FAIRBURY, Ill. (July 29) — All Brandon Sheppard needed was some room to operate on Saturday night at Fairbury American Legion Speedway.
Once the field thinned and track surface slicked off, the 24-year-old star from New Berlin, Ill., was the class of the 28th annual Prairie Dirt Classic. He went from spending the 100-lap race’s first half embroiled in a titanic battle for the lead to controlling the action the rest of the way.
After Sheppard passed Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., for the top spot on lap 40 — the seventh lead change among three drivers during that frenetic opening stretch — he was never headed en route to a career-first PDC triumph worth $30,000. He handled four restarts over the remaining distance with aplomb, pulling away each time to a short-but-safe edge as he raced largely unchallenged to his 11th World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series checkered flag of 2017.
Sheppard crossed the finish line a comfortable 3.260 seconds ahead of Unzicker, who led three times for a total of seven laps during the race’s first half but fell out of the top five before rallying late to take the runner-up spot from Devin Moran of Dresden, Ohio, on lap 96. Moran settled for a third-place finish after tumbling from the pole position to 10th in just seven laps and then making a comeback that took him as high as second with a lap-84 pass of Bloomington, Ill.’s Jason Feger.
Feger ran in the bridesmaid spot twice — laps 44-56 and 72-83 — but had to be satisfied with a fourth-place finish after starting fifth. Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., advanced from the 10th starting to place fifth, giving drivers from the Land of Lincoln four of the top five finishing positions in the richest Dirt Late Model event ever contested in their home state.
Sheppard’s triumph allowed him to join Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., as winners of both the current incarnation of the PDC, which became a big-money, mid-summer show under WoO sanction in 2013, and Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway’s Illini 100, the first event in Illinois to boast a $20,000 first-place prize. He also put Mark Richards’s Rocket Chassis house car team in the PDC’s victory lane for the second consecutive year, duplicating the success Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., enjoyed in 2016.
The 21st overall win of Sheppard’s increasingly spectacular 2017 campaign came after his strategy worked to perfection.
“I kind of wanted everyone to get lined out a little bit before I started making moves,” said Sheppard, who started fourth and grabbed the lead for the first time on lap 25 but didn’t immediately press the issue to stay there. “The track was a little bit slimy there right from the get-go — and I think that’s why Moran pushed across the track there in front of Unzicker (through turns one and two on the opening lap to begin his slip backward) — so I was just kind of trying to let everyone get settled into a line to where I could figure out where I was gonna run.”
Sheppard was in the middle of a tense three-car tussle for the lead in the race’s early stages with third-starter Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga., who surged into the top spot on the first lap, and the second-starting Unzicker. The first lead change came on lap 23 when Unzicker nosed ahead, but Clanton regained command on lap 24 — by mere inches as the trio crossed under the flagstand three-wide that tour — and then Sheppard snatched the point on the 25th circuit.
Unzicker, 36, snuck by Sheppard in lapped traffic for the lead on lap 32. Sheppard returned the favor on lap 37, only to see Unzicker nose ahead again on lap 39.
Finally, on lap 40, Sheppard wrestled the lead from Unzicker and asserted his dominance.
“We had a really maneuverable car at the beginning of the race, and that’s what it took to get the lead,” said Sheppard, who pushed his WoO points lead to a commanding 258 points over Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C. “Once the track started cleaning off and moved up, I could kind of get around better and push it a little more. I ran the top, and luckily there wasn’t a lot of (lapped) guys running the cushion so it worked out pretty good.”
Sheppard was thrilled to finally pad his resume with the PDC, a race in which he finished third in 2015 and eighth in ’13 but didn’t even enter last year because he was serving a suspension from WoO and UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned events for a tire-related infraction at Eldora Speedway’s Dream.
“We’ve had a lot of success over the years here, but we’ve just had a lot of bad luck also,” said Sheppard, who won the 2016 UMP DIRTcar Summernationals feature at Fairbury. “Being teamed up with Mark Richards and Steve Baker and everybody at Rocket Chassis has really sped up my learning curve as a driver. It just seems like we have a really good program for the long races.”
There was no look of dejection on the face of Unzicker after the 100-lapper. He was riding high after taking runner-up money with his Pierce Race Car in a race he didn’t even qualify for in each of the previous three years.
“This is a win to me,” said Unzicker, Fairborn’s current points leader. “To come home second with the caliber of cars here, it really feels good. To contend for the lead and swap the lead back-and-forth with B-Shepp, it was just a dream come true for us to put ourselves in that position.”
It was an up-and-down run, however, for Unzicker, who was strong early, fell off in the middle stages and then came on strong in the closing stanza.
