By Ken Bruce
Matt Sheppard has steadily climbed the ladder in the Short Track Super Series South division in 2023. Starting out with an eighth-place finish at Selinsgrove in March and then getting a third-place finish at Delaware International in May saw Sheppard sit third in points heading into last night’s Dirty Jersey 50 at New Egypt Speedway. At the end of the night, Sheppard reached the top of the ladder with a convincing win over a very talented field of modifieds.
By virtue of a bad pre-race draw, Sheppard lined up last in the third heat race and promptly showed the rest of the field that he had a very fast No. 9S Bicknell chassis, going from last to second in 10 laps and getting into the redraw for the 50-lap main event. Sheppard drew position number eight for the feature race and promptly went to the front by taking the lead from Anthony Perrego on lap 17, restarting, and driving away from the field to take home the $5,000 first-place prize. The win also vaulted Sheppard to the top of the STSS South standings by one point over Billy Pauch Jr and it was also his second Dirt Jersey win in a row at New Egypt, making it worth the long ride from New York.
“This certainly helps make the ride home a lot better,” said a jubilant Sheppard after the race. “I am not really sure what happened, but I guess we have taken a liking to this place the last two times we’ve been here. This car was very good all night. We had one of the fastest cars in warmups, and we were able to come up through in the heat by passing some good cars and then passed some good cars in the feature. We just had a very good combination for here tonight. I don’t know what it was about our set-ups, this is not the same motor we ran here last year, but it definitely got the job done tonight.”
The motor underneath the hood of the No. 9S last night was the Wegner Weekend Warrior, a motor that Sheppard has had much success with so far this season and has taken a liking to.
“They run really good plus the availability of them is a big part of racing nowadays,” mentioned Sheppard. “Unfortunately, the way the parts industry is, I have other motors that have something broken on them, and I have to wait a year to get it back, and that’s a lot of races in a year. These guys (Wegner) have been really good at turning stuff around and building engines quickly. When I got this motor originally, I think it only took them three weeks to build it from the day I ordered it, and it has been very good. I have been running this one (the Weekend Warrior 427) and the 454 (CI), and I have won with both of them, and they are both really good running engines. They have really been a lifesaver in an era when it is just tough to get motors fast enough. I mean, you can have all the money in the world, but it won’t buy you a motor nowadays, and it’s not the motor builders’ fault; they can’t get parts and everything they need to build them, and these guys (Wegner) have the inventory, and they do a good job. They definitely have a different niche going with all of the LS stuff, and it is just a good, solid piece.”
I asked Sheppard if you could notice a difference between the Wegner motor and the motors he has been running.
“I mean, all motors seem to have different characteristics to them,” explained Sheppard. “It doesn’t matter; if you have four big blocks, all four are going to run differently, and if you have a bunch of open small blocks, they are all going to run differently. I would say these Wegner motors run right in the realm of some of the big small blocks that I run. They both run differently, but they all run well. This one really accelerates on the bottom and not so much on the top end, and the other ones are just the opposite, and they are just good smooth-running engines.”
It is no secret that rough track conditions have been an issue this season due to the amount of rain the northeast has received, but last night, track owner Rick Grosso had the track in excellent shape, providing the racers with a very smooth surface that produced many grooves for the drivers to race on.
“Compared to some of the places we have raced at this year, this track was a superhighway,” commented Sheppard. “It was very wide and racy all night. Like I said in victory lane, turns one and two have a very unique shape here, and there were about 20 different grooves you could run, and I am not sure exactly which one was the fastest, but I was just happy I was able to get upfront and get through the lapped traffic and bring it home in one piece.”
It has been a very hectic schedule for Sheppard, who races in three different series to go along with normal weekend racing. back-to-back Canada trips in the past two weeks, with another set of three dates coming up next week on the Super DIRTcar Series. It has been a grind for Sheppard, who owns his team.
“It has been a grind lately,” said Sheppard. “We are going to go home tonight, and tomorrow I will probably pull this motor out and put in the big Wegner motor, and then start preparing for the big week next week to get everything ready. The only thing that has really saved me is that we seem to be alternating between STSS and the Super DIRTcar Series stuff, so that kind of gives us a little time to rebuild one program while we are running the other series instead of having to flop back and forth in the same week. In a couple of weeks, we will slow down, and then we will wonder where the hell summer went.
A couple of weeks ago, the team took the weekend off from racing and did some things outside of racing, but the work never really stopped as Sheppard was still in the shop every day.
“It wasn’t totally a weekend off, but it does help everyone out when you can take some time off to do other things,” explained Sheppard. “We took Friday off, but I am in the process of building a new car to replace the one I trashed at Utica-Rome, so I spent Sunday and Monday in the shop doing that and spent time getting things ready to go up to Quebec, so you don’t get to take many days off this time of the year. The shop work is a lot busier than the racetrack work, that’s for sure.”
Perrego Continues his New Egypt Success with a Second-Place Finish: Anthony Perrego has taken a liking to the New Egypt Speedway. The Montgomery, N.Y., driver drove to his second podium finish this season at New Egypt with a strong second place finish in the 50-lap Dirty Jersey STSS South race last night in the Vinny Salerno No. 4* modified. Earlier this summer, Perrego had a third-place finish in the Garden State Gunfight.
