CONCORD, N.C.– When Mark Richards added the 33rd annual Red Buck Dirt Track World Championship to his team’s racing schedule earlier this year, he assumed his son Josh would be behind the wheel for the 100-lap event at Portsmouth Raceway Park but that didn’t work out.
When Josh informed his father late in the summer that he couldn’t compete in promoter Carl Short’s traditional fall special because he had plans with his fiancée, the elder Richards still kept the DTWC on his radar. He decided to enter the race with reigning DIRTcar Summer Nationals and UMP national champion Brandon Sheppard – and considering the results, he’s glad he did.
In a dramatic cameo last Saturday night, Sheppard, 20, captured the DTWC’s $50,000 top prize to give Richards a coveted first-ever victory in the crown-jewel show that has its roots in his home state of West Virginia.
“What a great weekend,” said Richards, who returned Sheppard to the seat of the iconic blue No. 1 that the young star drove for most of the 2012 season while Josh Richards focused on NASCAR racing. “Over the years Rocket Chassis cars have won the DTWC, but it seemed like that race had always eluded me personally. There were a number of times over the years where cars I’ve worked on or owned had a shot to win it – like the first one in 1981 at West Virginia’s Pennsboro Speedway when we were leading on lap 88 with Rodney Combs driving and got passed by eventual winner Jim Dunn and in 2007 at Ohio’s K-C Raceway when Josh got passed by Chub and ran second – so it felt really good to finally get it.”
That Richards’s first DTWC score as a team owner came paired with Sheppard certainly was a surprise. With Josh Richards back firmly entrenched as the Rocket house car driver this season, few dirt Late Model observers could have envisioned the machine being steered in a major event by anyone but the current WoO LMS points leader.
But Mark Richards had no reservations about bringing Sheppard back when Josh confirmed that he would be vacationing with his future wife during the DTWC weekend.
“When I put the DTWC on our schedule, Josh said, ‘Hey, I don’t think I can do that because that’s Andrea’s birthday and we’ve made plans to go away,'” said Richards. “Andrea has to schedule her vacation days early because of her job so they couldn’t change their plans. I told Josh, ‘Well, we’ll have Brandon do the DTWC then,’ and he was fine with that.”
Sheppard, of course, was a perfect fit for the ‘Super Sub’ role. Not only did he successfully campaign the Rocket house car last year from mid-May to the end of the season and maintain a close relationship with Richards and Co. while driving his family-owned equipment this year, he also has been a regular at Rocket Chassis headquarters in Shinnston, W.Va., for much of the past month.
“Brandon been with us here at the shop since just after Knoxville,” said Richards, referring to the Late Model Nationals at Knoxville Raceway the last weekend in September. “He crashed out there and had to come out here and put a new clip on his car, so he stayed out here. He went to Eldora and got rained out, and then he came back here and went with us to Pittsburgh for the Pittsburgher.
“He’s a great guy to fit in here because he’s very humble and very easy to fill the spot when we need him – and he’ll continue to fill that spot when we need him. He’s our backup plan whenever Josh isn’t here.”
Driving a 2012 car that Josh previously ran just a handful of times late last season, Sheppard rewarded Mark’s faith. After setting fast time and finishing second in a heat race on Friday night, he worked his way forward from the seventh starting spot to become the youngest winner in the history of the DTWC.
Sheppard’s march to the biggest victory of his burgeoning career was highlighted by a spectacular high-side burst from fifth-to-first following a lap-40 restart. He overtook veterans Jackie Boggs, Billy Moyer and Steve Shaver in one deft swoop when the green flag flew to reach second place and then passed race-long pacesetter Scott Bloomquist on lap 43 to grab the lead for good.
“He got a little wide off of four coming for the checkered in the heat and we got beat,” said Richards. “But I told him it wasn’t a bad thing because, in these big races, when you’ve never really run these racetracks, you really don’t know where you need to be. So if you’re sitting out there leading and it’s hard to get hand signals you don’t know where you need to be.
“I said, ‘You’re better off to be behind these guys at the start to figure out where you need to be on the racetrack. Then you can pass them and go back to where you need to be to win the race.'”
That scenario played out after the caution flag flew on lap 40 of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series event.
“I had been watching him occasionally jump up out there on that top and not lose anything,” Richards said of Sheppard. “There were also some guys farther back like Feger and Davenport who were running that top and cleaning it up pretty good. On lap 40 he was lining up on the outside for the restart, so I told Matt Barnes, ‘We gotta get him to the top. I think he can go on that top now.’
“Well, on lap 40 he was running fifth, and when the next caution came out on lap 44 he was leading. Then we just put him back to the bottom because he didn’t need to stay out there and pound that top for the rest of the race. He was good enough on the bottom once he got the lead to run there.”