“Man, I’ll tell you, I was just like, ‘Keep it calm, keep it calm, Unzicker,’” he said of his “The car just really responded to the racetrack early. It kind of faded little bit through the middle and top later on in the race … and I struggled on the restarts. But then it came back again at the end.”
After overtaking the 22-year-old Moran for second on lap 96, Unzicker had to make one more move to preserve the position on the final circuit.
“Once I come off of two on the white-flag lap I looked over my shoulder and I didn’t see Devin there,” Unzicker said. “Chub (Frank) was on the bottom (entering turn three), and I was like, ‘No, don’t go on the bottom and let Devin by,’ so I went up and kind of blocked Devin there to secure the second spot.”
Moran had a similar yo-yo-like outing to Unzicker, struggling through the early and middle stages before powering Tye Twarog’s XR1 Rocket back into contention down the stretch. When Moran surged into second place on lap 84 and began tearing around the outside of the quarter-mile, it appeared he might be able to mount a last-ditch bid to steal the race from Sheppard.
Alas, as Moran was running steadily 2 seconds behind Sheppard, he caught the outside wall between turns three and four, damaging his car’s spoiler and effectively snuffing out any hope he had of gaining his richest win ever.
“We were so good all weekend, but the driver made a mistake,” Moran said. “I probably shouldn’t have been up banging the wall where I was quite as much as I was. I was good when I moved around, and I didn’t keep moving around.
“I was just trying as hard as I could. I fell back so far early in that race, I just wanted to get back up there. The track just started cleaning off and coming back to us a little bit and I kept getting better and better.
“Me banging the wall got me up to second, but I should’ve just taken a breath. I started reeling Brandon in a little bit and I just should’ve kept doing what I was doing, but I just overdrove a little bit and knocked the deck out of it.
“It’s frustrating,” he added, “but to come out here for the first time and get a podium finish, it’s cool.”
Five caution flags and one red flag slowed the event.
Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., triggered the first caution, on lap one, when he slowed suddenly entering turn one because the master kill switch positioned on the car’s rear deck behind the driver’s seat — a safety feature added this year under Dirt Late Model racing’s new safety mandates so emergency crews can more easily kill a car’s engine when responding to a crash — was triggered by an apparent rock or debris strike. His Sweeteners Plus Longhorn house car was pushed to the infield and the problem was quickly found; he returned and rallied to finish sixth.
Other caution flags flew on lap 43 for Chris Ferguson of Mount Holly, N.C., who stopped in turn four because his car popped out of gear after he had climbed as high as fourth; lap 56 for Chub Frank of Bear Lake, Pa., who slowed with a flat tire; lap 72 for Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, who stopped with a right-front flat tire after climbing the outside wall in turns three and four; and lap 76 for Erb again after he tossed a right-rear wheel.
The red flag came on lap one for a multi-car tangle between turns three and four that completely blocked the track. Among the drivers involved and forced to restart at the rear of the field were Madden, Mike Glasscock, McKay Wenger, Bobby Pierce, Jimmy Owens, Cody Mahoney, Darrell Lanigan and Morgan Bagley. The only driver who didn’t continue was Lanigan, whose car was towed off with nose damage.
Pierce made the biggest comeback among those swept up in the tangle. He pitted for a tire change and other hasty repairs and made it back to finish 10th.
Preliminary notes and results:
The 29-car Prairie Dirt Classic feature field began rolling onto the reworked racetrack at 10:25 p.m. CT. The cars were directed to stop on the backstretch for in-car driver introductions before the start of the 100-lapper.
Prairie Dirt Shootout
Don O’Neal marched forward from the 10th starting spot to grab the lead from Jason Jameson on a lap-six restart and held on to win the 25-Prairie Dirt Shootout.
The Martinsville, Ind., driver had the option to take the $2,000 top prize or move on to the 100-lap feature. He chose the latter.
“We’re gonna race,” said O’Neal, whose weekend took a rough turn when he jumped the cushion during his Friday-night qualifying feature and was clipped by a passing car.
O’Neal took the checkered flag 1.304 seconds in front of Scott Schmitt, who powered around the outside of Billy Moyer on lap 23 and nipped the Hall of Famer at the finish line for the runner-up spot.
Moyer, who shot from fourth to second using the inside lane on a lap-21 restart, settled for third place. He started from the pole position and led the opening lap before yielding to Jameson.
Scott Bloomquist reached second on lap 15 and briefly appeared primed to challenge O’Neal but fell to a fourth-place finish following the final restart. Chase Junghans completed the top five.
