Pirelli World Challenge 2013 Season Review

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Perhaps 2013’s best sports car racing in North America on a race-to-race basis was the Pirelli World Challenge series, with drama usually ensuing in at least two of its four classes on a given race weekend. Seven of the nine weekends were contested alongside IndyCar events, to give fans a dash of sports car variety and provide them more bang for their buck. The series continued to make strides as it heads into 2014, its 25th anniversary season.

GT

While Johnny O’Connell secured his second straight GT class driver’s title in his Cadillac CTS-V.R, it was no cakewalk. If anything, this one required renewed focus and a bit of luck to overcome deficits at two points during the season. O’Connell was in a hole out of the gate from the first seven races, despite two wins, as failures to finish in Long Beach and Austin cost him substantial points. James Sofronas picked up three early season wins and led the points in his GMG Racing Audi R8.

But Sofronas’ car often took longer to get its tires up to optimal working temperatures; the car was always at its best near the end of the race. O’Connell’s came in quicker from the midway point, and two further wins at Lime Rock and Toronto boosted him into the points lead. The tide shifted once again though with back-to-back DNFs for O’Connell at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, and podiums for Sofronas moved him into the title lead heading into the Houston finale. There, qualifying was set by points after the track delays and weather compromised the schedule, so Sofronas had the pole. The Audi had the measure of the Cadillac in Sunday’s wet race before the conditions turned, and a seesaw battle eventually ended with O’Connell taking both the win and the title with Sofronas a very hard luck second.

O’Connell’s Cadillac teammate, Andy Pilgrim, along with the two K-PAX Racing Volvo S60s (Alex Figge, Randy Pobst) and Mike Skeen’s Corvette also won GT class races. Expect the number of winners to grow in 2014 as the GT class will feature a swath of FIA GT3-spec machinery, which was homologated for Pirelli World Challenge, and an additional outlet for gentleman drivers with the creation of the GT-A subcategory. Big things are ahead here.

GTS

If GT was good, you could argue GTS was better for the course of 2013. Jack Baldwin led the points from start to the second-to-last race in his Goldcrest Motorsports-prepared Porsche Cayman S, on the strength of three wins and 10 podium finishes in the first 13 races. But while Baldwin sought to add the GTS crown to his stacked road racing resume, younger chargers Lawson Aschenbach and Mark Wilkins had other ideas.

Aschenbach won a class-high five races heading into Houston in his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro, while Wilkins took two wins in his Kinetic Motorsports Kia Optima. They each had a mathematical shot at the title heading into Houston and Aschenbach seized the win there as Baldwin fell far enough back to lose the points lead; Wilkins had his own shot too if the race lasted another roughly 5-10 minutes. It was a stellar effort from all three over the year.

Elsewhere in class, Andy Lee (Camaro), Dean Martin (Ford Mustang Boss 302S) and Brandon Davis (Aston Martin Vantage GT4) also won races. Defending class champ Peter Cunningham fought through a difficult season in his RealTime Acura TSX but still secured six podiums, and Ford’s top driver on the year, teenaged Alec Udell, showed promise for the future. Car counts generally ran in the mid-to-high 20s, save for Toronto.

TC

Ryan Winchester took the year’s only truly dominant class championship, with a commanding performance in the Touring Car class for Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing team. The Iowa native excelled as a rookie and put together a much better second season with six wins and podiums in all but one of the 14 races in his Honda Civic Si. Full season teammates Brett Sandberg (four wins) and Remo Ruscitti (none, but top rookie) were often his closest challengers.

Defending class champion Michael Cooper missed the season opener in Austin, which dented his title hopes before they even began. Still, Cooper had the measure of the field in the midseason with four wins. Jon Miller also impressed over the year with a number of exciting passing maneuvers, but luck was simply not on his side. All told TC had the lowest car counts throughout 2013 and the series is examining how to move forward with the class beyond 2014, as a new TCA class for SCCA T4 and similar machinery is set to be introduced to help cut costs.

TCB

The entry-level class grew by leaps and bounds in 2013, with car counts jumping from roughly half a dozen to often north of 20 in TCB. An incredibly tight title battle ended with Robbie Davis taking the class championship in his MINI Cooper ahead of Joel Lipperini (Honda Fit) and Ernie Francis Jr. (Mazda 2). Francis won the most races but had several points penalties over the course of the year; Davis picked his spots well and survived Lipperini’s late charge to take the title.

Tyler Palmer swept the season finale at Houston in his MINI and emerged as a potential future star from this class beyond the top three. More than 30 car and driver combinations appeared at some point during the year and always helped keep this class interesting.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”