MRTI: Aitken, Jamin emerge as last-minute Cooper Tires Winterfest champions

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The ambient temperatures in Birmingham, Ala. were cold for the final rounds (30s Fahrenheit) of the 2015 Cooper Tires Winterfest for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, but the calculator temperatures were much higher in terms of figuring out the miniseries champions following two dramatic conclusions.

Both series were set for three races at Barber Motorsports Park to match the three at NOLA Motorsports Park last week. But on Wednesday, heavy rain forced the cancellation of the first of three Barber races. That meant the final race would count as double points to make up the difference.

In the end, Jack Aitken edged Weiron Tan by the slimmest of margins for the Pro Mazda Winterfest title, while Nico Jamin scored a last-minute, surprise USF2000 Winterfest title after presumptive favorite Jake Eidson ran into problems in the final race.


Aitken beat Tan to the win in Thursday’s first of two races on the day, emerging ahead following a prolonged yellow flag period for an accident involving Nicolas Latifi. That gave Aitken an 11-point edge on Tan heading into the final race of the championship, now Round 5, for double points.

Tan took the win, but Aitken in second captured the crucial bonus points to edge ahead in the final tally. Tan was also hamstrung by a five-point penalty issued to him after the NOLA rounds, issued for unsportsmanlike conduct when he left a podium ceremony after NOLA Round 3.

Nonetheless, the English driver for Team Pelfrey and the Malaysian rookie for Andretti Autosport had staged a memorable duel over the last couple weeks.

Photo: Pro Mazda

“I didn’t know where we’d stack up but I knew it would be quite tough and that’s the reason I’m here,” said Aitken, who will focus on the Formula Renault Eurocup for his full 2015 program.

“It’s really the perfect preparation for my (European) season in Renaults, being pushed so hard by Weiron and the other guys. The whole experience has been really good. The quality is so good in this field, I’m tempted to come back for some more this summer!”

Tan was reflective and took a lot of learning from the winter racing experience, before he heads into the full season – one which he must now be considered a title contender.

“Jack did well, he kept the pressure on me,” Tan said. “I was trying to find the time, but since he had the fastest lap time, that gave him the championship. It’s disappointing. We got the victory but we lost the war, so it’s good and bad. But this is a good start for us, since the real championship starts now.

“But looking back on the penalty [from NOLA], I have regrets for doing that – if it had been a fair fight, I think we could have won. I learned from that, it’s a big mistake and it cost me the one point I needed. It’s all about learning and that’s why we’re doing this. We’re all here to learn, to grow up, and it’s all part of learning how not to make the same mistakes next time.

“But after these race weekends, we know we have good pace going into the full season. I think we should be pretty confident. We have to keep working hard and I have to stop making stupid mistakes!”


Photo: USF2000

Pabst Racing’s Eidson had the edge heading into Barber on the strength of two wins from three races at NOLA, and a 26-point lead. But drama in the final event cost Eidson the title, and allowed both Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) and Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) a shot.

Franzoni beat Eidson to the win in Thursday’s Round 4, and Eidson needed only a seventh-place finish in Round 5 to take the title. He didn’t get it as his car ground to a halt with unspecified mechanical issues on the first lap.

That opened the door for the other two, and when Franzoni made a mistake at the final corner, Jamin had both the lead and the title in his grasp. He held onto it with the win.

Jamin is the third driver from Cape in the last four years to win the Winterfest title (Spencer Pigot 2012, Neil Alberico 2013) but neither won the actual season title.

“Everyone at Cape Motorsports worked so hard all week, and I’m so happy to get the last win of Winterfest and the championship,” Jamin said. “I didn’t trust it when the team told me! I’m super-stoked for the beginning of the championship.”

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

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

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.”