Six caution flags slowed the event, including a homestretch spin by Jay Sparks on the initial start. Other cautions flew for Cody Evans, who experienced trouble in turn four on lap four; Sparks, who stopped in turn two on lap five; debris on lap six (a marker cone on the homestretch); Jameson, who slowed on lap 11 after smacking the backstretch wall and flattening a tire while chasing O’Neal; and Justin Duty, who slowed on lap 21.
Prairie Dirt Shootout finish (25 laps): 1. Don O’Neal, 2. Scott Schmitt, 3. Billy Moyer, 4. Scott Bloomquist, 5. Chase Junghans, 6. Daniel Flessner, 7. Don Hammer, 8. Brent Larson, 9. Jeremy Conaway, 10. Dustin Nobbe, 11. Glen Thompson, 12. Bob Gardner, 13. Justin Duty, 14. Jake O’Neil, 15. Jason Jameson, 16. Derek Chandler, 17. Jay Sparks, 18. Cody Evans, 19. Blake Spencer, 20. Dustin Griffin.
Prairie Dirt Shootout Non-Qualifiers Race lineup
Row 1: Billy Moyer, Jason Jameson
Row 2: Kody Evans, Jake O’Neil
Row 3: Chase Junghans, Derek Chandler
Row 4: Scott Schmitt, Dustin Nobbe
Row 5: Scott Bloomquist, Don O’Neal
Row 6: Jay Sparks, Don Hammer
Row 7: Blake Spencer, Bob Gardner
Row 8: Justin Duty, Daniel Flessner
Row 9: Glen Thompson, Brent Larson
Row 10: Dustin Griffin, Jeremy Conaway
Frank Heckenast Jr. scored a flag-to-flag triumph, turning back several challenges from Mike Glasscock to take the 15-lap win. Morgan Bagley mounted a late bid for the final transfer spot, but his outside charge around turns three and four on the last lap fell short. Mike Mataragas slowed to bring out a caution flag on lap six when he developed a flat left-rear tire one circuit after Timothy Culp made contact with Mataragas while making a turn-four move for fourth place.
Finish: Frank Heckenast Jr., Mike Glasscock, Morgan Bagley, Eric Wells, Derek Chandler, Dustin Nobbe, Jay Sparks, Bob Gardner, Daniel Flessner, Kolby Vandenbergh, Doug Hammer, Timothy Culp, Mike Mataragas, Scott Bull, Matt Shannon.
Perched in the outside lane from start to finish, Cody Mahoney led the entire distance to emerge victorious. But coming to the white flag Mahoney bobbled on the turn-four cushion, allowing the cars behind him to close right in to create a wild finish. Earl Pearson Jr. slipped inside of Jason Jameson on the final circuit and finished a close second, just 0.163 of a second behind Mahoney. Unable to climb into contention were Don O’Neal and Shannon Babb, who finished seventh and ninth, respectively. The race’s lone caution flag flew on lap 12 when Gordy Gunmaker’s bid to overtake Mike Spatola for the second and final transfer spot ended with the two drivers spinning together in a parts-shedding tangle off turn four.
Finish: Cody Mahoney, Earl Pearson Jr., Jason Jameson, Jake O’Neil, Chub Frank, Kevin Weaver, Don O’Neal, Blake Spencer, Shannon Babb, Brent Larson, Jeremy Conaway, Snooky Dehm, Mike Spatola, Gordy Gundaker, Joey Moriarty.
Rick Eckert led all the way to take the 15-lap victory, beating Darrell Lanigan by 0.792 of a second. Billy Moyer finished third, falling short of a transfer spot. Scott Bloomquist climbed to third on lap five, but he stuck to the inside lane for the entire distance and was steadily overtaken by drivers running the top side and finished seventh. Caution flags flew on lap two for Kyle Bronson, who spun in turn one while trying to battle forward from deep in the field; lap three Steve Thorsten, who spun between turns three and four; and lap three for Thorsten and Dustin Griffin, who tangled in turn three.
Finish: Rick Eckert, Darrell Lanigan, Billy Moyer, Cody Evans, Chase Junghans, Scott Schmitt, Scott Bloomquist, Don Hammer, Justin Duty, Glen Thompson, Dustin Griffin, Steve Thorsten, Kyle Bronson, Derek Doll, Tyler Erb (DNS) Derrick Ramey.
