By BILL FOLEY
As the new season begins you can’t talk about Modified racing in the Northeast without thinking of Matt Sheppard.
The first race series of the year was the Short Track Super Series Sunshine Swing at the All Tech Raceway.
This is the first opportunity for drivers, owners, motor builders, shock adjusters, and fans to get a view of 2023 Modifieds.
Once again a competition field shows up at this half mile dirt track 14 miles south of Lake City, Florida.
As teams had some free time prior to the first night of racing Matt Sheppard sat down with Dirt Track Digest to talk about his career, that sensational late season winning streak, plans and a variety of other topics.
DTD: We talked last year and you indicated that winning at different tracks was probably your biggest achievement. Could you talk about that?
MATT SHEPPARD: “I guess you see a lot of guys who are very good at their own tracks or certain places, but I guess if you can win at 50 different races I guess it shows your versatility.”
DTD: How did it all start for you?
MS: “I started racing Sportsman in ‘99 so this will be 24 years. I dabbled in Modifieds in ‘02 and ‘03 then ran Canandaigua weekly and basically went full time in the Modifieds in 2004.”
DTD: When did the consistency of winning regularly begin?
MS: “Probably ‘09 is when I started gaining when I was driving for Randy Ross and that deal folded up and I went to run for Brownell. I had some good cars and good engines. I was getting some seat time and we started stringing together wins, a lot of wins. I’ve won at least 20 every year since 2009. That was my first real breakout year going from seven, eight, nine wins a year to kind of doubling it. We won six series races that year. And started becoming a threat nearly every race we went to.”
DTD: It’s a new season and you’re back in Florida. How are you approaching this week?
MS: “We won the first night here last year and the rest of the week here and Volusia, not so hot. I swear every year we leave Florida it’s a waste of time to come to Florida to race. You don’t gain anything. You don’t learn anything. There is nothing we utilize at home. But the competitor in me, the team, the competitiveness of the team you just aren’t satisfied with giving up. It makes you want to come back and do better. We’re back and we brought our two old cars down with us and older motors.
“It’s good stuff and I feel we are capable of winning with it, but we certainly didn’t bring the best equipment just because we didn’t want to put useless laps on it. It’s getting harder to get cars and motors. Things are getting more expensive and harder to get . You come down here and put 200 to 300 laps on your stuff it really doesn’t mean anything. The car owner in me has to look at it from two sides. I want to come down here to win and I think we can do that, but at the same time it’s senseless to bring my best stuff too.”
DTD: How did Matt Sheppard learn so much about Modifieds?
MS: “I guess it’s the only thing I’ve ever done. When I was a kid I sat in the shop and watched what all the other guys were doing on the cars. When my dad had cars he had a shop and at one point Billy Trout was keeping Alan Johnson’s cars there and when Alan left Gary Tomkins drove. The cars were always kept right behind our house so I was out there every night just watching and learning. Driving for Stevie Paine and Donnie Payne and just watching the way they worked and how frugal they were, but mechanically inclined. They got the most out of their equipment. There weren’t many teams that ran engines, parts and pieces as long as they did, but also had as few breakdowns as they did. I think that taught me a lot for my own program. And years, years and years of doing nothing but working on these things day in and day out.”
DTD: Talk about last year and that amazing string of late season big wins.
MS: “Crazy! I told a lot of people this winter that every other season for the rest of my life will probably be a letdown. It was really was crazy. It started with the Fonda 200. Just had a really good solid day. Got that done and knocked that out of the way. Really we thought we were in trouble going into that weekend because we were struggling as some of the big small-block stuff was down and out and actually ran a big-block which is not the preferred engine for Fonda. To be able to win that race with a big block was big. That was one we wanted to scratch off the bucket list.
“The next weekend we did the 15th to the lead at Albany-Saratoga and came out of nowhere. I didn’t even know I had won. I was 11th the last time the yellow was out so that one sort of snuck in there.
“The Outlaw 200 with a big-block couldn’t be done. It was a shock. It was unexpected. It’s like we ran strong in the first 100 and gave it up at the end. We thought we had a shot and made adjustments. If we were going to beat (Mat) Williamson the car had to do this, this and this to be a little better. Made adjustments. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t . Things just went our way. We got the lead at the right time, yellows at the right time, got through traffic, the breaks and there we were in victory lane again.
“Same thing at Oswego. The big-block car was good all week long. The small-block was a little bit of a surprise. It showed good speed, we were in the top six. The worst we were were the first 100 laps of the big-block race. We took the stop, made the adjustment and once again made the right ones and it came to life. It was the story of our season. Any races we got the chance to fine tune the car a little more, a little more I think we typically got better.
“We went to Port Royal. I don’t know what to say. It was surreal. We came on late. My car wasn’t that good on the bottom and everybody was there so I just opened up the top lane for me and that was the only lane working for me. I’m glad it was 75 and not 74 laps.
“At Middletown we got up to second and by that time in the race, it was a track position race. It was hard enough to pass the lapped cars, much less the lead lap car. We worked up to second and we were as fast as Stewey (Friesen) was, but passing him was going to be another story. He got messed up in lapped traffic, muddled up his left front and that was the opportunity we needed. I can’t tell you it’s anything we did, but it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.. Boom there you go. We had 42 wins in 96 races, but in ‘17 we had 41 in 80.”
