15-time champ Alan Johnson paying quick dividends for Brittany Force

(Gary Nastase Photography)

JOLIET, Illinois – If you want to be the best, sometimes you have to go out and hire the best to give you a hand.

That’s what happened just before the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series began. Sixteen-time Funny Car Champ John Force made multi-champion car owner Alan Johnson an offer he couldn’t refuse: to help Force’s daughter Brittany not only a more consistent Top Fuel driver, but also to become a winning Top Fuel driver.

Project accomplished – quickly and in a big way.

Since Johnson joined forces with Force – no pun intended – the latter has enjoyed a breakout season, with two wins and currently fourth in the Top Fuel point standings.

MORE: Birthday girl Brittany Force roars to fourth-quickest run in NHRA history; Kalitta hits 330.55 mph

MORE: Is 2016 finally going to be Doug Kalitta’s year?

And there’s still a half-season to go for Brittany and Johnson to make even more noise and success together, starting with this weekend’s K&N Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway.

“Alan has really turned everything around for us and the Monster Energy team,” Brittany Force said. “During our first three years, we had struggles and we also had some great weekends.

“But when Alan came in, he took us that one step further that we needed, especially to get into the winner’s circle. Prior to this season, we had been to seven finals since my first season in 2013, so we had been chasing it for a while.

“Having Alan come on board, along with our new crew chief, Brian Husen, plus a few new crew guys, they all meshed together very well. We’ve really found what we’ve been looking for. We’ve won two races, we’re fourth in the standings and I’m just excited that we’re going to continue to get better.”

Johnson had originally planned just to work with another Top Fuel driver, Steve Torrence, this season. But John Force can be very persuasive and made Johnson an offer he couldn’t refuse – provided that the latter could work as a tuner for both Brittany and Torrence.

A deal was struck and Johnson has also helped Torrence improve his game thus far this season, as well. Torrence is ranked third in the Top Fuel standings behind Doug Kalitta and defending season champion Antron Brown. Brittany Force is just 14 points behind Torrence, in fourth place.

“I think the opportunity to work with both of these teams, Brittany and Steve (Torrence), to be able to get both of those drivers to that next level, that was exciting,” Johnson said. “It was as much both of them as it was one.

“But obviously, it was very fulfilling to get Brittany her first win (at Gainesville, Florida). That’s always fun for anybody who’s running a team or running a car, to see somebody and see how excited they are to get that first win – and you were partly responsible for that is just a great feeling.”

Brittany Force still relives that first visit to the winner’s circle virtually every day, not to mention her second win at Charlotte two races later.

“It’s a day I’ll never forget,” Brittany Force said. “Standing in the winner’s circle with (father John Force) on one side of me and Alan on the other side, plus my team around, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Johnson has helped Force develop a new confidence and comfort level with his strategy on how to run successfully – and as a winner.

“Having a car that has run as consistent as ours has this year helps a driver,” Force said. “It gives you that extra boost of confidence in the seat when the car’s going down the track on every single run. You feel better in the seat, you’re more confident and more comfortable. He’s really put that in all of us, everybody on the team.”

Johnson is one of the most prolific tuners and team owners in the entire sport. As a team owner, he’s been part of 11 Top Fuel championships with five different drivers, and 15 total championships in his career.

Johnson, who put his team on hiatus after last year’s U.S. Nationals due to lack of sponsorship, still hopes to bring it back if he can attract new sponsorship.“I would like to bring another sponsor into the sport before I decide I don’t want to do this anymore,” Johnson said. “If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, well, I might do this for a couple more years.”

Then he adds with a smile, “I’m not getting any younger.”

But for now, Johnson is feeling younger and is happy doing what he does best and loves to do: find ways to make dragsters run as fast as they possibly can.

“Fun is what it’s all about, really,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of responsibility and hard work involved, but if you can’t have fun doing it, you have no business being out here.”

But there is one question that could be a dilemma for Johnson: what happens if the championship comes down to the final round in the season finale in Pomona, California – and it comes down to Force vs. Torrence?

“May the best man or woman win,” Johnson said with a smile. “Both crew chiefs are really capable of running their cars. I will do my part over here (with Force), I’ll make sure that Richard Hogan (Torrence’s crew chief) is okay, if he needs anything, I’ll be there to help him.

“But if not, we’ll just tee it up and see who wins.”

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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.”