Another day of perfect summertime weather prevails at Fairbury as the Prairie Dirt Classic weekend draws to a close. Conditions are an almost mirror image of Friday: sunny skies, an afternoon high of about 80 degrees and not even a slight rain threat. … The drivers occupying the top four starting spots in the first of Saturday’s three B-mains are no joke: Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., and Rick Eckert of York, Pa., sit on the front row and Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., and Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky., are in Row 2. Only the top two finishers will move on to the 100-lap feature, though drivers who finish in positions 3-9 will be eligible to compete in the Prairie Dirt Shootout non-qualifiers’ race that offers a $2,000 first-place prize or a starting spot in the feature. Last year’s non-qualifiers’ race winner, Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., opted to forego the money and move on to the 100-lapper. … Several top contenders who dropped out of Friday night’s qualifying features — including Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, and Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind. — face uphill climbs to crack the PDC starting lineup through a B-main. Only Erb, who is tied for second in the WoO points standings, can fall back upon a provisional spot. … Eckert and Erb are two of six WoO regulars scheduled to run a B-main.
The conclusion of the biggest Dirt Late Model weekend of the season in the state of Illinois includes B-Mains, a non-qualifiers’ race and the 100-lap Prairie Dirt Classic paying a race-record $30,000 to win. It’s the richest winner’s purse ever offered for a Dirt Late Model event in the Land of Lincoln.
Three 15-lap B-Mains transferring two drivers from each will lead off the program. The PDC field will be filled by two WoO points provisionals, two track provisionals and any WoO drivers who are eligible for emergency provisionals.
The first- and second-place finishers in Friday night’s four 25-lap qualifying features — winners Devin Moran, Shane Clanton, Brandon Sheppard and Mike Marlar and runners-up Jason Feger, Ryan Unzicker, Bobby Pierce and Tim McCreadie — will redraw for starting spots in the first four rows of Saturday night’s PDC headliner.
Saturday’s program, which also includes B-mains and a 40-lap, $5,000-to-win feature for UMP modifieds, is scheduled to begin with hot laps at 5:45 p.m. CT.
Row 1: Devin Moran, Ryan Unzicker
Row 2: Shane Clanton, Brandon Sheppard
Row 3: Jason Feger, Bobby Pierce
Row 4: Tim McCreadie, Mike Marlar
Row 5: McKay Wenger, Brian Shirley
Row 6: Chris Madden, Jimmy Owens
Row 7: Michael Kloos, Dennis Erb Jr.
Row 8: Chris Simpson, Chris Ferguson
Row 9: Rick Eckert, Cody Mahoney
Row 10: Frank Heckenast Jr., Darrell Lanigan
Row 11: Earl Pearson Jr., Mike Glasscock
Row 12: Tyler Erb, Eric Wells
Row 13: Scott Bull, Kevin Weaver
Row 14: Don O'Neal, Chub Frank
Row 15: Morgan Bagley
(15 laps; top 2 transfer)
Row 1: Billy Moyer, Rick Eckert
Row 2: Scott Bloomquist, Darrell Lanigan
Row 3: Kody Evans, Chase Junghans
Row 4: Dustin Griffin, Don Hammer
Row 5: Derrick Ramey, Glen Thompson
Row 6: Scott Schmitt, Derek Doll
Row 7: Justin Duty, Tyler Erb
Row 8: Kyle Bronson, Steve Thorsten
Row 1: Cody Mahoney, Mike Spatola
Row 2: Kevin Weaver, Gordy Gundaker
Row 3: Jake O’Neil, Earl Pearson Jr.
Row 4: Blake Spencer, Jason Jameson
Row 5: Chub Frank, Brent Larson
Row 6: Don O’Neal, Joey Moriarty
Row 7: Snooky Dehm, Jeremy Conway
Row 8: Shannon Babb
Row 1: Frank Heckenast Jr., Kolby Vandenbergh
Row 2: Mike Glasscock, Timothy Culp
Row 3: Mike Mataragas, Scott Bull
Row 4: Eric Wells, Doug Hammer
Row 5: Bob Gardner, Derek Chandler
Row 6: Dustin Nobbe, Morgan Bagley
Row 7: Daniel Flessner, Jay Sparks
Row 8: Matt Shannon
Saturday’s schedule of events (all times CT)
4 p.m. - Drivers autograph session (vendor row)
5:15 p.m. - Drivers’ meeting
5:45 p.m. - On-track action begins
UMP modified hot laps
WoO hot laps for B-Main cars
Opening ceremonies and WoO/mod feature redraws
UMP modified B-Mains
UMP modified Friday qualifiers hot laps
WoO B-Mains (20 laps; top 3 transfer from each)
WoO feature qualifiers hot laps
Modified feature (40 laps)
Prairie Dirt Shootout for Late Models (3-12 from B-Mains; 25 laps)
Prairie Dirt Classic (100 laps)