After 10 straight months of turning wrenches in the garage and turning heads at the track, it was finally time for Matt Sheppard to celebrate the biggest accomplishment of his career.
Second-generation chauffeur from Waterloo, N.Y. Sheppard capped off a spectacular season on Saturday night, November 20 as nearly 500 drivers, owners, crew members, officials, media members and corporate VIPs filled the Turning Stone Resort & Casino Events Center in Verona, New York to joined in during the 35th Annual DIRTcar Northeast “Night of Champions” Awards Banquet.
“(Mr. DIRT) is really surreal,” began Sheppard, 28, after earning his first overall Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar Championship in the Big-Block Modified ranks. Along with collecting the lucrative first-place prize of $50,000, ‘Super Matt’ carried away the commemorative 65-pound hand-crafted “Tribute Trophy” that was also awarded to World of Outlaws champions Jason Meyers (Sprint) and Josh Richards (Late Model) just two weeks earlier in their own season-ending ceremonies. “I came to my first banquet 11 years ago, in 1999 when I was rookie of the year in the Sportsman division. Never, ever dreamed I’d be up here where I am now.”
“Just the history behind it. To be listed in the same category as guys like Alan (Johnson) and Danny (Johnson), Jack Johnson, Will Cagle, Brett Hearn and Billy Decker … there’s no way to put that into words. Probably still hasn’t sunk in, probably take a while before it will,” remarked Sheppard, who went on to take Mr. DIRTcar Sportsman Modified honors in 2000 then garner rookie of the year acclaim in the 358-Modified (2001) and Big-Block (2003) divisions before reaching the top of the DIRTcar Modified world to begin a new decade.
Sheppard’s car owner Jeff Brownell knew exactly what to say after he was summoned to center stage by DIRTcar Racing NE Director of Competition & Track Sanctioning Joe Skotnicki to receive the traditional Mr. DIRTcar Car Owner trophy.
“This is mostly Matt’s deal, he runs the show,” said Brownell, who received the Northeast Modified Hall of Fame 'Gene DeWitt Outstanding Car Owner' Award during the annual award ceremonies held on the Cayuga County Fairgrounds in May. “We have a lot of guys that help us out but he’s the crew chief, the driver, and even drives the truck. We found a deal that works and that’s what we use. It’s so hard to win Mr. DIRT so it’s nice to have a new young face instead of all those old guys like me.”
World Racing Group Chief Executive Officer Brian Carter headed the presentation to Sheppard and his car owner JB Motorsports, with WRG President and Chief of Operations Tom Deery also addressing the audience that packed the show room floor the final weekend before Thanksgiving. Further acknowledgements went out to the entire DIRTcar NE staff and WRG officials that helped coordinate the annual production at the internationally acclaimed Turning Stone entertainment complex.
Familiar ‘voice’ of the Super DIRTcar Series Shane Andrews emceed the program that featured interviews with each major award winner throughout the night. Always a highlight of this special occasion, customary inclusion of the Mr. DIRTcar winning cars near center stage in the dining room provided a fitting backdrop that offered numerous photo opportunities both before and after the festive stage production. The sparkling JB Motorsports no. 9s Xtreme Lubricants-Integra Shocks-Bert Transmission/Bicknell machine stole the spotlight with Sheppard posing alongside family and friends in the customary after-hours photo shoot.
“There’s a lot of people to thank, starting out with Jeff and Jeff Jr., the whole Brownell family, they give me what I need to go out there and run fast,” added Sheppard, who scored a series-high six wins to end the season with a DIRTcar NE circuit Big-Block best total of 19 feature victories. He extended his career count to 18 (10th all-time), figuring in 15 top-5 finishes in the 22-race championship, also concluding his 13th season of open-wheel competition by improving his overall win total to 73 with another 14 victories registered in 358-Modified racing.
“Then there’s Chuck Cici who supplies the power. Our motors speak for themselves, they run strong and consistent. Randy Williamson, Pete Bicknell and Bob Slack from Bicknell Racing Products provide great race cars and Scott Keyser from Integra Shocks. And of course all my crew that helps out, it’s really a package deal. Without every one of those pieces it just doesn’t work,” Sheppard said.
Recognition of the 2010 DIRTcar Northeast Regional Racing Series top point-getters and touring division track champions kicked off the evening agenda prior to dinner being served at 7:45pm.
