Sports

Matt Sheppard races to second straight Bob St. Amand Sr. Memorial

By Bernd Franke, Postmedia News

358 modifieds, shown churning up the mud in this August 2015 file photo, raced against big blocks in the eighth Bob St. Amand Sr. Memorial Wednesday night in Thorold. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia News

358 modifieds, shown churning up the mud in this August 2015 file photo, raced against big blocks in the eighth Bob St. Amand Sr. Memorial Wednesday night in Thorold. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia News

If Merrittville Speedway were to produce a Civic Holiday version of the movie Groundhog Day, casting would only need to make one call.

 

OK, Matt Sheppard hasn’t won all eight Bob St. Amand Sr. Memorial races but his five victories in the Thorold track’s signature event relegates the other drivers into bit roles.

The western New Yorker, who overtook Gary Lindberg of Ridgeway for the lead with 14 laps remaining in the annual 100-lap battle between big and small blocks, was at a loss to explain why he’s been able to win so many longer-distances races at Merrittville.

“I’m not really sure, I’ve just been fortunate,” he said in victory lane Wednesday night after pocketing the US$6,000 first prize.

The 35-year-old from Waterloo, N.Y., southeast of Rochester, likes powering his big block around the track’s D-shaped clay racing surface.

“I really like racing here at Merrittville Speedway,” he said. “I’ve had some good race cars throughout the years, and it must suit my driving style a little bit.”

A field of 30 big blocks and 358 Modifieds, the so-called “small blocks,” competed in a race that honours St. Amand, a longtime supporter of the track and Merrittville’s points champion in 1972.

Sheppard needed 41:32.669 to cross the finish line after starting sixth in the starting field. Lindberg, the pace-setter for 70 laps before being overtaken by Sheppard, finished second in a 358 Modified, 1.203 seconds off the pace.

On average big blocks enjoy a 150-horsepower advantage over the 358s, but Sheppard said that doesn’t necessarily translate into an edge when racing 100 laps at Merrittville.

“No, not typically,” he said. “Because the track gets so slick, the big block cars are heavier and they can’t use the power, so I think the 358s are better in the 100-lappers.”

Sheppard, a full-time racer in his 15th season competing in big blocks, said being behind the wheel for longer-distance events isn’t all that different from the 35-lap features in Merrittville’s premier racing class.

“It’s not really a whole lot different other than you’re not in as big of a hurry to get to the front,” he said.

Sheppard’s strategy for picking off cars in a race, regardless of distance, can be summed up in three words: “Whenever you can.”

After all these years making nothing but left turns on a dirt track he doesn’t find maintaining focus in all that traffic, with all that speed, all that hard.

“I wouldn’t say it’s very difficult,” Sheppard said. “I mean you’re doing what you’re doing.”

He took advantage of an opening on the outside of Lindberg to take the lead on Lap 86. After that Sheppard had no idea how close Lindberg, and the rest of the field, was on his tail.

“I’m not sure, you can’t really see behind you in these cars,” he said with a laugh.

Billy Decker, Franklin, N.Y; Mat Williamson, St. Catharines; and Chad Brachmann, Sanborn, N.Y.; rounded out the top five in the Bob St. Amand Sr. Memorial, which is usually held on the Civic Holiday but this year was moved to Wednesday following a rainout.

Sheppard wasn’t the only familiar face smiling in victory lane on a program that began with another Merrittville tradition, a pre-race pasta dinner catered by Club Castropignano in Port Colborne.

Tony Kelly of Niagara Falls won his seventh on the season in Mini Stocks and Jay Mallory of St. Catharines his second of the summer in Sportsman.

Rob Murray of St. Catharines once again reminded his competitors on the track and fans in the stands that his last name rhymes with “hurry.”

The Hoosier Stocks hotshoe’s victory over Dave Small of Port Colborne was his third in a row and fourth in five starts at his hometown track this summer.

Following are complete results from Wednesday night’s program:

Super DIRTcar Series: Matt Sheppard, Gary Lindberg, Billy Decker, Mat Williamson, Chad Brachmann, Mike Bowman, Ryan Susice, Peter Britten, Larry Wight, Erick Rudolph, Max McLaughlin, Tim Fuller, Tim Jones, Stewart Friesen, Pete Bicknell, Brett Hearn, Todd Gordon, Scott Wood, Pat Ward, Brent Begolo, Keith Flach, Billy Whittaker, Mike Maresca, Tommy Flannigan, Fred Carleton, Mark D’llario, Jimmy Phelps, Shayne Pierce, Rich Scagliotta. Did not start: Brandon Walters. Qualifying winners: Sheppard, McLaughlin, Susice, Decker. Last-chance qualifier winner: D’Illario. Fast time award: McLaughlin, 16.692 seconds.

S&W Service Centre Sportsman: Jay Mallory, ames Michael Friesen, Matt Farnham, Brad Rouse, Justin Sharp, Luke Carleton, Trevor Wright, Rob Knapp, Cody McPherson, Brent Begolo, Chris Storm, Charlie Lynch, Adam Leslie, Rob Goulding, Chris Bellamy, Dave DiPietro, Tom Richau, Dean Scott, Robbie Johnston, Sean Dominey. Heat winners: Knapp, Carleton, Farnham.

Hoosier Stocks: Rob Murray, Dave Small, Billy Bleich Jr, Dave Bailey, Blake Bomberry, Ryan Beagle, Brad Sheehan, Kyle Pelrine, Vince Fargnoli, Steve Shaw, James Thompson, Jim Lampman, Mike Miller, Donny Lampman, Trevor DeBoer, Brian Teeple, Marcel Michaud, Robin Mortensen, Tanner Podwinski, Jason Fontaine, Derek VanMil, Bill Podwinski. Heat winners: Pelrine, Lampman, Bleich.

Central Fabricating 4 Cylinders: Tony Kelly, Alex Riley, Jason Coutu, Austyn Werstroh, Jay Moulton, Garnet Wilson, Tom Neale, Vincent Pagnotta, Cole Hardy, Sam Iftody, Trevor Want, Chris Laskey, Mike Giberson. Did not start: Brandon Iuciani, Kyle Rothwell, Rob Sauder. Heat winners: Coutu, Wilson.

Racing at Merrittville resumes Saturday night, weather permitting, with the Niagara Employment Help Centre presenting the Bill Willard Sr. Sterling Silver Sportsman feature, Round 2 in the Duel on the Dirt Home Track Series for Hoosier Stocks.

Kids Box Car races along the frontstretch will highlight intermission.

Pits open at 5 p.m., the grandstand at 5:30 p.m. with racing get underway at 7 p.m.

bfranke@postmedia.com