CONCORD, N.C. – Aug. 6, 2013 – For many racers it takes a lengthy career toiling in obscurity before they achieve their dreams. Trials and tribulations, ups and downs through the years make achieving goals rich and rewarding.
Brandon Sheppard had dreams, too. He watched his dad, Steve, summer after summer chase the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour championship. He even pitched in a bit before he decided to give it a go himself, to take over the Sheppard family’s quest for a crown in the prestigious dirt Late Model series. Four years later, at the ripe old age of 20, he won four times and claimed the championship of the grueling six-week-long tour that rolls through the Midwest for nearly 30 races from mid-June to mid-July. In the process he became the youngest champion in the tour’s 26-year history when he wrapped up the title in July at Oakshade Raceway.
When it comes to junior achievements, though, even Sheppard was too old to match what championship runner-up Bobby Pierce accomplished. At only 16 years old, Pierce became the youngest winner in the tour’s history, accomplishing the feat four times and finishing a mere 15 points behind Sheppard overall.
That means the top two drivers in the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour championship were a combined 36 years old, or three years younger than 39-year-old third-place finisher and three-time champion Shannon Babb. Young guns, indeed.
While he is only 20, Sheppard has been part of a family quest for a Summer Nationals championship almost from the beginning.
“It means a lot, me and my dad have been doing the Hell Tour for a long time,” Sheppard said. “I’ve done four years and I don’t know how many years my dad did it. I went with him for two years before I even started racing on the Hell Tour because he was running full time back then. It’s always been a big dream of his and it carried on to me, it’s been a dream of mine. We got it done this year.”
He got it done, and joined a list of dirt Late Model legends in the process. Sheppard’s name is now etched in Summer Nationals lore with those of Bloomquist and Moyer, O’Neal and Babb. This list of former champions is a who’s who of dirt Late Model racing.
“That’s always in the back of your mind when you’re hunting for championships and running with the series,” Sheppard said. “I knew it would come one day. I’m confident in myself, our program is really stepping up. Ever since we got in these Rocket Chassis it’s just been a total turnaround for us.”
And there was one of the keys for the young racer. The stage for success in 2013 had its foundation built in 2012. When Josh Richards decided to pursue an opportunity in NASCAR last year, Rocket Chassis owner Mark Richards decided to put Sheppard in his car and team tackled the highways and byways of the Midwest. It was an eye-opening experience.
“Mark and Matt and Brian from Integra Shocks … I can’t say enough about those guys,” Sheppard said. “Brian went with us on Summer Nationals last year and taught me a lot about the shocks and stuff. It’s just been a total turnaround in our program. It took me a little bit to get everything figured out and learn what I need to do with everything, but now that we’ve found a little rhythm here we should be good for years to come.
“The Hell Tour is a good deal for anybody who is starting off young like I did. Just being around everything night after night after night, learning all your equipment and learning all that stuff. I think that’s been one of the biggest things that’s helped me, just going out there and doing it for so long.”
Not that either Sheppard or Pierce lacked in the confidence department, but their accomplishments this summer will only make them more comfortable as they grow their careers behind the wheel.
“We work so hard and expect to do as good as we did,” said Pierce, who started racing at 8-years-old under the watchful eye of his father, Bob, a two-time Hell Tour champion and one of the most respected chassis builders in the business. “I knew all those tracks pretty much so I think we had a pretty good shot at it going in. … We weren’t looking at the points too much. We were just hoping to get some wins and finish consistent, get some top-five’s so we were happy with that.”
Confidence exudes while listening to the two talk about surviving and succeeding over the course of the summer series.
“Next year it’s going to be different,” Pierce said. “We’re going to be expecting to win.”
These two aren’t your normal young racers, just starting out and finding success by accident only to struggle duplicating their feats. No, these two are in it for the long haul, these two have the ability to become the face of dirt Late Model racing for years and years to come. They were born into the sport, but forced to earn their places.
“I just think me and Bobby are kind of similar,” Sheppard said. “We were born and raised around racing. We both wanted to do it but got started into it at a really young age. For us it was like, ‘If you don’t run good we aren’t going to go to the track next week so you need to figure some stuff out and get your stuff going.’ My dad and my grandpa and by uncle raced, and Bob Pierce helped me out a lot when I first started, then Jason Feger and Brian Shirley helped me out. I kind of had a quick learning curve.
