The way his season had been going, two-time NHRA Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon was threatening to become a “Whatever Happened To?” question.
But with his season-best semifinal finish two weeks ago at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway, Pedregon hopes he and his Toyota Camry are back on the right track.
Equally important, Pedregon is hoping to ride his new-found momentum and confidence back up the Funny Car rankings, starting with this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.
“It’s important for us to pick up where we left off (after Bristol),” Pedregon said in a NHRA media release. “We want to be able to qualify well and really get past that first round again. That’s really our biggest goal.
“True progress for us is going to Norwalk and Chicago (next weekend) and doing that. We’re trying to be consistent and that starts in qualifying. We want to qualify in the top half and continue that into eliminations. The key for us is to just get some solid races in.”
Pedregon, who has 43 career wins and 76 final round appearances, is still looking for either a win or a final round showing in 2015.
“The key to what we’re trying to do is to run good without hurting parts,” Pedregon said. “We’ve made quite a bit of progress and that’s important for us.”
He knows he still has a lot of work ahead of him: he’s 14th in the standings with just seven races remaining – including this weekend – to be one of 10 drivers to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs in the Funny Car ranks.
“We had a good race in Bristol but we can continue to get better,” Pedregon said. “Bristol was the first race where we put together a string of some good runs. In terms of performance, it was a good weekend. The end result was good for us.
“We’ve been qualifying OK and we’ve made some good runs but we really have struggled to do it consecutively. It was encouraging to see us do that in Bristol. We adjusted for the conditions and just didn’t back into the semis. We got to the semis by performance and the car did what we were trying to do.”
Pedregon has a good history at Norwalk, including a previous win at one of the more popular tracks on the NHRA circuit – a popularity that will have an added bonus with the race being run on a holiday weekend and with eye-popping fireworks exhibitions planned over the next few days.
“I’ve seen that facility evolve into the big facility it is,” said Pedregon, who has been racing at Norwalk for more than 20 years, dating back to a number of match races that he competed in back in the early-to-mid 1990s. “The Bader family (track owners really pays attention to every detail and they really take care of the facility, and there’s great fans up there.
“It’s a really big event but they really accommodate all the fans and take care of them, and that means a lot.”
Qualifying sessions for both Friday and Saturday will be held at 5 and 7:45 pm ET. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday.
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.”