Matt Sheppard always had a pretty good idea of what it took to run a race team, but the 33-year-old Dirt Modified racer had never done it himself. When his racing career hit a crossroads this past offseason, Sheppard made the decision to build his own race team from the ground up. During the early stages of the 2016 season, his decision has transformed into one of the most gratifying moves he’s ever made as a racer.
After winning the 2015 Super DIRTcar Series championship with Heinke-Baldwin Racing (HBR), Sheppard was suddenly left without a ride when the team made the decision to scale back to a one-team operation with driver Jimmy Phelps.
Over the next few weeks, Sheppard began to weigh his options. He very well could have found another Dirt Modified team to race for, but instead he choose to build something of his own, and he only had two months to do it.
“It obviously came together in a hurry. It’s been a little bit of everything. It’s been nerve-wracking, it’s been busy… it’s just been a whole lot of everything,” Sheppard told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “At the end of the day, a ton of people stepped up and we were able to get a lot of help.”
With the help of many, Sheppard started to put the pieces of the puzzle together. No longer was he just the driver; he was also a team owner, a secretary, an accountant and a marketer among other things.
“Before we took off for Florida I had to sit down and go through all of my accounts and pay all my bills,” explained Sheppard. “It’s definitely a little bit different deal. It’s pretty much the same thing, I’m just part-bookkeeper, part-secretary now too. I have a degree in engineering, so I can handle writing a few checks here and there.”
Sheppard put all of the pieces together in time to make the trip south to Florida for the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park. The team’s performance, which included a win on night two and the overall DIRTcar Nationals Big-Block Modified championship, began to set the tone for the season in the Northeast.
“It was huge, a huge weight off my shoulders,” Sheppard said of his performance in Florida. “I think it was more of a mental boost more than anything. To put everything together in a month or two and go down there and have the success that we had, it got everyone motivated when we got back home. We got everything finished off and got rolling up here.”
Since returning to the Northeast, Sheppard and his new team haven’t slowed down any. So far this season, “Super Matt” is undefeated at Canandaigua Motorsports Park (NY) with three victories and is two-for-three at Utica-Rome Speedway (NY).
With each trip to victory lane this season, Sheppard has experienced a strong feeling of gratification that he didn’t feel when he simply played the role of driver. He explained that his first win as a team owner/driver will go down as one of the most memorable moments of his racing career.
“I’ve won a lot of races before in my life, but winning that first race down in Florida it was so funny,” stated Sheppard. “We had so many crew members, supporters and sponsors, and they were all down there. You’d swear it was the first race I had ever won before in my life. It was a really cool feeling and something I’ll never forget.”
Winning six races this early in the season with a brand new race team is something that not even Sheppard expected. Although he wants to win every race, Sheppard said he’s very proud of what his team has been able to accomplish in six months.
“You’d like to hope (you’d be that successful), but I think we’ve exceeded expectations so far,” said Sheppard. “We obviously want to win as much as possible, but if you were to tell me we’d be six for 11 this early in the season with over a 50-percent win percentage I’d probably tell you that you’re crazy.”
Like any racer, Sheppard knows that there will continue to be room for improvement. As the competition steps up their game, the Sheppard team plans to continue working hard to stay on top of the Big-Block Modified world.
“Even at this point, we’re still working every night trying to fine tune the cars and trying to make them better. Every night is still a learning night and that’s the way we approach everything. Win, lose or draw there’s something to be learned every time you go on the race track, and you better believe the competition is working on getting better. If we’re not working on getting better, we’re not going to stay ahead of them.”
Moving forward, Sheppard’s goals for the season are set high. He wants to win races and contend for championships no matter where he races or whom he races, and so far in 2016 he’s shown the ability to do that.
“We got a lot of great pieces put together, we’ve got a couple fast race cars and I couldn’t ask for much more with the way the season started for us.”
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51