FULTON, NY - In only his first ever DIRT 358-Modified race, rookie sensation Matt Sheppard surprised everyone and scored his first career 358-Modified feature win in dominating fashion by beating defending track champion Alan Johnson in the 40-lap...
FULTON, NY - In only his first ever DIRT 358-Modified race, rookie sensation Matt Sheppard surprised everyone and scored his first career 358-Modified feature win in dominating fashion by beating defending track champion Alan Johnson in the 40-lap affair last Saturday at the 3/8-mile Fulton Speedway. In doing so, the 18-year old Rochester Institute of Technology freshman engineering student from Waterloo, NY, collected a cool $1,750 and became the youngest driver in speedway history to win a Modified feature event.
"I never thought I would be here in victory lane tonight. I knew I had a great car but I wasn't sure if the driver could get the job done," said the 2000 Mr. DIRT Sportsman champion in response to the loud cheers of the Fulton fans.
Sheppard, by virtue of winning the second heat race, started on the outside pole for the Carson Automotive Group Icebreaker season opener. Jeff Rudalavage jumped to the early lead in the event, while Jimmy Phelps moved to second and Matt falling back to third. However, Sheppard was rim riding the Fulton high banks like a seasoned veteran, and he leaped into the lead on lap eight. He held nearly a straightaway margin over second place as he diced in and out of lapped traffic throughout the event, never relinquishing the lead. Defending track champion and one of DIRT's all time best Alan Johnson ducked underneath Sheppard on the final restart, but the talented driver held off the top dog along with 1999 track champion Jimmy Phelps, Jeff Rudalavage, and John Ramsey for the upset win.
In victory lane, an incredulous Sheppard jumped onto the roof of his Paine Motorsports No. 9s, doing a roof dance for the chilled Fulton crowd as the fans loudly cheered him on in the popular triumph.
With his victory, Sheppard became the youngest driver ever to win a Modified feature at Fulton Speedway. Fulton superstar Dale Planck is the next oldest, as he was 19 when he won his first career feature in 1989. "It is great to be the youngest driver to win at Fulton but there are a lot of talented kids coming up through so that record probably won't last very long," said Sheppard, who will turn 19 on July 12.
The last time a rookie driver won a Modified feature at Fulton was back in 1992, when Bret Belden of West Edmeston scored a popular upset victory. Sheppard joins an elite class of feature winners at Fulton with legendary names such as Maynard Troyer, 9-time NASCAR National Modified champion Richie Evans, and NASCAR Winston Cup driver Geoff Bodine from the asphalt era plus Donnie Wetmore, Dale Planck, and Roger Phelps from the current dirt surface years of the speedway.
Frank Caprara was the last rookie to win a DIRT 358-Modified feature, back at Can-Am in 1999, when he won three events that season. As past DIRT 358-Modified Rookies of the Year along with Caprara, Todd Stewart won five events in 1998, Joel Doiron two events in 1997, and superstar Tim McCreadie taking home six wins during the 1996 campaign. Being so early in the new season, Sheppard could be very well on his way to being a DIRT 358-Modified Rookie of the Year.
"I'd like to thank Paine Motorsports, Terrell's Potato Chips, Tallmadge Tire, Seneca Auto Sales & Service, Finger Lakes Auto Machine, TEO Pro Car, and Custom Signs Express for making this possible," said the well-spoken Sheppard.
Sheppard capped off a tremendous weekend for Paine Motorsports. Steve Paine, his car owner and mentor, won in 358-Modified competition at Black Rock Speedway in Dundee on Friday night plus a Big Block Modified feature at Canandaigua Speedway on Saturday and a 200-lap Advance Auto Parts Super DIRT Series Sunday at the Rolling Wheels Raceway in Elbridge.
Last season in DIRT Sportsman competition, Sheppard was the Mr. DIRT Sportsman champion, scoring a circuit high 22-victories including wins at five different tracks, including the historic Syracuse Mile on the New York State Fairgrounds during nationally recognized Super DIRT Week. He was the track champion at the Cayuga County Fair Speedway in Weedsport, as well as the Rolling Wheels Raceway. The year 2001 only marks the third year in DIRT sanctioned open wheel competition for Sheppard, but he has a total of 29 checkered flags, 28 of them coming in the Sportsman division, and his first 358-Modified win this past Saturday night at Fulton.
Without a doubt, Matt Sheppard has established himself as a driver to beat at Fulton this season. In addition, he has proved he will be a contender for the coveted Fulton track championship and a heavy favorite for the DIRT Motorsports Automobile Recyclers Association of New York (ARANY) 358-Modified Rookie of the Year. The second generation driver currently leads the 358-Modified point standings at Fulton, as well as the Cayuga County Fair Speedways, where he competes every Sunday with the higher horsepower DIRT Big Block Modifieds and his Finger Lakes Machine small block power.
Keep an eye on DIRT 358-Modified rising star Matt Sheppard this weekend at the Fulton and Cayuga County Fair Speedways as he tries to win his second career 358-Modified victory. Can the popular youngster win two in a row at Fulton? Sheppard will also be at the Utica-Rome Speedway on Sunday May 13 for the opening of the 2001 edition of the Sunoco Race Fuels 358-Modified Super DIRT Series with a 100-lap feature.
The sky seems to be the limit for the talented young rookie driver.