The following is an article I put together last month for the new Hammer Down dirt-track publication regarding late model driver Brandon Sheppard, who likes to call Quincy Raceways his home-away-from-home track.
So, what will the kid do for an encore?
Brandon Sheppard cemented his standing among dirt-track deity in 2013 when, among other accomplishments, the 21-year-old late model wiz won the Dirt Track World Championship in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Add in the UMP national title and winning the prestigious — not to mention grueling — UMP Summer Nationals Hell Tour and you begin to get an idea of what kind of checkered flags Sheppard was collecting.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better season,” Sheppard said. “We’ve been working really hard for a lot of years to get where we’re at right now … and it was a long season, but it was all worth it.”
Sheppard, whose 2014 season will begin in late January in Arizona with a series of four races in the Tucson area, has already established his priorities for coming campaign. The title he wants to repeat most is the Hell Tour, considered the defining accomplishment for any late model driver in the Midwest. Stretching nearly six weeks for the second consecutive year, late model racing’s most demanding test of man and machine will feature 33 races at 32 tracks in nine states over a period of 39 days.
“Next to the (World Series of) Outlaws and the Lucas Oil series, I think the Hell Tour is the most prestigious (title),” Sheppard said.
Sheppard’s consistency catapulted him to the Hell Tour championship. Although he posted “just” four victories during the 26-race schedule, he secured 19 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes. His wins came at Spoon River Speedway and Belle-Clair Speedway in Illinois, and Clarksville Speedway and Clay Hill Motorsports Park in Tennessee.
Sheppard ended with a 75-point advantage (1,675-1,600) over another of the sport’s hot young stars, 16-year-old Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., son of legendary driver and car builder Bob Pierce. Pierce also finished second to Sheppard in the UMP national points standings. Sheppard won that title by 47 points (2,549-2,502).
“Our biggest goal is to repeat in the Summer Nationals,” said Sheppard, who knows the law of percentages may not be as kind in 2014 as they were a year ago.
Sheppard managed to escape any major on-track melee, which is almost a prerequisite in putting together the kind of season he did in 2013.
“We had a few minor issues, but did not tear up much equipment,” he said. “We’ll open the season with three cars.”
Avoiding any major sheet-metal catastrophes — or blown engines — allowed Sheppard and crew to enjoy a rather peaceful offseason.
‘“We’ve been able to spend most of our time just regrouping, talking to our sponsors and trying to recruit more sponsors,” he said.
Sheppard has also had time to reflect on all that transpired last season.
“In the beginning, you never think you’d do something like win a national championship that young,” he said. “But we’ve been improving as a team and I’ve been improving as a driver every year. I can see myself getting better every year, driving harder and driving better. It all came together (in 2013).
“My dad worked hard a lot of years trying to win it and he was never able to … I guess me winning it kind of fulfilled both of our dreams. I was always there when he was doing it and he’s there helping me now, so it meant a lot to both of us.”
Sheppard is one of just four drivers to win both the Hell Tour and UMP national title in the same season. He joins Brian Shirley (2012) of Chatham, Ill., Dennis Erb Jr. ((2007-08) of Carpentersville, Ill., and John Gill (1986) of Mitchell, Ind., on that short list.
“UMP is the big thing around us – has been since I was little kid,” Sheppard said. “I’ve been around it my whole life, so it’s real special for me personally to win both championships. We’ve been working really hard for a lot of years to get where we’re at right now and it was a long season, but it was all worth it.”
Sheppard became the youngest driver in the 33-year of the Dirt Track World Championship (DTWC) to enter victory lane. He earned $50,000 for that victory in late October, plus another $50,000 for winning the Hell Tour and UMP national titles.
Sheppard drove the No. 1 Mark Richards Racing late model to the DTWC victory, finishing ahead of Steve Francis, Jackie Boggs, Jason Feger and Jimmy Owens. Sheppard was subbing that night for Josh Richards in the Rocket chassis house car.
“That capped a pretty good season,” Sheppard said.
And that is, obviously, quite an understatement.