By KEN BRUCE
At the beginning of each season, Matt Sheppard sets high goals for himself and his team. 2019 was no exception as Sheppard set out to bring home the bulk of the cash that was being offered in the Northeast for the dirt Modifieds. Although Sheppard missed out on two of the biggest dirt races the Northeast had to offer, the driver out of Savannah, N.Y., still was able to pull off one the most herculean feats ever offered for Modified drivers.
Two years ago, Bruce Insigner along with the Short Track Super Series owner Brett Deyo came up with a plan to bring Sunoco Race Fuels and Insigner Performance to the series in a big way. Insigner offered a bonus to any driver that could win both the STSS North Region and the STSS South Region along with the American Racer Cup title a cool $25,000 bonus. With the quality of competition amongst in the Northeast, and especially on the STSS, this was a bonus that was probably going to go unclaimed. To win two of the three titles mentioned is hard enough, but to win all three was almost impossible.
But as Sheppard most eloquently put it in his banquet speech “You should never challenge a racer.”
In 2018 Sheppard sought to take on the challenge, but in the end, it was not to be. Sheppard had a tough time of it on the STTS North Region and was only able to manage a fifth in points as he raced tracks that he was not familiar with all season. In the South Region, Sheppard had a better go of it. Still finishing fifth overall, Sheppard was in a very good position to win the title until a late season schedule conflict forced him to miss a race hindering his title hopes. Sheppard still managed a total of two wins and four top fives out of seven races.
Although Sheppard didn’t accomplish his goal in 2018, the driver gained some valuable track time on those unfamiliar tracks and was able to cultivate some good notes making him ready to take on the challenge once again in 2019.
This past season, Sheppard was ready and came out swinging early on in the season making everyone take notice that he was on mission to get the coveted bonus being offered. In the South Region, Sheppard maintained control all season, and after the “Beach Blast” at Georgetown, was only required to start the last race at the Mid-Atlantic Championship weekend to clinch the title.
However, in the North Region the standings were much tighter forcing Sheppard to have to finish within the top ten at the “Hard Clay Finale” to win the title. After a slow start in the 50-lap race, Sheppard came on strong in the second half of the race to finish a strong fourth thus clinching the North Region title. Having already won the American Racer Cup, in which they take your top ten finishes at your home track, Sheppard went an amazing ten for ten at the Outlaw Speedway.
Sheppard accomplished what many thought could never be done in winning all three titles to take home an amazing $58,500 at Saturday’s STSS banquet held at the Bear Creek Mountain Resort.
I caught up with Sheppard to get his thoughts on what an outstanding year it was for him and his team on the STSS.
“We always set big goals and high expectations for ourselves, but you can only dream to achieve them,” said a very happy Sheppard. “In the back of my mind I thought it was possible, but a lot of things had to go the right way to make it happen. As I said before, there is a lot of moving parts that make this happen and we were very fortunate in many aspects. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of coordination by many people. More importantly, some very fast race cars and the combination of all of the above was what got us to where we are tonight.”
The logistics to make all of this happen for Sheppard was almost insurmountable, but with a lot of communication and hard work the HAS No. 9S team was able to pull it off.
“There is definitely a lot of work involved to do this and there is a whole group of people that work hard to make it happen,” explained Sheppard. “Running two different series and so many different tracks, it’s a lot to keep straight for sure. Between flip flopping the tires back and forth and the engines to making sure you have the right body panels on for each track or series. The taller doors, the short doors, it’s a lot to keep track of and that’s really the toughest part about it.
“The racing the easy part of it by far, just making sure you got the right stuff on your car when you show up to the racetrack is the by far the toughest part. I’ll tell you what, there’s days during the middle of the summer that I wonder as I’m driving to the track and ask myself ‘do I have the right body on the car or the right engine or even the right weight?’ It’s all a blur at times.”
To have a season like Matt did requires not only a good team, but also a group of hardworking and dedicated individuals. Some out in the forefront and some behind the scenes. One thing for sure is that none of this could be accomplished without any of them, most importantly the sponsors.
“I know I keep saying this, but it is so true, there are so many moving parts to this deal that it would be hard to list them all,” cited Sheppard. “I have some great sponsors and I would struggle to stand here and list them all, but man there are a whole bunch of them. My crew works extremely hard and without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
It was a great night of celebration and one that Sheppard, his wife Bethanne, the whole No. 9S crew and sponsors won’t soon forget.
“Tonight is a great celebration at a great venue,” mentioned Sheppard. “We celebrated this deal at Georgetown and again at Charlotte, but you know what, now we are in rebuild mode. Florida is not too far away. It’s about a month away before we head south and that’s where we’re at. Once tonight’s over we will be totally focused on next season. We are certainly proud of what we did last year, but now it’s time to move on and get serious about 2020. There are hundreds of drivers out there ready to jump in and take you down if you aren’t ready to go. It’s been a great year and I know when I am talking to you afterward, I had a good night.”
After Saturday night there is no looking back for Sheppard as he and his team will be in total prep mode getting those Bicknell race cars ready to go for the “Sunshine Swing” at All-Tech Raceway and for the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park.
“Florida will be another logistical nightmare for me just trying to bring all the different tires, cars and engines you might need,” explained Sheppard. “Nobody knows what they will need for All-Tech having never raced there before. We’ll probably take a big-block and a small-block and still might not have the right combination we’ll need. It will be a lot of stuff to keep track of for sure.”
As always, I can be reached for any questions or comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @dirtracefan25