Brandon Sheppard and the Rocket1 Racing team visited victory lane an astounding 18 times this year in the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series. The feat tied the series record for wins in a season, which Rocket1 Racing set in 2016 with driver Josh Richards and again in 2017 with Sheppard.
In November, they head into the series finale, the Can-Am World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with a 320-point lead over second-place Chase Junghans. (They need only to attempt to qualify for both features to clinch the championship.)
That huge point lead came as the result of incredible consistency. They finished outside the top-10 only once in 39 races. The sole blemish on their extraordinary season came in August at Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, Wisconsin, when engine troubles sidelined the team early. They have only finished outside the top-five one other time, a sixth-place at Screven Motorsports Complex in Sylvania, Georgia.
What makes their accomplishments seem even more incredible is how they carry themselves on race day.
“Take a look at their pit area — they’re never scrambling,” said series competitor and five-time national WISSOTA champion Ricky Weiss, 30, of Headingly, Manitoba, Canada. “If you show up prepared, you’re going to win races.”
An hour or two before a race, they rarely touch the car while other teams thrash on theirs. Their steed quietly sits on its lift, looking as immaculate as it did at the beginning of the season. Crew chief Danny White often sits on the back of the trailer, sipping a cold drink. Crew members Austin Hargrove and Joel Rogers lay down on the floor in the trailer, relaxing while surfing the web on their phones.
Team co-owner Mark Richards naps before the night’s festivities as he typically drives the rig through the wee-hours of the morning to the next race. Sheppard rides his dirt bike around the pits, checking out the track and mingling with competitors and fans. They make it seem so easy. That’s because most don’t see the work that gets done well before this time.
“Dan, Austin, and Joel do a really good job [at] keeping everything squared away and in perfect condition,” said Sheppard, 26, of New Berlin, Illinois. “For me, as a driver, it really helps me not to have to worry about anything on the race car and just concentrate on where I need to be behind the wheel.”
Yes, this team has all the elements for success.
A talented driver. Check.
Hardworking, knowledgeable crew members. Check.
Ample sponsorship. Check.
Excellent technical resources. Check, thanks to being a house car for one of the largest chassis builders in dirt racing, Rocket Chassis.
However, just because you check off all the boxes on this list does not mean you’ll get wins and championships. Someone needs to assemble these pieces in a way to maximize everyone’s strengths.
“[For] a lot of drivers, they have too many jobs,” said Richards, 58. “Brandon’s job is to drive. When he came here this last time, I said, ‘All I need you to do is drive. I don’t need you to do thinking on the setup. You can help these guys when we need you in a fire drill, but you don’t have to be there every day working on the car. I want you to concentrate on driving. I want you to watch videos. When we’re going somewhere, I want you to know how to race that place — I don’t want to tell you. I want you to figure it out by doing your homework.’”
With a crew that does their job well, it has also allowed Richards to do what he does best.
“For myself, [I am] able to concentrate on the setup and not have to worry about if the headers are tight, the timing is set, the carburetor needs the jets changed, or what gear do we need,” Richards said. “Before, it had me running ragged. I couldn’t take the time I needed to take to critique the setup part of it.”
The team remains unchanged for the past three years — a rarity nowadays, where crew members sometimes don’t make it through an entire season with one organization.
“When [the team gets] to gelling that much, you just keep on building on what you’re doing,” said the 2015 World of Outlaws champion Shane Clanton, 44, of Zebulon, Georgia. “It makes it a lot easier to come out and do what you’re supposed to do.”
One relationship, in particular, plays a vital role in the team’s winning ways — the one between the driver and the setup specialist, Sheppard and Richards, respectively. They work exceptionally well together.
“[Richards is] probably one of the best guys in the country at watching race cars and seeing what they’re doing,” said driver Chase Junghans, 26, of Manhattan, Kansas. “Brandon is good at telling him what the car feels like. [Together] they make the right adjustments 90-percent of the time.”
Some describe Richards as intense and incredibly direct. That’s just what Sheppard wants — blunt honesty.
“My grandpa and dad were always the first ones to tell me when I was messing up,” Sheppard said, referencing when he raced for his family-owned team. “That’s the only way you’re going to learn. If you mess up, night in, night out, and nobody ever tells you about it, you’re never going to learn to do anything different. As a driver, Mark fits me good because [he does] the same thing as my dad and grandpa did.”
That feedback propelled Sheppard from a driver known for primarily riding the cushion, to one who can run fast anywhere on any track.
“You can’t be a type of guy who runs one line all the time and never changes anything,” Sheppard said. “Different tracks have different dirt, shapes, sizes, and banking. You can go to the same track and not use the same setup or the same lines. You need to be open-minded to keep up with the racetrack and how it’s changing.”
With a well-prepared car, a sharp setup man, a diligent and knowledgeable crew, and an adaptable driver, Rocket1 Racing rolls off the trailer a threat to win at every race it enters.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a cushion, [Sheppard’s] fast,” said Weiss. “If it’s dead-slick, he’s fast. If it’s rough, he’s fast. If it’s dirty, he’s fast. It doesn’t matter if he starts 15th, he’ll be [up front] at the end of the night. They’ve conquered every situation at the racetrack. It’s amazing.”