If 50 truly is the new 40, maybe even the new 30, then soon-to-be 51-year-old Ron Capps is proving he still has a lot of good, quality drag racing left in him.
The driver of the Don Schumacher Racing NAPA Funny Car is enjoying one of his best seasons yet in his 20-year Funny Car career. He’s driving like he’s just entering the prime of his career.
Capps is riding a two-race winning streak and has three wins overall in 2016 – the most of any Funny Car driver – starting with a triumph in the season-opening WinterNationals.
In addition, he’s back atop the Funny Car point standings for the second time in 2016 heading into this weekend’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee.
Capps also has earned No. 1 qualifying honors in the last two races, the first time he’s ever achieved that in his career.
And in typical Capps fashion, he gives props to his team rather than himself for the success his NAPA Dodge Charger has enjoyed thus far in the first 10 races of the 24-race season.
“I almost felt embarrassed driving this car because it’s so good,” Capps said in a media release. “(Crew chief Rahn) Tobler and the NAPA Know How guys have given me such a good car.”
There’s good reasoning to think Capps’ winning streak will continue at Bristol this weekend: he’s won there three times in his career (2001, 2006 and 2012), and finished runner-up a fourth time (last year’s race there, losing to DSR teammate Matt Hagan).
Capps will be making his 470th career start this weekend, dating back to when he first came on the NHRA scene as a Top Fuel driver in 1995 before switching to Funny Car in 1997.
But again, rather than talking about himself and what he’s achieved this season, Capps gives his team credit.
“It’s important to me that a lot of the credit goes not only to our NAPA team but also to the hard work by our guys at the DSR fabrication shop,” Capps said. “We’re having a lot of success because of our fab shop, Tobler and John Medlen’s vision and machining skill.”
While Medlen is assistant crew chief for the Funny Car of Capps’ teammate, Jack Beckman (who Capps beat in the final this past Sunday at New Hampshire), his talent and ideas are spread across all four of DSR’s Funny Car teams.
“That’s what happens when you have an in-house fabrication and chassis shop with the best in the business and an organization that encourages everyone to work together,” Capps said.
If Capps indeed wins at Bristol, it would be the 49th triumph of his NHRA career (he also has 46 runner-up finishes), one day before he turns 51 … but there’s no question he’s driving like he’s 41, maybe even 31.
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.”