Continuing in ‘10 with DIRTcar Northeast sanctioned tracks divided into regions for the Big-Block Modified, 358-Modified and Sportsman classes, Regional Racing Series point funds rewarded the leading drivers in each class with total payouts approaching $30,000 for all nine open-wheel divisions. Recently crowned Regional champions earning $1,200 in the Big-Blocks were Sheppard (central), Brett Hearn/Bobby Varin (east-tie) and Jeremiah Shingledecker (west), Regional 358-Modified point winners collecting $1,000 were Stephane LaFrance/Tim O’Brien (north-tie) and Pete Bicknell (west), while top point-getters in the Sportsman Regions receiving $500 were Chris Raabe (north), Steve Gray (central), Greg Panunte (west) and Bodie Bellinger (east).
Top point-getters in the Big-Block Modified, 358-Modified, Sportsman and Pro Stock classes were recognized during this popular seasonal celebration and at the end in the neighborhood of $300,000 in cash, fuel certificates and contingency awards were spread over nearly 200 paying positions in DIRTcar NE's four major touring divisions.
Shannon Rush presented awards on behalf of Hoosier Tire while Skotnicki represented VP Racing Fuels throughout the festive evening. Larry Bishop was in attendance from Dig Safely New York, a long-standing supporter of DIRTcar Racing and sponsor of the Modified Non-Qualifiers race at Super DIRT Week as well as Saturday’s Promoters Luncheon. Also recognized as special guests of DIRTcar Racing in this season-ending event were representatives from Camping World, Pullen’s Truck Center and Summit Auto Group.
Along with the $50,000 Mr. DIRTcar cash jackpot collected by 2010 Cayuga County Fair Speedway points champion Sheppard, World Racing Group CEO Carter also fitted him with a commemorative ring to further distinguish his Mr. DIRTcar title. Sheppard also received a unique $1,000 "Gater Leads The Way" prize package from Gater Racing Photo News rep Sue Patrick after ‘Super Matt’ led the most laps (586 in 12 events) during the Super DIRTcar Series.
For the fourth time in his career, veteran open-wheel driver Danny Johnson captured the overall Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar 358-Modified Championship. Another second-generation pilot, Rochester, New Yorker Johnson collected a $10,000 top prize for his most recent success.
“These (Mr. DIRTcar titles) don’t get any easier,” pointed out Johnson, now 50, who was joined at the podium by 358-Modified Series Director John Nelson and Mike Payne, owner of the no. 27J Honeoye Auto Parts-Currier Plastics-Waste Management-Rochester Americans/Bicknell ride powered by Mike Mastin-prepared engines. Johnson settled for fifth-place in the Mr. DIRTcar Big-Block points chase also teamed with Payne. “I appreciate Mike coming up here with me, it’s really his championship and I get to share it with him.”
“This year was a great opportunity, I appreciate racing with all my peers. We had a lot of fun and I look forward to more of it down the road. Every time out presented a new venture and it was a lot of hard work in the shop in between. We’re just lucky to get through it all. Very fortunate to come out with the championship but Mike and the team really deserve it,” added Johnson, who registered eight top-10 feature finishes in his 10 series starts, also posting a series-high half-dozen front-5s. Including his two tour triumphs at Edelweiss and Rolling Wheels. D.J. ranks second all-time with 55 and also stands third among DIRTcar Northeast’s all-time winners with 150 (6 in 2010) checkered flags coming in 358-Modified action.
Teenager ‘Tiger’ Tim Sears Jr. matched Sheppard’s mark of six series wins ---although needing just 12 races--- to claim his first Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar Sportsman Modified Championship. Buckled in behind the wheel of the family-owned no. 83x Total Site Development/Bicknell entry, the high school senior from Clay, N.Y. closed out the campaign with 16 feature wins scored in both the U.S. and Canada.
“Dad (Tim Sr.) and my uncle Tom (Sears Jr.) taught me everything I know, can’t ever thank them enough for giving me this chance,” said Sears, 18, who held off overall points runner-up Ryan Susice to end Chris Raabe’s (3rd) Sportsman stronghold at two straight titles and collect the $4,500 first-place prize. “I was fortunate to be able to take advantage of such a great opportunity.”
