Passion in racing is powerful, good, and needed more in 2014

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As a generally good gauge of the public consciousness at any particular moment, Twitter tends to erupt in moments of controversy, outrage or shock value. In the racing world, that’s usually after a big crash, a questionable team order issued on track or a jaw-dropping “Did you see that?!?” pass.

But back outside the racing bubble, the thing that made Twitter blow up yesterday was Richard Sherman’s now-infamous post-game interview following the Seattle Seahawks’ win in the NFC Championship Game. Sherman was, as you’d expect, purely jacked up on adrenaline after a game in which he’d made a game-saving defense of a Colin Kaepernick pass, which caused an interception. And he exploded.

Still, the man has a Master’s degree from Stanford and writes a weekly column for Peter King’s TheMMQB.com, so he’s clearly no dummy. He’s a bright individual, a talented player and able to enter into a state during the game where he can be so intense after the game, that it all came flying out in the immediate moments after it finished.

Motorsports has those moments, but they’re rarer. The immediate post-crash interview comes to mind, if a driver has only just got back to his pit and speaks to a pit reporter.

In IndyCar for example, I don’t remember the specifics of most 2013 victory lane interviews, but I do remember Will Power saying of Sebastien Bourdais, “He once was a champ, now he’s a chump” after the two collided at Detroit back in June. I remember when Scott Dixon went off at IndyCar Race Control in succession at Sonoma and Baltimore, which was even crazier because the Kiwi is so calm and collected.

Sadly, both Power and Dixon were penalized for their emotional outbursts. Power’s this past year was probation while Dixon got probation and earned a $30,000 fine. Power got the same fine in 2011 after his infamous – but legendary – “double-bird salute” to former Race Director Brian Barnhart at the series’ race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

If IndyCar is going to be in the headlines beyond the bubble which it currently exists, it needs that emotional moment – likely more than one – and it needs to not carry a penalty for expressing it in the heat of battle. I have to admit I’ve changed my stance on this. For consistency’s sake, enforcing the same penalty year-on-year made sense, and as Power and others had been docked for previous infractions, Dixon was justifiably fined last year to match. It’s a new year though, and with it comes a fresh opportunity to right this in the rulebook.

Emotion in other series is also hard to find. We often think of modern-day Formula One drivers as corporate, emotionless automatons devoid of the lady-killing charisma of James Hunt or the “don’t care what we say” attitudes of a Jacques Villeneuve or Eddie Irvine – two drivers I grew up with in my F1 fandom infancy in the ’90s. Truth of the matter is they aren’t, but that can be the stereotype from the outside.

Still, when Kimi Raikkonen answers a question in the old school, “don’t care” mentality with six or seven words or when Sebastian Vettel does donuts after winning, we dig it because it allows them to be them and it’s freeing from the shackles of being reined in by their corporate overlords.

NASCAR interviews are probably the worst for this. You often can’t get through a victory lane interview – which usually occurs after a TV ad break and delays the spontaneity to begin with – without the first half of the quote being some variation of “Oh man, I just want to thank Pepsi, Doritos, Taco Bell, KFC, Chevrolet, Mr. Owner, ‘Slugger’ and the crew,” before you get to any tangible sound that actually describes how you won the race. Or, more importantly, how it feels to win the race.

I get that the sponsor parade is a necessary evil of the victory lane interview, but I’d love to see more erupting in pure emotion first, then getting to your sponsors second. Want to talk about how to do a NASCAR victory lane interview? Watch Kurt Busch, in an unsponsored car, winning the July 2012 Nationwide Series race at Daytona for the underdog James Finch team. And take notes. (Wait, maybe being unsponsored is the key to this victory lane thing…)

Or, alternatively, just watch any John Force interview over the last two decades. Yes, the man is one of the greatest drag racers who has ever lived with 16 NHRA Funny Car championships. But he’s as widely revered as he is within the motorsports world as much for his mouth as his 4-second blasts at 300-plus mph.

There’s a reason Talladega Nights is as funny as it is, because Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby lampoons the sponsor-laden culture of NASCAR and comes up with a pair of catchphrases in Victory Lane: “Shake ‘n Bake,” and “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” To this day, those two are still part of the lexicon.

In today’s entertainment-over-populated, soundbite-heavy world, the simple fact is competition itself is not going to get racing back into the public sphere beyond the series’ bubbles. If it did, IndyCar would be the most popular and widely watched form of motorsports in North America.

It’s going to take a series of moments throughout 2014 of passion … of pure joy … of anger … of “What the hell did they just say?!?” to help propel any of the racing disciplines to greater heights.

Because if racing has moments in 2014 that catch on like Richard Sherman’s last night, that will only help to collectively grow the sport.

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.”