Sheppard anxious to tackle Summernationals
By Kevin KovacUMP DIRTcar
Brandon Sheppard has never been more excited for the start of the UMP DIRTcar Summernationals. Some of the rising teenage star’s enthusiasm comes from memories of his breakout 2011 season during which, at the age of 18, he became the youngest Hell Tour winner in history. | Complete Summernationals coverage
But much of it is a product of the racing operation he’ll be paired with for this year’s series, a grueling month-long test of Dirt Late Model man and machine that kicks off on Wednesday at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway.
Sheppard, 19, of New Berlin, Ill., is slated to enter all of the 2012 Summernationals events — a whopping 29 in eight states over a 32-day span — behind the wheel of Mark Richards’s high-profile Rocket Chassis house car. It’s a dream situation for B-Shepp, who, in just his sixth season of Dirt Late Model racing, will tackle the Midwest’s marquee series with a team that is widely acknowledged as one of the sport’s best.
“You can’t ask for a better opportunity than this,” said Sheppard, who last month was tapped as the driver of the familiar Rocket No. 1 machine that Richards’s son, two-time World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion Josh Richards, vacated to pursue a NASCAR Nationwide Series ride. “I started going to Summernationals races with my dad (former Late Model regular Steve Sheppard Jr.) when I was like 13 and I’ve been running the Summernationals for the last four years, so it’s so exciting to have a chance to do it with a team like Mark’s.
“With the equipment I’m going to be running this year, there’s no reason why we can’t win the series and get quite a few wins.”
Sheppard certainly appears primed for big things after coming of age on the Summernationals circuit last year when he drove a family-owned machine to victories at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway and Lincoln (Ill.) Speedway. He outdueled eventual Summernationals champion Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., in both events, giving his triumphs added significance.
While Sheppard also had his share of bad luck (rolling a car, blowing motors) on the ’11 Hell Tour and settled for a sixth-place finish in the points standings, his checkered flags pumped up his stock. By the end of the season it was creeping even higher thanks to his overall double-digit win total, a career-first touring championship on the Northern All-Stars Late Model Series and some head-turning runs in crown-jewel events.
Mark Richards certainly took note of Sheppard’s ’11 emergence, using that performance record as one reason to put the youngster in his car’s coveted seat. Sheppard didn’t take long to prove his worthiness to Richards — he won a weekly show on May 18 at Wayne County Speedway in Orrville, Ohio, in his debut with the team and finished second in the WoO Jackpot 100 on May 26 at Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, W.Va. — and now he’ll get a shot to shine on his familiar Midwestern turf.
“Some of the tracks we have been running on I’ve never been to,” said Sheppard, who has relocated to the Mountaineer State to work on Richards’s race cars at the Rocket shop in Shinnston, W.Va. “We’ve compensated and been good, but I think it’ll be a lot better deal for me getting comfortable in the car (by racing at) all the tracks that I’ve been good at and know how to get around.”
Putting his new driver in his element, of course, is the big Summernationals attraction for the 50-year-old Richards, who has never attempted the full Hell Tour schedule with his Rocket house car.
“I’ve always thought about doing the Summernationals,” said Richards, who ran about three weeks of the Hell Tour in 1998 with West Virginia driver Tim Hitt and has entered his son in selected events in recent seasons. “Usually we’re off racing the World of Outlaws stuff so we don’t get a chance to think about doing it, but this year, with us being out of the points (after Josh’s departure), it gives us a chance to go do it and see some new territory.
“And being that Brandon has experience at a lot of the Summernationals tracks, it makes a little bit of sense to go and do it this year,” he continued. “We can get him comfortable (in the Rocket house car) running at tracks that he’s familiar with. That’s kind of the idea behind it right now, rather than taking him to places he hasn’t been and trying to get him comfortable in the car and adapted to us.”
Richards views the Summernationals as “a new challenge” for his team, which must adjust from the WoO’s short bursts of action to virtual nonstop racing. One stretch of the series, from June 26-July 8, will have the full-time travelers at a speedplant for 13 consecutive nights.
“The amount of equipment you have to take to go racing for a month straight is immense,” said Richards, who will be accompanied on the road by Sheppard, car chief Matt Barnes, mechanic Jerry Patterson (a long-time Sheppard crewman) and added hand Brian Daugherty of Integra Shocks. “Being a UMP tire rule makes it a little bit easier — you got three compounds and that’s all you have to get ready. But it takes 400-and-some gallons of fuel to run the whole thing — and when we leave the shop we’ll only have about 250 gallons, so somewhere along the way we’ll have to coordinate getting at least three more (55-gallon) drums of fuel — and it takes close to 100 tires, and it takes 1,500 laps of engine wear.
“We’re taking an extra car and truck (in addition to two in the team’s rig), and we’re gonna leave it at Brandon’s dad’s house (in central Illinois) so just in case something happens we can get it quick instead of having to go home to get a car.”
The competition Sheppard will face on the Summernationals trail will certainly be formidable. A talented group of drivers has indicated plans to chase the entire series, including Babb, the defending and three-time series champion; 2010 titlist Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill.; reigning UMP weekly champ Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill.; Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill.; Mike Spatola of Manhattan, Ill.; Kevin Weaver of Gibson City, Ill.; Jon Henry of Ada, Ohio; Frank Heckenast Jr. of Orland Park, Ill.; and teenage sensation Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill.
Several other racers, including three-time Hell Tour champion Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., and Billy Moyer Jr. of Batesville, Ark., are expected to start the series and then decide if they will run the complete schedule.