WEEDSPORT, N.Y. – Sept. 16, 2014 – Matt Sheppard of Waterloo, N.Y., is a three-time Super DIRTcar Series champion who is challenging again in 2014 for another crown. He’s also the only driver in history to win each of the three modified division events during NAPA Auto Parts Super DIRT Week, taking the checkered flag in the Super DIRTcar Series “Syracuse 200” in 2009, the DIRTcar 358-Modified “Salute to the Troops 150” in 2003 and the DIRTcar Sportsman Modified feature in 2000.
Sheppard joined the Heinke-Baldwin Racing (HBR) team for the 2014 season as a teammate of Jimmy Phelps, creating one of the Super DIRTcar Series’ most formidable teams.
As NAPA Super DIRT Week approached, Sheppard took some time away from working on his car for Syracuse to answer questions about the event and his team:
Q: Do you think your car will hold up for the 200?
A: I guess that’s something you never know. We have great equipment here, there’s no reason to believe it won’t hold up for the 200.
Q: Is the Syracuse Mile one of your favorite places to race?
A: Yes and no. I really like racing at the short tracks, but Syracuse is different. It presents its own set of challenges that I look forward to every year. It’s the biggest race of the year so how can you not get excited for it.
Q: Can you be successful at Syracuse running your regular Saturday night car?
A: I think you could be successful with your Saturday night equipment. The track has changed a lot the last few years. We’re actually running more of a Saturday night style car than we are a Syracuse car.
Q: Who will be your toughest competitor?
A: It’s pretty much the same story every year up there. You really have to worry about your own program but you do have a bunch of guys that are really fast and capable of winning that race any year. You’ve got to look at guys like Decker, Friesen, Hearn, Jimmy Phelps … there’s just a bunch of guys who go really good up there.
Q: Was it cool to see Billy Dunn win last year’s Syracuse 200?
A: Yeah, it was. I was out of the race and kind of watching things unfold. I was definitely kind of pulling for him at the end. I raced with him every week at Canandaigua, real strong competitor, he had been so close to winning a Super DIRTcar Series race, and what a race to win.
Q: Jimmy Phelps has run strong at the Mile, will it be an advantage having him as a teammate?
A: I don’t see where it will hurt. HBR and Jimmy, all those guys are strong every year at Syracuse. They’re obviously doing something right. Hopefully the two of us can get teamed up and hopefully we’ll have some really fast racecars up there this year.
Q: How has it been having a teammate this year?
A: It’s been great. It’s been good having somebody to bounce information off of. Let me put it this way, when you don’t have a teammate you’re the only one with a certain style car setup and I may be feeling things sometimes and he might be able to explain it better because he’s feeling the same thing, or vice versa. I think it’s definitely helped me out this year.
Q: Do you exercise regularly, and do you change the routine for the longer races?
A: I typically don’t in the summer. In the winter I do exercise, not a lot, just basically when I feel I need. In the summertime I just race, race, race. … I guess it’s hard for me to say what my body goes through during a race. You’re definitely working in there, you don’t come in soaking wet for no reason. I think that’s what makes it so hard to explain and that’s why they call it racing shape. It is a tough thing to explain, but there’s only one way to get in racing shape and that’s to go out and race, that’s what we do all summer.
Q: Will the switch to Troyer help you at the Mile?
A: We’ve been having a great year so far so there’s no reason to think we won’t be good at Syracuse, but the Mile is an unknown thing. Some years you’re good, some years you’re not, some years you have trouble. I have no reason to believe that we can’t be good there this year, we’ve been pretty good everywhere we’ve been.
Q: Are you surprised at how much success you’ve had at HBR this season?
A: Yes and no. I came here fully expecting to have this kind of success, but at the same time you don’t think you’re going to go out and be this successful right off the bat. There was really no transition time from one team to the other, we just picked up right where we left off and we’ve been as strong if not stronger.
Q: Has the success been a mixture of the team and driver?
A: I’d have to say it’s a mixture. A great driver is not going to win a lot of races with a not very good car, and a good car is not going to win a lot of races without a good drivers. You have to have the whole package, great car, great engines, great shocks, great team, a good driver driving it. I think it’s definitely a package deal.
Q: The HBR team is arguably the best team to have never won the Syracuse 200, does that add pressure?
A: I go to Syracuse every year to win. It’s happened once, it hasn’t happened a lot of times. The whole HBR organization with Al and great people, a great team, they deserve to win Syracuse. They’ve been close a lot of times so I’m sure Jimmy as well as myself will try our damnedest to get HBR a win.
Q: How much, if at all, does the handling change during the 200 miles, what can you do to help it?
A: Usually you try to have your car dialed in as neutral as can be before the 200 mile race begins. If you have a good handling racecar, the handling may not change as much as you think it does. Obviously the pace might quicken and slow depending on track conditions and tire wear. You try to have a pretty neutral driving racecar before the race starts, something you just feel comfortable driving around the track because it’s a long race and you need to be comfortable and have a solid car under you for 200 laps. You don’t need to have a car that’s really fast for 30 or 40 laps and then really slow for 160. But there’s not a whole lot inside the racecar, the only thing we could do to change handling is maybe pit and change stagger. You don’t really want to have to do any more than that, if you do you’re probably pretty far out to lunch.
Q: Can you think of an instance where your experience benefitted you a following year?
A: I honestly can’t think of a specific instance, but I’m sure it happens all the time. Every time you go to Syracuse it’s a learning experience, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been there. I’m sure guys who have been there 20, 30, 40 times are still learning, as well.
Q: What did you learn about the rule change about finishing under green for this year?
A: I kind of watched how it all played out last year. It obviously makes the race even more of a gamble than it already is. A lot of guys played the fuel mileage game and there just ended up being more cautions in that last 25 laps than they anticipated and it definitely affected the outcome of the race. You’ve got to come up with a plan on raceday and you’ve got to stick to it unless something goes awry.
Q: It seems like every year the anticipation for the week grows
A: It’s more stressful than anything. It’s a lot of work, a lot of stress trying to get everything prepared and done 100 percent. Probably the most relieving part for me is when the car is done and loaded in the trailer and ready to go to inspection. Right up until then it’s kind of a nightmare.