For the third consecutive year, children and families affected by autism will be able to enjoy the excitement of NASCAR at Dover International Speedway through the “Day at the Races” event during Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
Track, sponsor and organization are teaming up to provide an air-conditioned, sensory-friendly backstretch viewing area for those families.
In addition to pre-race visits from drivers, food and drink, and presentations on autism from educational speakers, the attendees will have use of a ‘quiet zone’ with muted lighting so parents can help their children get out of the crowd if necessary. Among other things, the zone will have video screens in case they still want to keep tabs on the race or watch a movie instead.
“There are a lot of kids on the [autistic spectrum] who love to watch NASCAR,” said Artie Kempner, a board member of Autism Speaks and NASCAR broadcast director, today at Dover.
“Whatever it is, whether it’s the cars being the way they look going around in a circle, there’s a symmetry to it, and a lot of folks on the spectrum just get into that symmetry. We’ve got a lot of NASCAR fans out there, and it’s great to put it all together. For me to be a part of this is a real honor.”
Also helping is Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx-backed driver Denny Hamlin, who is running a special Autism Speaks livery on his No. 11 Toyota this weekend.
It is comprised primarily of blue puzzle pieces, each of them containing the first name and last initial of people who donated $11 or more to Autism Speaks in order to be represented on the car. Per Hamlin himself, the project netted more than $40,000 for the organization.
That estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than the previous estimate of 1 in 88 that was released in 2012, and now more than ever, further awareness is necessary as more people are impacted by the disorder.
“Nine times out of 10, you’re gonna know somebody that’s affected by it or a family member that’s affected by it,” Hamlin said. “For us, it was an easy collaboration between myself, FedEx, and Autism Speaks.
“The ratio of how many children are affected is heading in a direction we don’t like to see. It costs these families a lot of money to have a child with autism – a lot of time – so it’s important for us to keep with that cause.”
To help make the “Day at the Races” even better for the youngsters on Sunday, Hamlin added that the group would go to a nearby Toys ‘R’ Us during Saturday’s Nationwide Series event and fill up “a truck full” of toys that are especially designed for autistic children.
“We’re going to load up a bunch of those toys tomorrow afternoon and bring them over to the hospitality area at Dover,” he said. “Along with the entertainment of the racing and everything that’s going on for the kids to take part and watch in, they’ll also have quite a few toys to keep them occupied as well.”
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.
“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].”
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.”
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.”