(Photo – Canaan Dirt Speedway)
SIDEWAYS AND THE
“Hey,” Paul Richardson
barked on the phone a few years back. “I’ve got someone here I’m
sending over to you. He doesn’t know anything, but he can talk.”
It wasn’t quite as strange as it sounds. Paul was calling from
the garage where they worked on his BUSCH North car. I was helping
with their NAPA sponsorship, and maybe we had a marketing volunteer.
Soon came a cautious knock on the door. There stood Blake
Shepard – tall, wiry, handsome, nattily dressed, with that
Paul got it somewhat right. True,
Blake didn’t know the difference between a spark plug and a ball
joint, but he did know some things. He was just about to become a
Vice President of Fidelity Investments in Boston. And there was also
some strange bee buzzin’ around his cranium. He’d seen stock cars on
the tube and he wanted to get involved.
As it turned out,
Blake did help big time with Paul’s sponsorship. And Blake, his
uncommonly pretty wife Ericka, and Paul and Maryann Richardson
became great friends.
But it didn’t quite end there. After
over 40 years, I was at the sunset of my own driving career. Due to
varying work schedules, the unsympathetic distances from Newburyport
to any dirt tracks, and a dramatic change in my hair color, I could
only race infrequently and with no steady help. It was a pleasure to
take Blake along and teach him Racing 101, which I did as best we
could. Off we went.
We got by fine, especially with the
sorely needed technical support of a wonderful father/son racing
family in Tilton, NH, Dennis and Danny Douville.
night I suggested that Blake take my car out for mud packing,
rolling in the track at Canaan Speedway. We took tin snips to my
fire suit to accommodate the more vertical Blake. He learned how to
use the Bert and chugged out onto the clay. That’s when the
promoter, then Butch Elms, unexpectedly threw the green from the
starter’s stand. As any driver will tell you, that’s quite the
moment: Cars in unison snap loudly alive, with a blast of dirt clods
and flying tear-offs.
The officials did not notice that we had done a little
tailoring on my fire
suit when Blake went out to roll in
the track. (Ericka Shepard Photo)
Blake was hooked instantly. He had to have a race car.
working a deal with Dennis Douville to maintain it, Blake bought
himself a TEO, a pickup, and an enclosed trailer. His enthusiasm was
palpable to all standing by. His nickname was instantly “Sideways”
Shepard for his attack of the track; Ericka’s moniker became the
“Dzus Queen” for her joyful participation in the adventure. It has
been an honor at Coastal 181 that they have chosen to keep our blue
and yellow colors and the number 181 motorized.
Ericka have not been able to race a lot, but they sure have been
some action. I went with them to Fonda, NY, for a warm-up day a
couple of Aprils past. Dennis and Danny left early with the hauler,
while Blake, Ericka, and I followed a little later in a road car.
Coming back over the mountains on the Mass. Pike, we saw a group
stopped, pointing frantically over the guardrail, way, way down in a
gully. The whole rig was down there, upside down, the #181 torn
completely out of the trailer. It was a mess, but mercifully Danny
and Dennis were not seriously injured.
It was, of course, a
learning curve on the track as well. More than once the fair Ericka
would make what she called the “walk of shame” – across the pits to
the parts truck to buy a new front axle.
Racing was limited
by a nagging back injury Blake had brought to the party. He had been
a spectacular athlete in high school and college, especially on the
ski slopes. Ericka brought something to the party, too. Twin girls a
year ago – both healthy and so lovingly received.
able to get in one or two shows this year, and there was a tough
night. In a feature at Bear Ridge in Vermont, Sideways pierced the
heavy backstretch dust way up on the outside groove, never even
seeing the car facing him backwards. The whole front end was torn
off. It was back to Dennis’ shop for a clip, while Blake’s back was
Then a couple of weeks later, August 13, came the
call in the very wee hours. Blake had won the feature at Canaan. And
it was earned, no gift – passes upstairs, passes downstairs.
You can only imagine the emotional warmth of that victory circle. It
was an amazing thing. Here’s a passionate, popular kid with no
technical grounding, never sat at the neighborhood track growing up,
never drove a kart or a street stock – and now he’s won the modified
feature with probably less than 250 or 300 laps in his whole career.
Given everything that happened this month – the debt ceiling
crisis, the misbehaviors in Washington, the earthquake, the
hurricane, Somalia, I, for one, sure was ready for a feel-good
GO GET ’EM, Blake!
Sideways and the Dzus Queen
(Shepard Family Collection)
© 2011 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181