Matt Sheppard is to the Super DIRTcar Series big-block modified circuit what Donny Schatz is to the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series and Josh Richards to the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series.
In 2014 he notched 25 wins, claimed two track titles and was second in Super DIRTcar Series points, then backed it up with 27 wins in 85 races in 2015. He claimed three track titles and the Super DIRTcar Series championship for Al Heinke’s HBR team. Then he got fired.
The call came right after the championship banquet, just as Sheppard was preparing to put an exclamation point on the career season by getting married and enjoying a relaxing honeymoon.
“Al told me he thought we should go different ways because I’d be better suited in a different race car,” Sheppard recalled. “He said he felt I should be driving Bicknell cars and he had Troyers at the time. Later on, I heard that he’d told people he wanted to be more involved with the setups and all, but he was standing right there all the time. All he had to do was say something.
“He also told me that he wanted to shrink the team, then after I was gone he expanded it,” Sheppard added. “Al still helps me out with sponsorship of my own team, but coming right before the wedding, it was tough to hear.”
Most drivers of Sheppard’s standing would have started burning up the phone lines, pitching owners of top-notch equipment for a ride. But Sheppard reacted differently. He immediately put out the word that he was not entertaining offers.
“As soon as he told me that, I knew I wanted to start my own deal,” explained Sheppard with uncharacteristic emotion. “Until he called, I was ready to go back, but that convinced me I didn’t want to answer to anyone else any longer. I was gone a few days on our honeymoon, then I got started on doing my own deal around Dec. 1. I talked to all my crew guys about going with me first, then I started on backing.
“I talked with Jeff Brownell, who I had driven for before, and he offered to do anything he could,” Sheppard said. “Tom Cullen, another owner I’d raced for, gave me his trailer. Then I lined up past sponsors Camara Slate, the Caprara automobile dealerships and Ron Herzog of Finishing Touch Construction and we just kept going from there.
“Pete Bicknell also helped me a lot. There was no money involved but he sent down the equipment to get started. He said: ‘Here’s a car, pay for it as you go.’ And my old engine builder, Chuck Cicci, was great too, cutting his labor charges on the engines. All that let me get on the phone with product sponsors and say we were good to go. If you look at the stickers on the car, you’ll see I’ve got a fair amount of product deals. Everybody on the car has helped in a big way.”
Sheppard’s biggest worry was getting a new engine from Cicci before the February DIRTcar Nationals kicked off at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park. But it all came together and the team made it, parking Cullen’s small trailer, towed by a pickup truck, amid the tractor-trailer rigs and toterhomes of the other DIRTcar teams.