Antron Brown, Erica Enders champs because NHRA championed diversity

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When Antron Brown and Erica Enders won their second respective NHRA Top Fuel and Pro Stock championships Sunday in Las Vegas, what they achieved was more than just being the best drivers in their classes in 2015.

Brown and Enders once again were prime examples why the NHRA is the most progressive sanctioning body in motor sports – if not all forms of professional sports.

While other motorsports series kept the door closed to African-Americans, females and other minorities for far too long, the NHRA instead welcomed everyone with open arms.

It didn’t matter what gender you were or what color your skin was. The only thing that mattered was that you were a racer, plain and simple.

When legendary three-time Top Fuel champ Shirley Muldowney was ridiculed back in her home state of New York for wanting to be a professional drag racer, she moved west to California to follow her dream.

And it was the NHRA that not only allowed Muldowney to pursue that very dream, but encouraged her to be the best she could be.

In turn, Muldowney became a symbol to females everywhere that if she could succeed, they could too. Sure, it definitely wasn’t easy in such a male-dominated sport, but whenever Muldowney ran into roadblocks from some of her competitors, the NHRA quickly bulldozed and pushed aside those roadblocks so as to keep the road open for Muldowney.

It was Muldowney who inspired Enders when the latter was an eight-year-old aspiring racer back in Texas in the early 1990s – and it’s Muldowney, now 72 and still as feisty as ever, who continues to inspire Enders.

“I just absolutely love Shirley,” Enders said at this year’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. “She blazed the trail for women in drag racing. I and every other female drag racer wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her and what she went through. She is a true inspiration.”

Brown, meanwhile, came out of New Jersey seeking to race his motorcycle somewhere, anywhere. The NHRA gave him that opportunity, and he did so for several years in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class before switching to Top Fuel. This year’s championship is his second in the last four seasons in the 330-mph, sub-four-second world of nitro-fueled dragsters.

Sure, from a historical standpoint, Brown is the first African-American champion (and repeat champ) in NHRA history, while Enders is the first female Pro Stock champ (and also repeat champ) in the sanctioning body’s annals, as well.

But those racial/gender descriptors are irrelevant. What is is the fact they’re both winners and champions yet again.

Back when I was with USA Today and covered the NHRA from 1984 through 1997, I sat down with NHRA founder Wally Parks one day in the early 1990s and we talked about how NHRA and the sport had evolved in the first 40-plus years of its existence and under his watch.

I asked Parks what were some of the things he was most proud of in his tenure as leader of the drag racing world.

Without blinking an eye, Parks leaned in like a friendly grandfather, grabbed my arm and said with a smile, “Giving everyone a chance to race. That’s what NHRA has always been about.”

It was very apparent that Parks took personal pride that the NHRA had taken such a positive lead by welcoming anyone who was a gear head at heart and who might have nitro methane or high octane racing fuel running through their veins.

As we talked further about opportunities in the sport, I noticed something conspicuous in the words Parks used – or should I say the words he didn’t use. He never said “blacks” or “African-Americans” or “Hispanics” or “Mexicans” or any other racial descriptor.

He never said “them” or “those people” or anything that would make those of non-white racial makeup stand out.

Instead, he just kept calling all drivers “racers” or “drag racers;” their skin color or gender was irrelevant.

I had always respected Parks but that day took that level of respect to a whole other level. This was a man who cared for everyone and, damn it, he was going to make sure they were going to get every chance they could to pursue their dream – like Muldowney, Brown, Enders and tens of thousands of others in both the professional and sportsman/amateur ranks.

In Parks’ personal dictionary, the definition of race was exactly what it was: a competition of speed and elapsed time, not a descriptor of skin color or culture.

That’s why NHRA today is without question the most diverse and welcoming motor sport series in the country. Go to any of the 24 national events and you’ll see African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and even those of Middle East descent sitting together, chatting like old friends, enthralled by the eye-popping speeds and ear-popping sounds.

The passion for racing is what binds them together. You don’t see ethnic or racial groups segregated in certain parts of the grandstands. Instead, you see a cultural, racial and ethnic melting pot that should be the envy of every other professional sports league around.

NHRA has built much of its popularity on Parks’ policy of welcoming everyone with open arms. That’s why we see African-American drivers like Brown and J.R. Todd, Hispanic drivers like Cruz and Tony Pedregon (who will serve as an analyst when Fox Sports begins televising NHRA races in 2016), and female drivers like Enders, three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey and sisters Brittany and Courtney Force, daughters of the sport’s all-time winningest driver, John Force.

It’s a brotherhood and sisterhood linked by smoky burnouts and the pursuit of always trying to go an extra thousandth of a second quicker or one mph faster than the other driver in the next lane.

They all occupy and race on the same ground. They all compete on unquestionably the most level playing field in the world. And no one cares where they came from or how they got here.

All that’s important is the passion to race and a long legacy of diversity. NHRA truly does it right. It gets it when it comes to being color blind and gender blind. That’s why we are celebrating champions like Brown and Enders — and we should also celebrate NHRA for being a champion of diversity and equal opportunity.

Other sports sanctioning bodies and leagues could learn a hell of a lot from the NHRA’s example.

It’s a true shame many of them still haven’t.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.”