Starting on the outside pole, Perrego took the lead from two-time New Egypt Speedway winner Justin Grosso on lap four. Perrego held the lead until lap 17, when his good buddy Matt Sheppard outgunned him on a restart, forcing him to settle for second.
“We have had two really good runs here this year,” said Perrego. “I would have really liked to have held off that No. 9S there, but he had a good car tonight. We had a really good piece as well, and I don’t know if I could have done anything different. I think I did the right thing on the restart when he got me. I knew he was going to slide me, and I was hoping I could just cross him back over, but he kind of smoked us down the back there.”
Perrego came into the race with a PA Spec 358 under the hood of the No. 4* Bicknell.
“I don’t know if having a bigger motor would have made a difference,” explained Perrego. “I think it was definitely the right motor for me, and I don’t think I got beat because of the motor at all. I think I was just a little too good too early and have to get the car a little better for the end of the race.
The Salerno No. 4* team has been struggling with their big block program as of late. During last week’s SDS Canadian swing, the team was forced to come home early after having motor issues on the first night. With another big SDS swing coming up next week in New York, Perrego is hoping the team has all of their issues behind them.
“To turn around after that was good for the team,” mentioned Perrego. “We hope to be getting some stuff back soon; we have a big week next week. We got some stuff to go racing, so hopefully it all stays together and we can get a couple of solid runs in and build on that.”
Friesen Settles for a Third-Place Finish: Stewart Friesen made the long trek down from Sprakers, N.Y., to compete in the STSS Dirty Jersey 50, and at the end of the night, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver worked himself up to a good third-place finish.
“It was a good solid third place run for us tonight,” said Friesen. “We had a good car; it was a fun race tonight. The track was in really good shape. Thanks to the whole Halmar team, on to the next one with some momentum going now.”
Friesen, who has taken on more responsibility now with the Halmar-Friesen truck team, has had to cut back on his modified racing. I asked the driver of the No. 44 if he thinks that has had an effect on his dirt racing.
“I am not sure; we have been pretty good lately,” explained Friesen. “We’ve had a lot of top fives the past couple of months, with our worst run being at Middletown, so it’s been okay. We have just got to keep getting after it and keep building on what we are doing every day, and hopefully we will be where we need to be later in the year.”
Earlier this year, the motor bug had bitten the HFR team, but Friesen seems to think that is all behind them now, and they are ready for the end of the year.
“We are in pretty good shape with our motors right now,” mentioned Friesen. “Chris (Chris Larsen) has been a great owner, great partner, and friend. We have a couple of big blocks ready to go, a couple of open small blocks, and a spec motor for Super Dirt Week and Eastern States, so I think we are actually in pretty good shape forward.”
Dirty Jersey Notes: There were 31 cars signed in for last night’s Dirty Jersey 50, with heat race wins going to Billy Pauch Jr, Anthony Perrego, and Danny Bouc, and the last chance race won by Ryan Krachun.
Some random Matt Sheppard notes Last night’s victory was Sheppard’s 485th of his career, leaving him just 15 wins shy of the coveted 500 mark. It was also his 21st win of 2023, with only Mat Williamson having more wins. Sheppard started the Matt Sheppard Motorsport No. 9S team back in 2016, and last night’s win was win number 219 for the MSM team.
Corey Cormier, out of Otisville, N.Y., has impressed me as of late. Cormier came close to winning the STSS race last week at Action Track USA, and last night at New Egypt, he was the recipient of the $250 hard charge award going from the 20th to the 9th.
It was a disappointing night for hometown favorite Billy Pauch Jr. Pauch came into the race as the STSS South Series points leader and could only muster up a 10th place finish at night’s end to drop him one point behind Sheppard for the lead in the standings. Pauch Jr. was able to win his heat race but was surprisingly not a factor in the main event.
Danny Bouc had a solid top five race going until a flat tire forced the Pipersville, Pa., driver to the pits. Bouc returned to the race and eventually finished in 13th.
Jeff Strunk had a night he would soon like to forget. Strunk was the final qualifier in the last chance race and then dropped out of the feature race early.
Davey Sammons raced himself into a coveted redraw finish in his heat race, but a bad water pump ended the night for the No. 70. Sammons jumped into the Kelly’s on Bridge No. 11 of Danny Hieber so he could start the feature.
The top ten finishers in the Dirty Jersey were dominated by STSS regulars, with only Ryan Godown, Justin Grosso, and Billy Pauch Jr. being the only home track drivers with top ten finishes.
It was nice to have a chance to chat with Jerry Higbie and his son Cody last night. Both Jerry and Cody were in competition at New Egypt, with only Jerry qualifying for the feature. Jerry says that although business has been good at his Hig-Fab shop, he says he can feel the effects of all of the rainouts, with customers not having to purchase new bodies, bumpers, and side rails due to the lack of racing.
Congratulations to Joe Toth, who continues to dominate the Crate Sportsman division at New Egypt Speedway and added another win to his credit last night.
The tech officials did a wholesale teardown of the top three finishers in last night’s Crate Sportsman division, with everyone getting the thumbs up.
I can be reached for any comments and questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (X) @dirtracefan25.