“I see myself getting better every year. We didn’t have the Summer Nationals wins last year to show that we were getting better, but I knew we were getting better just by the way we had the cars in the feature. We were improving every week, had a strong run at the World 100 and won that World of Outlaws Late Model race at Belleville so I knew that me, as a driver, had gotten better from the year before. I always kind of put it in my head that I need to win a few more big races every year to show myself that I’m getting better. I’m pretty confident we’re getting better every year. We’ll be topnotch one of these days.”
With a major championship already in hand for Sheppard and victories notched for Pierce, those days are here.
DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour Fast Facts
Duration: June 12 to July 20
Races completed: 26 of 30
Most wins: Shannon Babb, 6
Total miles: 5,629
Total cars to earn points: 325
Average cars per event: 34
2013 DIRTcar Summer Nationals ‘Hell Tour’ Final Championship Standings
2013 DIRTcar Summer Nationals ‘Hell Tour’ Results
|Wed.||June 12||Brownstown Speedway||Brownstown, IN||Dennis Erb, Jr.|
|Fri.||June 14||Cedar Lake Speedway||New Richmond, WI||Brian Birkhofer|
|Sat.||June 15||Cedar Lake Speedway||New Richmond, WI||Cancelled/Rain|
|Sun.||June 16||Wilmot Speedway||Wilmot, WI||Kevin Weaver|
|Wed.||June 19||Spoon River Speedway||Canton, IL||Brandon Sheppard|
|Thurs.||June 20||Belle Clair Speedway||Belleville, IL||Brandon Sheppard (2)|
|Fri.||June 21||Tri-City Speedway||Pontoon Beach, IL||Chris Simpson|
|Sat.||June 22||Fairbury Speedway||Fairbury, IL||Ryan Unzicker|
|Sun.||June 23||I-96 Speedway||Lake Odessa, MI||Shannon Babb|
|Mon.||June 24||Peoria Speedway||Peoria, IL||PPD/Rain July 15|
|Wed.||June 26||Clarksville Speedway||Clarksville, TN||Brandon Sheppard (3)|
|Thurs.||June 27||Clayhill Motorsports Park||Atwood, TN||Brandon Sheppard (4)|
|Fri.||June 28||Paducah International Raceway||Paducah, KY||Billy Moyer|
|Sat.||June 29||Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55||Pevely, MO||Cancelled/Rain|
|Sun.||June 30||Lincoln Speedway||Lincoln, IL||Bobby Pierce|
|Tues.||July 2||Quincy Raceways||Quincy, IL||Shannon Babb (2)|
|Wed.||July 3||Jacksonville Speedway||Jacksonville, IL||Shannon Babb (3)|
|Thurs.||July 4||LaSalle Speedway||LaSalle, IL||Bobby Pierce (2)|
|Fri.||July 5||Fayette Co. Speedway||Brownstown, IL||Ryan Unzicker (2)|
|Sat.||July 6||Highland Speedway||Highland, IL||PPD/Rain Aug. 25|
|Sun.||July 7||Tri-State Speedway||Haubstadt, IN||Shannon Babb (4)|
|Tues.||July 9||Florence Speedway||Union, KY||Scott Bloomquist|
|Wed.||July 10||Terre Haute Action Track||Terre Haute, IN||Cancelled/Rain|
|Thurs.||July 11||Macon Speedway||Macon, IL||Shannon Babb (5)|
|Fri.||July 12||Kankakee County Speedway||Kankakee, IL||Bobby Pierce (3)|
|Sat.||July 13||34 Raceway||Burlington, IA||Bobby Pierce (4)|
|Sun.||July 14||Vermilion County Speedway||Danville, IL||Shannon Babb (6)|
|Mon.||July 15||Peoria Speedway||Peoria, IL||Brian Shirley|
|Wed.||July 17||Brushcreek Motorsports Park||Peebles, OH||R.J. Conley|
|Fri.||July 19||Attica Raceway Park||Attica, OH||Doug Drown|
|Sat.||July 20||Oakshade Raceway||Wauseon, OH||Matt Miller|
The DIRTcar Summer Nationals “Hell Tour” is brought to fans across the country by many important partners including: Arizona Sport Shirts (Official Apparel Company), Hoosier Racing Tires (Official Racing Tires), Racing Electonics (Official Communication), Vicci (Official Uniform), VP Racing Fuel (Official Racing Fuel); in addition to these fine Contingency Sponsors: Beyea Headers, Butlerbuilt, Cometic Gasket, Comp Cams, Dominator Race Products, Edelbrock, Chevy Performance Parts, Integra Shocks, Intercomp, JE Pistons, JRI Shocks, Klotz Lubricants, MSD Performance, Petroff Towing, Quartermaster, Superflow Dynos, UNOH (University of Northwestern Ohio), and Wrisco Aluminum.