DTD: What is the relationship and thought process between you and your crew chief Randy Kisacky?
MS: “I think we have varied different views on a lot of things. It is more like a checks and balances thing. I come up with an idea and he usually disagrees with it. He comes up with an idea and I usually disagree with it. We usually kind of hash out something in the middle that makes sense of his idea and my idea. I think that is what you need. It’s very easy to talk yourself into anything with these types of cars. For example you say ‘This right front spring on it will make this better and that better’. So if you don’t have somebody there to say ‘Remember if you put that spring on it is also going to do this and when we put it on at a specific track it made us loose.’ It’s a checks and balances. When you do this stuff you have to think of how it is going to help the car and hurt the car. I think that is kind of what makes it work between us. It’s really checks and balances. We sat in the hotel this morning hashing stuff back and forth. What I wanted to do is completely opposite of what he wanted to do. We basically came up with two different game plans and we are going to start off with one and then go to the other one. We typically have different views, but we keep each other in check. Last year we had the right outcome more often than not.”
DTD: How did you and Randy get together?
MS: “We actually got together when he was working at HBR with Jimmy Phelps and all those guys when I went over there. He was helping the whole team the two years I was there. When I left and went on my own in ‘16 he had been at HBR for 10 years and he always jokes that every 10 years you have to make a change. So he ended up coming with me. Probably around eight years now so maybe this is his farewell tour. Obviously, it has been a very successful pairing. The stats the last seven years we’ve had a lot of real big seasons with 29, 36, 41 and 42 wins, five Super DIRTcar Series championships. We won every year, but the one year lost by a few points to Williamson.”
DTD: Plans for this year?
MS: “We’ll follow the Short Track Super Series Elite stuff, Super DIRTcar Series, STSS North. The STSS South is tough with a lot of travel. It seems every year we start to follow it and are doing good in points. I wouldn’t swear to it, but probably basically the same schedule.”
DTD: Talk a bit about how you keep things together for the team?
MS: “Last year with all the motor issues I had phenomenal luck. Brought in a bunch of money. Money that you thought you would never see in this sport, but I also spent more money on motors last year than I did the last seven combined. We had a good season, but there is a lot of expense in this game. Nothing gets any cheaper. It gets worse every year. Thank God I have a lot of good sponsors. A Lot of this stuff, not everything, is paid for.
“I started this deal seven years ago. I started with two cars and two motors. You have a good season and you buy another motor. Soon you buy another car and it has grown to what it is now. It also helps keep overhead down when you have a bunch of equipment to keep it going is a lot cheaper than to buy it all from the start. I have two new cars at home, one from last year and I actually have five cars for the first time. Two aren’t from last year, but the year before. This car (one running at All Tech) is actually the car I drove at Oswego the really rough year. That’s how old the car is. We’ve tried to get some life out of them. I will run the older stuff as long as I can this year then, at some point during the season, kind of like I did last year, I’ll pull out a new car. I think I pulled out that new car at the Richie Evans race at Utica, started in the back and ended up winning it. That car got really hot. We won like the first 10 of 11 races with it. It was stupid. We’ll start out the season with the old stuff and run as long as we can.”
DTD: Supply lines caused you problems last year in getting parts. Has that gotten any better?
MS: “Seems like some things are better. Some things are not. The engine stuff is weird. Pistons and some things like that have improved drastically, but other parts haven’t. Without every piece you can’t put an engine together. You have strange things like ‘I have a motor together, but I can’t get a rear seal for it.’ Things you never heard of before. Valves are a bit of an issue. I think one of the hardest things right now is that a lot of guys are having trouble getting steering boxes. It’s getting worse. My understanding is that the actual gear inside the box that all the companies use was a GM gear that GM quit making. Now companies are trying to figure out how to make them themselves or get them somewhere else. It’s a really big problem. A big expense.”
DTD: While on the topic of engines you have had C.C. Engines for years. Is he retiring and what does that mean to your team?
MS: “I don’t know if he’ll ever get out of the business. I also have Kevlar, but I still have more C.C.’s than Kevlar. It’s gotten to a point where in doing as much racing as I do and as many motors, series and the way parts are that one guy just couldn’t keep up. Actually I have a third motor from a guy, a Super Series motor out of Missouri. I have a little bit of everything. Getting to a point you gotta do what you gotta do to get a motor under the hood sometimes.”
DTD: What about this year as you noted it is hard to imagine matching last season?
MS: “I think all you can do is to keep doing the same. It will be interesting to see what happens. Obviously, in this game you can never stay ahead of the curve. Everybody gets ahead of the curve for a short time and then everybody else catches up. Then someone else might get ahead of the curve. All we can do this year is hope that we can keep making good adjustments and keep living off of our success last year and hope that while everyone else is getting better we continue to get better ourselves. That is all we can hope for.
“We certainly don’t nail it every night. Not everyone does. As a good of a season we had last year there were still a lot of bad nights. If we can keep trying to improve and not have as many bad nights, keep refining what we are doing and find more and more speed out of these things, that is all we can do and hope for.”
DTD: Can you get better?
MS: “There is always room for improvement. Really there is not a whole lot we haven’t done in this sport. I think we knocked the rest of the bucket wins off the bucket last year and at this point, I’d like to think I have some good years left in me. I’ve had a good career and made a pretty good living out of it. Hopefully I can stretch a few more years out of this and then do something else.”