gives him a decided edge that’s tough for his opponents.”
I asked Austin about this. “A lot of the cars we compete against will have two to three times the money invested, some will even have an engine that cost as much as my whole car, and we still find ways to win. I may not have the money that some have, but I have the time to test out new ideas and to get my car down the track. We race on no prep surfaces which makes it a tuning game, because it’s the same as racing on a bare road.
“Nick Taylor, the owner of the hotrod shop I worked in taught me to think outside of the box and try new things. Winning a race doesn’t mean the car has reached its maximum potential, so we keep working. We make multiple passes each week between races and we take very little time off. That’s where we gain our edge.”
Austin’s rather odd-looking car is named Lil Heavy. Austin says, “After we got the car ready to race, we put it on the scales and found it to be heavier than we expected. Nick Taylor said ‘Wow, that little car is heavy,’ and from that moment on Lil Heavy was its name.”
Austin has just opened his own shop, Shepherfied Performance and Wiring, in Wabash, Indiana. It specializes in cam/head swaps Holley installs, and wiring from cruisers to drag cars. To follow racing schedules and updates go to “Shepherfied Performance and wiring” on Facebook. Also “Shepherfied” TikTok and Instagram has video of all its races.
By Alex Lee