BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Brandon Sheppard has Belle-Clair Speedway figured out.
The fast-rising 20-year-old star from New Berlin, Ill., continued his mastery of the unique one-fifth-mile bullring on Friday night, marching forward from the eighth starting spot to capture the World of Outlaws Late Model Series ‘Photobilly 50’ for the second consecutive year.
It was the third straight major-event victory at Belle-Clair for Sheppard, who also won the demanding track’s DIRTcar Summer Nationals A-Main earlier this year en route to being crowned the ‘Hell Tour’ champion for the first time in his career.
“We got our stuff really good here,” said Sheppard, who picked up a $10,050 check for winning a race run in memory of late Belle-Clair track photographer Charles Haffer Jr. “Actually tonight was the best we’ve had it out of all three times we’ve won here. We were able to maneuver around a lot.”
One year after driving Mark Richards’s Rocket Chassis house car No. 1 to his first-ever WoO LMS triumph in the inaugural Photobilly 50, Sheppard steered his family-owned Rocket No. b5 past the famed blue No. 1 — now driven by WoO LMS points leader Josh Richards — for the lead on lap 24 and never looked back. He repelled a late threat from Shane Clanton to record his second win of the season and the third of his career on the national tour.
Clanton, 38, settled for a close runner-up finish in the Kennedy Motorsports Capital Race Car, just a couple car lengths behind Sheppard. He passed Rick Eckert for second on lap 36 and held the position to the checkered flag.
Eckert, who started 11th in his Team Zero by Bloomquist car, ran in second place for only two circuits before ceding the spot to Clanton. The 2011 WoO LMS champion chased Clanton for the remainder of the distance and placed third for his second consecutive podium finish on the tour.
Completing the top five was third-starter Shannon Babb, who slipped as far back as 10th before making a late-race charge in the outside groove to finish fourth, and Brian Shirley, who started from the pole position and led laps 1-13.
Sheppard primarily used the inside groove to reach the front of the pack – and then ran the extreme top side to stay there. He flirted with disaster throughout the race’s late stages, scraping the historic track’s outside wall repeatedly as he manhandled his machine around the smallest oval on the 2013 WoO LMS schedule.
“We had an awesome car all night,” said Sheppard, whose previous WoO LMS victory this season came on Aug. 1 in a USA Nationals preliminary A-Main at Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, Wis. “We got behind on the redraw (by picking the worst starting spot available to the top-two finishers from each heat race), but we made a few changes to the car before the feature and it was just good. I could run wherever I wanted to.
“I’m really good at rolling that cushion (at Belle-Clair), using the cushion to kind of get my momentum up and shoot me down the straightaway. But my car was good down on the bottom tonight too.”
Though four of the race’s seven caution flags flew after Sheppard gained command, he handled each restart with the savvy of a veteran. Even when Clanton made a bid for the lead on the race’s final restart, on lap 43, Sheppard didn’t waver.
“He did dive underneath me and show me a nose,” Sheppard said of Clanton. “But I was pretty confident that the high line was the place to be. If I could just make that first corner (without stumbling), then I’d be all right.”
Clanton was disappointed to remain winless on the WoO LMS since a score on June 1 at Stateline Speedway in Busti, N.Y., but the intense nature of his second-place run gave him an emotional boost.
“It had to have been exciting for the fans,” Clanton said of a race in which he started sixth, moved quickly up to third and fell back out of the top five before figuring out the outside line to reach second late in the distance. “We ain’t going but what feels like 25 miles per hour, so you can do a lot of dicing and slicing. It’s fun racing.
“When I finally learned, ‘Hey, just get up on the wall and do it,’ it picked my pace up. I didn’t know we had to run that far up on the wall (to be fast).
“At the end of the race I was racing (Sheppard) so hard,” he added. “I was watching him bounc off the fence and then (on the final lap) we were catching (Darrell) Lanigan (to lap him) and I said, ‘This is my opportunity,’ but it was the end of the race. I actually didn’t know the race ended. I ran another lap there because I never saw the checkered flag come out.”
Eckert, 47, was also energized after working hard for a third-place finish.
“That bottom was working well for me for quite awhile,” said Eckert, who animatedly relived the race while talking with Clanton during the Victory Lane ceremonies. “But as it died I knew I was gonna have to go to that top – and then I drove it into the frontstretch wall twice till I figured it out. Then at the end I got to watching those guys (Sheppard and Clanton) and realized you just gotta drive up on the wall on entry so you can get turned off and get good runs. It’s odd, but I guess that’s the best way around here.”
Brandon Sheppard, Shane Clanton, Rick Eckert, Shannon Babb, Brian Shirley, Bobby Pierce, Bub McCool, Billy Moyer, Morgan Bagley, Tim Fuller, Billy Moyer Jr., Ryan Unzicker, Tyler Reddick, Eric Wells, Jason Feger, Chub Frank, Darrell Lanigan, Daryn Klein, Josh Richards, Matt Taylor, Tim McCreadie, Randy Korte, Rick Salter, Brent Kreke.