By DEAN REYNOLDS
Sitting in the stands Friday night at the Brewerton Speedway, these eyes that have seen many a dirt track auto race were watching Matt Sheppard picking up another win on his 2018 campaign. It just wasn’t your average win either, it was a Super DIRTCar Series event.
An event filled with dozens of talented drivers and here was Sheppard making this event his own personal playground. Those might be strong words and words with a snap of a finger can change with the quickness of racing luck. But, as mentioned earlier, these eyes have seen a bit…seen guys by the name of Hearn, Johnson (three of them), McCreadie, etc… Names regarded as the very best in the division that is germane in these parts, the big-block modified.
So what triggered such thoughts? Theories? To get this mind just a thinking? Well, I was watching a man and race team dominate. A domination that really shouldn’t be happening today…it shouldn’t. Sheppard was just coming off a 41 win season where his win percentage was better than 50%, this was win number 17 in 2018 and capping off a five win in a row streak.
Again, this stuff shouldn’t be happening. Not in this day and age where getting a competitive advantage should be much harder than in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Everything can be “store” bought if you will, research and development is done mostly by the manufacturers where YOU can buy the same stuff.
If there is an edge today in technology you can bet 10 of them will be out there the next week because the person that built it will be selling it to put food on the table. Now, there is of course testing done by the teams themselves, but that is mostly trying to fine tune stuff you bought from someone else and getting it comfortable with your style.
I’ve seen or been around for ALL of Hearn’s nine hundred plus wins, I watched Alan Johnson win a feature every year for what seems like 108 consecutive years in a row, Bob McCreadie’s and Billy Pauch’s 40 plus win seasons, yup seen those, Danny Johnson could win in a wheel barrow… there was Jack, Horton, etc…
In comparison to those names, Sheppard is still a young pup, he “only” has 326 career wins…only…but again still a ways to go. But….but….
Now, this conversation mirrors one that has been filing the sports headlines for a few weeks now. It has nothing to do with racing but a conversation that has been water-cooler material for a while. MJ or LeBron?
Before you start shaking your head, saying “Reynolds, you’re crazy”, putting this story down or changing the internet page…let’s take a deep breathe and think about this for a bit…just a bit.
Okay, big-block historians. Question… How many thought the days of 40 plus wins were gone, oh say 10 years ago? 20 years ago? I did. The competitive advantage is so much harder to do these days. I thought they were done, until 2017.
Sheppard does have stats that will put him in big-block lure, six Super DIRTCar titles (three in a row), two Super DIRT Week titles (one at Syracuse), eight titles at the Land of Legends, titles at Utica-Rome, Brewerton, Fulton, Weedsport and even at New Egypt the one year he ran there. In 2017 he won the titles at all three tracks he ran weekly. There is some good stuff there.
So…are we seeing history before our eyes? Something truly great? In today’s times our days are filled with so much more detail than ever before that it’s harder to take one subject into detail (think about that one). Folks like me that grew up in 80’s and 90’s more times than not refuse to believe that something that is happening before our eyes is as good or even better that what we know. Oh, that MJ/LeBron thing again.
May 29, 1999… I was 13 years removed from college, the Space Shuttle did it’s first docking in space, the Yankees won another World series, Dale Jarrett was NASCAR champion and this Sheppard kid won his first race, a Sportsman race at Canandaigua (I know… Land of Legends Raceway now) at 16 years of age.
A second generation driver, son of Stu who dominated the Sportsman division when Glenn Donnelly introduced it. At that time however who would think just some 19 years later we are throwing out the theory that are we watching arguably one of the best ever?
After Matt took the $6,000 at Brewerton I went into the trailer shortly after and when I asked the first question he simply said, “I just can’t believe what is happening, I truly can’t.”
Sheppard was humbled. This driver that oozes confidence was in awe.
“You know, when I won 29 on 2016, I said to my team wouldn’t it be neat to win 30 this year?” he said with a chuckle. “Then we get 41, I really couldn’t believe it.”
Then he went on, “After getting 41 last year we really kind of went into this year not expecting that again. We were going to try don’t get me wrong, but a year like that is unheard of now.”
Matt continued, “I would be happy to get close and now here we are at 17 and I guess we are on pace to do even better.”
This racing game can change oh so rapidly and he knows it, “We are starting to get into our busy schedule so keeping up this kind of pace will be tough, yes you’re racing more but that can also mean so much more can happen with little time in between events.
“Other teams can stumble on to something and get on a roll too. There are so many good teams out there so we really have to be on our game.”
