NHRA: Final race won’t be an easy ride for Pro Stock Motorcycle title contenders

Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader Matt Smith. Photos courtesy NHRA
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With one race remaining in the 2018 season, three of the four major NHRA pro championships are still in play.

Steve Torrence clinched the Top Fuel crown last weekend at Las Vegas.

Heading into this coming Sunday’s Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, 191 points remain eligible to be won by any driver in the three remaining pro classes that remain to be decided.

In Funny Car, JR Todd has a 74-point lead over defending champ Robert Hight. 2016 champ Ron Capps (-165) and Tim Wilkerson (-186) are also still mathematically in it, but just barely.

In Pro Stock, going for his first championship, Tanner Gray has a commanding 140-point edge over five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., and a 149-point edge over two-time champ Erica Enders. Drew Skillman (-170) and Vincent Nobile (-179) are still in the battle mathematically, but odds are slim.

The lone remaining ultra-close points battle can be found in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Smith holds a four-point edge over defending PSM champ Eddie Krawiec, LE Tonglet is 61 points back, Hector Arana Jr. is 64 points behind, while still in contention mathematically are Jerry Savoie (-101) and four-time PSM champ Andrew Hines (-113).

Matt Smith

It’s the two-wheeled battle that has a lot of racing fans turning their attention to. Smith is going for his third Pro Stock Motorcycle championship and his first since 2013.

“Yes there is pressure,” Smith said. “I feel like I should be running better than we are but I did stay over on Monday (after the Las Vegas race) and test.

“I feel like I have a better handle on it now. The pressure isn’t from whom I’m up against as far as the championship. The pressure is from not running to the expectations of what I think we should be running.”

But Smith, who is not lamenting the pressure he’s facing.

“My mentality is to go win the race,” Smith said. “Like I said at the beginning of this Countdown (the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs), if I can go win 3 races in the Countdown we should be able to win the Championship.”

Smith has won two of the first five Countdown events (St. Louis and Charlotte). So if his prediction holds, a win at Pomona would likely indeed clinch the title for him.

Even with the pressure on him, Smith is trying to put both Krawiec and his other challengers out of mind, focusing not on how many points he can earn at Pomona, but solely upon winning the race.

“The biggest competitor is Team Harley,” Smith said. “Eddie (Krawiec) has two teammates which serve as blockers when it’s this type of situation.

Eddie Krawiec

“My mentality, my goal, my focus is to win the race. If we do that then we will win the championship.”

And then there’s Krawiec, who knows he’s up against a tough competitor in Smith.

“Anytime you head to Pomona with championship hopes it adds a little extra pressure,” Krawiec said. “It’s do or die since it’s the last race of the season.

“You try to do everything the same for every race. If you’re fighting for the championship at this point, everything you’ve done up to this point must have been working so no reason to change it now.”

Krawiec has adopted a Smith-like mentality. He’s not letting the pressure get to him, nor Smith’s position as No. 1 in the standings.

“I am my biggest competition,” Krawiec said. “I just need to stay focused and do what I know how to do.”

While points-and-a-half (191 points) is a plus, it can also be a minus, Krawiec said.

“Points and half can help and hurt,” Krawiec said. “You have to make sure each person that is within 30 points either way you have that extra 1 point over them.

“This way it stretches out the more then one round (of eliminations) possibility. It’s easier said then done, but if you go with the plan of just winning the race and however it comes out in the end, you will have the best results you could have got.”

LE Tonglet

Tonglet is also feeling pressure.

“I do feel that there is pressure heading into the last race, especially because I am 3rd in points,” Tonglet said.

And like the two riders he’s chasing, he’s going to the season finale the same way he has in all previous races this season.

“I do not prepare any different for any of the races,” Tonglet said. “I feel if you change something then you mess yourself up.

“My biggest competitor is defiantly Matt (Smith), Eddie (Krawiec), and Hector (Arana Jr.). All 4 of us have a legitimate shot and we will give it our all.

“We are heading to Pomona to try to get every single bonus point and qualify #1. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Hector Arana Jr.

Last but not least is Arana Jr.

“I’m trying not to think about the championship,” he said. “I’m focusing on winning the race and the rest will fall into place.

“We will prepare the same way as Vegas and focus on going one round at a time.”

Like his three fellow riders, Arana calls himself his biggest competitor in Pomona. And if there’s anyone that points-and-a-half can benefit the most, it’s Arana.

“I am going to try to be the fastest bike every time I go up to the line,” he said. “Points and a half can definitely be a game changer.”

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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
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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.”