Rocket team hope win is a step toward normalcy
By Kevin KovacDirtonDirt.com senior writer
SARVER, Pa. (June 24) — One victory does not mean Brandon Sheppard and the Rocket Chassis house car team are about to go on a checkered-flag tear. It’s certainly a sign, though, that they’re closer to busting out.
Both driver and car owner could sense an imminent return of their winning ways Thursday after Sheppard drove Mark Richards’s iconic blue No. 1 to a flag-to-flag triumph worth $6,000 in the 30-lap World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series feature that kicked off Lernerville Speedway's 15th annual Firecracker 100 weekend. | RaceWire
“Hopefully tonight is the start of a good little run,” said Sheppard, who entered the event leading the WoO points standings but with just two wins — both in competition on the national tour — in the house car this season (a March 26 semi-feature at Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, S.C., and May 7’s full-points show at Mississippi Thunder Speedway in Fountain City, Wis.).
“We’re getting there,” Richards added, allowing himself a slight smile as he considered the significance of a rare 2021 victory for a pairing that averaged nearly 25 wins per season over the previous four years.
It’s been an odd campaign for Sheppard and Richards, who assuredly haven’t been also-rans (“We haven’t been finishing 10th,” Richards pointed out) but nonetheless have been lacking that little extra speed necessary to get them over the top. Sheppard, 28, of New Berlin, Ill., surprisingly went winless during Florida Speedweeks in January and February and since then hasn’t been his normal dominant self behind the wheel of the house car, leaving the Dirt Late Model world to wonder when he’ll catch fire.
“It’s definitely been an up-and-down year,” Sheppard said. “We’ve had some consistency at times but the wins just haven’t been there. The stars just haven’t been lining up for us this year.”
Pulling out of a checkered-flag slump, of course, is never an easy fix. All members of the Rocket house car gang — from the principles to crewmen Danny White, Austin Hargrove and Joel Rogers — understand the challenge of the situation.
“It takes work and time,” Richards said, standing outside his trailer in Lernerville’s pit area following his team’s morale-boosting success. “Everybody’s like, ‘He’s not winning. He’s not winning.’ Look, we’re not the only one to be off a little bit at times. It’s easy to get there. You just gotta dig out of it. That’s what this team’s been doing, and I’ve got full faith in ‘em that we’re gonna be there.”
The goal — always the goal for Richards’s accomplished organization — is to win on a regular basis. The team’s failure to achieve that status so far this season has only fueled them to regain their usual form. In fact, they arrived at Lernerville for the start of the three-night Firecracker 100 after spending Wednesday testing at Sharon Speedway in Hartford, Ohio, a track the WoO circuit will visit on Aug. 21 but also one that offered perfect conditions to get them ready for the 4/10-mile Lernerville oval.
“It was slick, a lot like this place tonight,” said Richards, whose team was joined at the Sharon test session by fellow WoO Rocket racers Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., Ryan Gustin of Marshalltown, Iowa, and Brent Larson of Lake Elmo, Minn. (four Crate Late Models also participated). “It just helped us for what we’ve been working on and to figure out where we are.”
Richards had more than an inkling that Lernerville would sport the smooth, slick surface that it did for Thursday’s weekend lidlifter, which made made turning laps at Sharon especially timely.
“Last week the guys that ran here said it was as slick as they’ve ever seen it,” Richards said, “so we kind of figured it was gonna be slick.”
Calling Lernerville’s clay “slick” was actually an understatement. It was dry and blowing dust in hot laps, and it only polished off and turned increasingly ice-like from there.
“I knew it was gonna be a little drier than normal, but that was slick like I haven’t seen in a long time,” Sheppard said.
That Sheppard and Co. were able to tame the conditions — conditions that have been more difficult for them to conquer than tracks with grip and traction — was reason for the team to load up for the night feeling good about their progress and the races to come, including Friday’s second $6,000-to-win preliminary feature and Saturday’s $30,000-to-win century grind.
“Our car’s been really good,” said Sheppard, who maintained a short-but-steady lead in Thursday’s 30-lapper until the surface took rubber late, allowing Madden to draw closer as Sheppard carefully kept his distance from lapped traffic. “We’ve been close, and we just keep inching a little bit closer and a little bit closer in the slick conditions. We’ve got a good hammer-down program. We can go and run the cushion with the best of ‘em, but when the track gets slick and we gotta run the middle-bottom of the racetrack, that’s where we’ve been struggling a little bit the past few years.
“We’ve been working on that program a lot and I feel like we’re getting a lot better. We’ve got a good slick-track program now.
The Firecracker 100 remains a major event that Sheppard has never won and Richards captured for the only time in 2013 when his son Josh swept the entire program. Starting the weekend with a victory gave both men more confidence that this might be the year they break through together in the event's finale — and, in turn, set off on a summer hot streak.
“We had a good, balanced race car,” said Sheppard, who four career Firecracker 100 finale starts from 2017-20 have produced finishes (in order) of eighth, sixth, third and sixth. “If we can keep it that way the rest of the weekend I think we’ll at least be there at the end."