Vicksburg grad featured in Hot Rod Magazine

Lil Heavy on the track. Photo by KW Photography.

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.

South County News reaches 10 years of publishing

Left to right: SCN board members Sheri Freeland, Wes Schmitt, Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe, Rob Ball, Steve Ellis, and Justin Gibson (inset). Group photo by Zach Elmblad. Inset photo by Kaitlyn Wheaton.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe and Steve Ellis

This June 2023 issue marks 10 years since the first delivery of the South County News. During the last decade, many local newspapers have closed their doors or struggle to continue operations. But this publication is a true community paper, supported by local businesses and readers. It’s a different business model, and we feel fortunate to continue publishing our monthly paper which focuses on the good things happening in southern Kalamazoo County.

A bit of history

After the Kalamazoo Gazette published the Commercial-Express from 2007-2012, the communities of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg were without a paper for nearly a year. A group of community activists and leaders spent that year planning and brainstorming, figuring out if the paper could be resurrected without an office and what that could look like. In June of 2013, the small group, led by the enthusiasm and experience of Sue Moore, wrote, sold, printed and delivered the first edition. Since that time, our communities have recognized the importance of local coverage and have supported this effort with advertising dollars and readership donations. And the non-profit status granted by the IRS has helped sustain the business, which now includes modest amounts for staff and writers to support their efforts.

Each month, more than 11,000 papers are printed and delivered to homes and businesses in the area. The paper’s focus is South County local news: village and township government and happenings, school board meetings, student achievements, sports, human interest stories and obituaries. We have regular columnists, reporters, and community members who write and contribute each month.

What makes us different?

Throughout the last ten years, the South County News has printed approximately 4,300 pages of local news and advertisements. Included in these pages are over 4,500 stories, 6,700 pictures, and 1,700 free obituaries. With our large fall, winter and spring issues of high school sports team photos, we run those of close to 2,000 individuals each year. If not for the South County News, these features and photos would not have appeared.

Current board members

Current members of the South County News board of trustees are diverse in their expertise and background:

President Rob Ball is the current copy editor and brings a specialized skill set after 30 years of reporting and copy reading a daily newspaper in Royal Oak.

Secretary and treasurer Wes Schmitt is a retired accountant and long-time Schoolcraft resident who has been involved in many local projects and organizations and was part of the South County News grass-roots effort in 2013.

Advertising sales consultant Steve Ellis lends his advice and expertise after working for 23 years in advertising sales at the Kalamazoo Gazette. He was an important part of the push to begin publishing in 2013.

Advertising sales manager Sheri Freeland is a familiar, friendly face to area businesses and agencies and has been involved with the South County News for many years.

Graphic designer Justin Gibson has provided artistic and technical skills since 2014, “working his magic” on each monthly edition.

Editor/Publisher Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe assumed the role after Sue Moore’s death in 2020 and is a retired Vicksburg Community Schools teacher.

Going Forward

We continue to meet to discuss improvements to our existing format and to share ideas for future coverage, including ways to reach all ages of readers. Because of ongoing community support, the future is bright for continuing to showcase the good news in South County.

The power of this paper

By Leeanne Seaver

If you’re reading this paper, you are an increasingly rare group. Having the South County News at your disposal puts you in a small subset of American citizens with access to a local newspaper. The importance of this can’t be overstated.

The “local” aspect is key. It’s what brings us into the story of shared experience that transforms individuals into a community. There’s reciprocity involved here that needs what a local newspaper delivers: a mechanism for knowing each other’s story—and why it matters.

The more we’re associated in an inclusive community, the more it matters to us—and we matter to it. What comes of that dynamic is democracy in action. When an engaged community generates enough group-think to reach consensus on what matters, that’s the tipping point. Things get done. Goals get reached.

The local newspaper is both a chronicle of past events and current community values. It reflects concerns, behavior, choices, and decisions back to the people involved, not just for documentation but for further consideration. This prompts accountability, deliberation, necessary changes, and improvements in a community. According to the experts, there’s a high cost for losing such a vital resource.

A good local paper is one everybody reads. Social media is scattered, diverse, and not functioning the way a local newspaper does to unite a community. A local paper may not unify everyone in thought on politics or various topics, but it does bring people who are living in the same place together in a form of shared conversation. ~ Leonard Krishtalka, PhD, anthropologist and author. 2021.

When more journalists were working at the local paper, more candidates ran for mayor. If a newspaper hired one more staffer for each 1,000-person circulation (or 10 staffers for a paper with a circulation of 10,000), the number of candidates would increase by an expected factor of 1.23, all else held constant. When there are fewer reporters covering an area, fewer people run for mayor, and fewer people vote. Put another way: When newspaper staffing levels are higher, voters have more of a choice in who leads their city, and more of them feel like showing up to choose.” ~ Sarah Holder, “As local newspapers shrink, so do voters’ choices.” in Bloomberg. 2019.

If a county/municipality doesn’t have a local newspaper, there will likely be a higher interest rate charged by a lender because the risk of “bad actors” in local government going undiscovered by the local press is an identified factor. “When a lender is more nervous about lending to an inefficient government, then they’re going to have to ask for a higher interest rate on the money they’re lending to compensate for that risk.” ~ Dermot Murphy, Finance Professor, University of Illinois/Chicago. Local Newspaper Closures Come With Hefty Price Tag For Residents : NPR. 2018.

You lose a community institution that is the source of trust and therefore you don’t have the glue that holds the community together. ~ Frank Fukuyama, Political Scientist, Stanford University. 2021.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another. ~ Elaine Godfrey, The Atlantic Magazine. October 2021.

Vicksburg has a rich newspapering heritage. Thanks to the efforts of Sue Clark Moore and a dedicated team that continues with Kathy Oswalt Forsythe as editor, we have this informative, entertaining, and crucial record of our shared experience in South Kalamazoo County. We should never take it for granted. Like every member of this community, each of our subscriptions matter.

(This article includes excerpts from This Writer: The History of the Simons, an America Newspaper Family by Dolph Simons and Leeanne Seaver. The World Company publishers. Due in September 2023. Used with Permission.)