Rising Star Racing’s Art Wilmes’ passion fuels continued U.S. support

Photo courtesy Rising Star Racing
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If you follow the Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy, chances are you’ll hear the names Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico a lot in 2016.

It’s not necessarily a guarantee that you’d be hearing any or all of those names if it wasn’t for the support and presence of Art Wilmes, founder and principal of Rising Star Racing.

Wilmes and Rising Star Racing enter their third year in North American open-wheel racing with a bigger presence than normal, with Pigot having graduated into IndyCar from Indy Lights, Alberico having moved up to Indy Lights from Pro Mazda, and with other Americans – notably Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz – in the pipeline to join the program this year. Interestingly, all of the aforementioned drivers are also Team USA Scholarship recipients, thanks to Jeremy Shaw’s efforts and talent scouting.

Wilmes, whose initial and consistent business success in the healthcare world provided him the financial resources to be able to support drivers, admits he’s not doing it for the bottom line, but is doing so for love of the sport.

“My wife asked me the same question, why do you do this,” Wilmes told NBC Sports in a phone interview.

“First of all, I like racing. I have a passion about open-wheel racing and open-wheel racing in America. I’ve been a longtime fan.

“I got to a point where I could use some of the assets, some financial but more on the business side to do something to try to create a path for these people that lack the resources to get to the next level. For me, it’s when I see someone who is crazy talented, but held back by the financial barriers. I think that’s what drives me.”

Pigot and Alberico, as the first two drivers in what Wilmes hopes will be a longtime funnel or pipeline of North American talent into IndyCar, likely would not have been able to make their progressive steps up for 2016 without Rising Star Racing’s support.

The support isn’t just financial, but also features Newgarden as a mentor and driving coach, as well as a PR representative to assist and help them grow with media training (see above, “Rising Star Racing Egg Russian Roulette”). Having grown up with them the last few years, I can say it’s no surprise that these three are among the most media savvy in the business.

“The key deliverables for us are that we’ve found a way to get Neil moving up the ladder, and have Spencer getting up the ladder,” Wilmes said. “We’re still working for as much of the season as we can. But the fact is, we have sustained with those two drivers. Josef doesn’t need our help. The real focus is for guys like Neil and Spencer, to get them into IndyCar.

“I think we’re behind in developing our sponsorship program. But we made some changes, starting last year, I think we have pretty good momentum going. We hope to expand on the program.”

Wilmes’ program is essentially a way for businesses to collaborate and help promote young drivers. It’s companies like D.A. Lubricants (and brand PennGrade Motor Oil) and Doug Mockett & Co. to name a few that help support the effort, thanks in large part to Wilmes’ hard work and dedication.

“It’s part fun, and as much work as it is, it’s very satisfying to me. It’s an expensive hobby, like everything else,” he said.

“If I can limit the level of expense we’ll all be happier. We’re getting to that point. I’ve had to personally invest more than I thought, but that’s a failure on my part to get to where I needed to be. We have to work harder. We have some good sponsor relations to help us get successful.”

Understandably, all of Pigot, Alberico and Newgarden are appreciative of what the Rising Star Racing program has meant in their respective careers.

“Obviously Art has been a great supporter of mine, and Rising Star Racing has helped us a lot in many ways,” said Pigot, who’ll drive the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda this year for at least three races.

“The way it all started for me, I just got an email. At first, I was kind of confused of what it was and trying to do. But I started to talking to him, and he was serious about helping young drivers. The program is growing and growing. It has a bright future ahead.”

Alberico said Wilmes’ presence and support has been far more than just financial.

“It all started with one handshake with Art, before he was even involved in racing,” Alberico said. “Now it’s (my) second year officially of Rising Star Racing, and he’s made so much progress with it as an entity. There’s the relationships he’s built within IndyCar and his personal work as well. He’s good at connecting people.

“He’s good at making B2B deals happen, and good at finding win-wins for both parties. It can benefit me, them, Rising Star Racing, it’s like the ultimate Rubik’s Cube.

“With Art, he’s been a huge blessing in my life, not just in racing. He’s taught me about the world, business, and how to be successful. I was chatting with him the other day, traveling, being on my own all the time, and there’s more than one kind of father figure. He’s taught me so much about life in general, and he’s a huge influence on my success. Yeah it’s not just me. I had to learn from somewhere. Art is one of these guys.”


Newgarden’s the driver mentor but ultimately he said he doesn’t need to do too much for the group.

“Art has been such a blessing for the young racing community and some of the drivers, specifically Spencer and Neil,” he said.

“Art is one of those rare, great energetic people to be around with enthusiasm and a big passion for motor racing. The passion is a big component for Art. He wants to help. Part of the problem is finding the money or support, specifically for young Americans. It’s made an impact.

“My part has been to help present it correctly. It’s to help create the direction and be a part of the growth. It’s been something he’s put together well. He loves motor racing, and is pretty damn good at working the business end of it.”

Wilmes’ love of sales is what helps drive both him, and the business model.

“Our focus has always tended to be using racing as a platform for sales,” he said. “I still believe most racing will have to eventually deal with this, that people have to have demonstrable value out of what they’re spending. So how do you use racing for business purposes? And I think the sponsors understand that.

“I do with my own business, with people I’ve never met, then we go to a racetrack and I did business with them. They want to know about our drivers, and follow up.

“It’s I guess a perspective… I think we work extremely hard in satisfying the sponsors. It’s easier for us than race teams.

“Our focus is on finding money, making sure the sponsor gets value, assisting them in logistics, all the things necessary, focus on selling or connecting them with someone with we have relationships to directly do business. That’s primarily the approach.”

Going forward, continuing the Rising Star Racing brand development is one of Wilmes’ key goals. It’s apparent with Alberico’s sidepod of his Carlin Indy Lights car featuring the Rising Star Racing logo and branding.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is brand Rising Star Racing, and recognize it more as its own branding entity. That opens up opportunities where all our drivers are your product spokesman. It opens up opportunities where consumer plays want to focus on the segment our guys connect to. That’s a lot about different strategies.”

The Rising Star Racing season kicks off for all three at St. Petersburg this week.

“I enjoy all the work that goes into doing this,” he said. “I enjoy going to track when the season starts, and seeing the results where they just do their thing.”

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.”