With R&D, all the data that has been built up over the years, finding an edge is key. Matt though tells that it’s a set up and notes from the past that has seemed to be working.
“You know what’s funny, we are running basically that same set up I had when I ran for Jeff (Brownell) back in 2009…really,” he kept going with a bit of disbelief in his tone. “There is so much going on right now in setups and we have tried some of it but what I had almost ten years ago is working for us right now. It just seems to fit my style and what the tracks give you.”
The basic machine in his stable is the now familiar No. 9s that he owns but he also has access to the Vic Coffey owned No. 92s and new for this year is the Harlock Auto and Speed No. 9s out of Maryland so Matt can run the Brett Deyo Southern Series in hopes of collecting the $50,000 plus that is being offered by the young promoter if he can be on top of three entities.
Three different teams, you know he has everything he wants in his cars, but, as he said it’s been a fairly simple set ups from the past. In the others?
“We pretty much have the same in all the cars. We will text each other sometimes during the week on something we might want to try,” he said. “But for the most part we just have the same basic set up and we will fine tune at the track.”
On Friday I watched Matt use his own machine but what is making this win total in 2018 a bit more staggering is that he has five wins in six appearances with the Coffey owned mount at Outlaw Speedway and he has also two victories in the Harlock mount at tracks where he doesn’t have as much experience.
What makes Sheppard so good? Well of course you have to have talent, that goes without question and he has a ton. But if you ask others and heck you ask him, I think what even accents his talent is that Sheppard is working all the time in preparing his equipment. That is synonymous with countless of hours practice in other sports.
Every day, every hour, every minute, every second… The uncanny knack for detail.
“That is something that we try to do every race, we feel that we always have a car that is totally prepared for that race of that night,” Matt dead panned. “We always felt to have your best chance for that particular race is that we bring a car that is ready. We just won’t bring a car just to race, we want to bring a car that is totally ready for that race.”
Matt grew up watching, listening and taking in what others were doing, his dad, other teams and he was quick to point out the one team that just might have given him his biggest break to move on his career. The Paine family owned ride.
“Steve and his dad taught me so much. They were incredible in preparing a car and they just had so much knowledge,” he commented about the Paine’s. “They didn’t always have the money or resources to have the best or all new equipment, but they knew how to make the car the best without buying new parts. They knew so much on how to maintain your equipment and get the best out of what you have. That was so important to learn.”
Over the years as his career blossomed he started to pick up rides with some very good owners, Randy Ross, Brownell, Al Heinke, however this is where he wants to be. His own boss.
“I had some great owners and definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I always wanted to own my own team, didn’t know if I would ever get a chance to do it but did want to,” he kept going. “When Al (Heinke) and I parted I knew it was time. I had so many people and sponsors that wanted to help out that I felt I could put a team together and give it a shot.
“It was a process to get everything together but looking back now I am glad it’s worked out. There are so many people that I have to thank in getting to this point. Owning your own team is so hard to do today.”
Matt tells of what might be the biggest change in his career, “I do like having the responsibility that if you don’t do well it’s on yourself but it’s also nice to know that if you do, do well you also had a big part of it.”
Matt has now built up a stable that will compete with any other team out there.
“We have good cars and good motors, we have what you need to run as many races as we want to,” and then he tells a feat that he is very proud of. “What makes all of us feel good is that we have built up this team in winnings. I have so many sponsors that help me as much as they can but there isn’t that one really big sponsor that some other teams might have. So we have added from what we brought in.”
That part is indeed unheard of. If you tell someone today that you will build up your race team on money that you bring in he/she will laugh and look at you like…well, you get it. Sheppard has done that and provided for his family as well!
“Most of that has come from what we took at in finishing each race. You always want wins, that is the ultimate goal but finishing a race is so important,” Matt kept on. “Randy (Kisacky) and I talk about what we need to do. We might not always agree on what to do on a particular night but we always feed off each other. He has been so important in my career and the results show it.”
When I was ready to end our chat session and the purpose of this piece was to compare, to look at history and I guess figure out where all this places him in history. I then ask Matt himself. I even gave him an out clause and said you don’t have to answer. But he did….
“I really didn’t pay attention too it much cause you’re so busy trying to get ready for the next race. But, when it gets brought up more and more you do think about it sometimes,” he told. “To put myself in the category of the greats, I don’t know, I like to think I have so much more racing to do. If, by some reason, it ended tomorrow I think I had a very good career and that means a lot.”
Again, give it some thought…don’t just shrug it away, instead sit back, take it all in and enjoy it. Even ask yourself the question, “Are we seeing history before our eyes?”