SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Matt Sheppard was driven when he was studying to be an engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology. He just wasn't sure where he was headed.
``There was a time I didn't really know what I was going to do,'' Sheppard said. ``I wanted to get that degree. It's something to fall back on.''
Chances are he won't have to fall back on that degree anytime soon. The 28-year-old Sheppard has blossomed into one of the top dirt stock car drivers in the country and has his sights set on Sunday's SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 - a 200-lap race at the Moody Mile, the famed mile-long dirt oval at the New York State Fairgrounds.
It's the crown jewel of the Super DIRTcar Series big-block modified season in the Northeast with a top prize of $50,000, and Sheppard is the defending champion.
``It was just an unbelievable feeling (to win it),'' said Sheppard, who started racing go-karts at age 7 and raced full time while he was a student at RIT. ``I was close a bunch of times. I was second the year before, been up front and just run out of gas. There's only been 20 or 21 guys that have won that race. To be on that list is pretty amazing.''
Late NASCAR Cup champion Alan Kulwicki and current star Ryan Newman top a short list of drivers who have used college engineering degrees to help them reach stock car racing's highest levels. Kulwicki, who won his title in 1992, was a mechanical engineer. Newman, who has a degree in vehicle structure engineering from Purdue, is one of the top qualifiers in Cup history with 46 poles and has won 14 Cup races, including the Daytona 500 in 2008.
Sheppard earned his college degree four years ago in mechanical engineering technology, which involves understanding how products and machinery work and how to design, make or use them.
Sheppard's father sees the benefits every time he watches ``Super Matt'' race.
``The education I can see working with him here and there - how he figures things out,'' said Stu Sheppard, a former driver at the sportsman and modified levels and the inspiration for his son's love of racing. ``So the engineering education I think was really helpful to him, how everything operates. Me and his mother really stressed that he get a college education, and he wanted to. It wasn't like we had to twist his arm.''
Sheppard's rise has been rapid. He was Mr. DIRTcar sportsman modified champion in 2000, 358-modified rookie of the year in 2001 and runner-up in the overall 358 points standings the following year, and was named big-block modified rookie of the year in 2003.
This year, Sheppard has competed in just over 60 DIRTcar-sanctioned big-block modified features and has scored a division-best 19 wins at eight tracks, including the Florida DIRTcar Nationals title in February at Volusia Speedway Park. Overall, Sheppard has 73 big-block career wins.
Sheppard, who grew up and still lives in the Finger Lakes village of Waterloo, N.Y., races against guys he watched growing up - and he fits right in.
``In his age group, he's by far the top driver that's come out the last 10-15 years, without a doubt,'' said 51-year-old Brett Hearn, a seven-time Super DIRTcar Series champion out of New Jersey. ``He was born and bred in the sport. He knows how to work on the cars. He understands the cars. He's not just a driver at the track, and at his age that makes a huge difference.
``Most of us were racing through most of the years when other guys were going to college,'' Hearn said. ``That's one of my regrets in life, that I didn't prioritize that. For him to fit that in his schedule while he was developing his racing career is pretty amazing. He's probably one of the most naturally talented drivers I've ever seen. You don't see too many guys come out of the sportsman class and just start winning at the rate he did (in modifieds). It didn't take him long to get fairly dominant at this level.''
Sheppard, who used to work on his go-karts when he was a kid, isn't so sure about the driving part, but he knows all those class hours are paying dividends now.
``I don't know if it (education) helps me as a driver, but it helps me with the cars a lot, just understanding them - understanding shocks and the setups, the mechanical edge,'' he said. ``Hopefully, I know why parts break and what we can do to make them better.''
Sheppard also works closely with his car builder, throwing design ideas at him all the time.
Sheppard's dad thinks his son would excel in NASCAR as a driver - or a crew chief.
``He's patient. He would be good in them long-distance races because he's figuring the car out every lap, what he needs to do,'' Stu Sheppard said.
Right now, there are no aspirations to give NASCAR a shot. The focus is on bringing the 800-horsepower No. 9 that Sheppard drives for team owner Jeff Brownell Sr. to Victory Lane again at the Moody Mile, where speeds can reach around 150 mph on the slick dirt surface.
``I'm happy. I've got great equipment, good enough stuff to put me up front every night,'' Sheppard said. ``That's where I want to be. I couldn't ask for any more.
``And whenever this racing deal comes to an end - if it comes to an end or something happens - I can always get a job.''

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