“Can’t really describe how happy I am with this season, it was just so awesome. Every time I went to a new track I parked next to Justin Wright (4th pts) and every time we won, so I have to thank him, too. Also have to thank everybody that helped me out on this series, its awesome racing with these guys. They’re all good, clean racers and I raced side-by-side all year and don’t think we ever touched.”
“Just love going out on the road, getting to the track early and talking with all the other drivers. That’s the best part of this whole deal, all the comradery. Its been so much fun traveling and meeting so many different drivers, and we’ll do the same thing next year unless some kind of big sponsorship comes along. This is all we do, it’s a family sport for us,” added Sears, who registered 10 tour top-10 finishes to open up a comfortable 104-point margin ahead of runner-up for a 2nd straight year Susice. Setting fast time in qualifying on one occasion, Sears finished second on the final track points chart at Fulton Speedway (5 wins) and won four more specials at Can-Am to highlight ’10.
Personable Pro Stock pilot Louie Jackson put an end to another streak while becoming the third first-time overall Hoosier-VP Mr. DIRTcar Champion in 2010. Launching the new decade of speed on the DIRTcar Northeast circuit, Jackson edged runner-up Corey Wheeler and Joey Ladouceur in the closest full-fender battled ever waged in 16 years crowning a tour titlist. Pete Stefanski had locked up the title from 2006-09.
“In the last event I just tried to be patient … actually was too patient and it almost cost me everything,” noted Jackson, 41, who nipped Wheeler by a single marker with just two more points separating third-place finisher Ladouceur in the final rankings.to earn a $1,500 post-season award. Despite going winless on the Mr. DIRTcar champ trail, the Akwesasne, N.Y. driver ended the season with a total of six feature wins as he remained ranked among the Top-10 all-time with four Mr. DIRTcar Pro Stock Series wins, elevating his career total to 43 checkered flags on the DIRTcar Northeast circuit. “Should’ve just raced my ass off.”
“This was just a season that we started out good and had some good finishes at the beginning. We also got some bad luck and had some poor finishes, but we were still able to hang on in points. Near the end at Brockville I said ‘I’m getting too relaxed here’ and its time to step it up. That almost turned out to be too late,” noted Jackson, the first Pro Stocker to crack the 100 mph barrier on the Syracuse Mile en route to his 2006 Super DIRT Week triumph, who steered the potent Adams Marina no. 18 Keegan Smoke Shop/Chevrolet Monte Carlo Black Widow entry this season.
Four rookie drivers were honored at the banquet and presented special achievement awards for their first-year success. Backed by Dennis Botindari from MSS, an additional $10,000 was shared by Motorsports Safety Systems (MSS) and G-FORCE safety gear DIRTcar NE rookies Lance Willix II (Big-Block), Luke Whitteker (358-Mod), Jamie Platt & Brent Kelsey (co-Sportsman Modified) and Chip Smith Jr. (Pro Stock) who were named 2010 DIRTcar Northeast Rookies of the Year.
With the curtain officially dropping on DIRTcar’s 35th season of operation Saturday, that means the start of 2011 is now only 88 days away as Volusia Speedway Park leads off down south with the 40th Annual Florida DIRTcar Nationals by University of Northwestern Ohio (Feb. 8-19) opening for Big-Block Modifieds on February 16. Check out www.superdirtcarseries.com often as further information for Volusia's popular Winter tour events will be posted right up to race time.
Skidmarks: Ryan Phelps finished 8th in the final 2010 overall Mr. DIRTcar Big-Block point standings and with a combination of Super DIRTcar Series setbacks the second-generation chauffeur from Fulton, N.Y. accepted the Area Auto Racing News ‘Hard Luck’ award. Helen Bruce made the presentation, with AARN chief editor Lenny Sammons in attendance posing for pictures…. In an award introduced last year by Jeff Brownell, Larry Wight was selected as the ‘Xtreme Slick Move of the Year’ award recipient and collected a $500 prize for his efforts. Wight was a 3-time ‘Xtreme Move of the Race’ winner during the Super DIRTcar Series, on May 30 at Cayuga County finishing 12th after qualifying a 358-Modified; on Sept. 5 at Cayuga Co. held off veteran Alan Johnson for 93 laps to become the youngest series winner ever; and on Sept. 18 at Mohawk rallied from an early pit stop to finish 5th running outside the whole way.