After 15 years, Green Grand Prix still thriving at The Glen

AP
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — It’s a cold day in early April, rain and sleet are pelting the garages at Watkins Glen International and snow is on the way. Bob Gillespie is undeterred as he puts the finishing touches on the Green Grand Prix.

Rain or shine, the rally will go on for the 15th straight year, which astounds Gillespie, its creator.

“This event was way ahead of its time when it began. Now, it has finally come of age,” said the 69-year-old retired teacher and motorsports artist. “I’m feeling a sense of pride and appreciation for all the volunteers involved and all their hard work. It’s an absolutely unique event, and the beauty of it is so many of these volunteers and participants are students.”

Essentially a fuel mileage rally for alternate-fuel vehicles and hybrids conducted at the storied track in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, the Green Grand Prix is the only event of its kind in the United States sanctioned and insured by the Sports Car Club of America. The goal is to promote environmentally friendly transportation, educate the public about alternative fuels as the automobile market worldwide shifts toward electric models, and help make the Northeast a center for emerging clean vehicle technologies.

That it’s staged at the place road racing came of age in America in the late 1940s – with the blessing of WGI president Michael Printup – makes it even more special. Nobody seems to care that the goal is to average 45 miles per hour.

“I love it,” said Bruce Pick, who drove to The Glen from Connecticut and competed with brother Steve in a 2000 Honda Insight, the company’s first hybrid. “Oh, really, I can drive on the Watkins Glen track and shoot for fuel economy? I mean, why would I not go?”

In its early years, when the price of gasoline was hovering at around $4 a gallon – it’s above that today in California – the Green Grand Prix attracted drivers with all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary vehicles. There was Robert “Chip” Beam and his wood-chip-powered 1988 Isuzu Trooper, Jory Squibb’s Moonbeam Microcar , a biodiesel-powered Harley-Davidson motorcycle, even a diesel-powered three-wheeler dubbed the Dirigo .

Bill Buchholz, a boat builder from Maine, helped design and construct the unique Dirigo, which has a metal roll cage encased in quarter-inch planks of western red cedar and has achieved nearly 100 miles on a gallon of fuel.

“I had this feeling that with every generation since the 1960s there’s always been some lunatic fringe building interesting cars with progressive ideas,” said Buchholz, who parked the Dirigo last year. “It was just my turn – and the rest of the guys I was doing it with – to bring up that message. I think there’s just a groundswell of progressive thinking.”

The crazy vehicles don’t show up so much anymore, and it’s understandable. Toyota, whose Upstate Toyota Dealers Association is a primary sponsor of the Green Grand Prix, has sold more than 13 million hybrid vehicles since it introduced the Prius in 1997. Two days before the Green Grand Prix, the Japanese automaker announced it was allowing royalty-free access to nearly 24,000 patents for its hybrid vehicles, a move aimed at increasing the size of the worldwide market for gasoline-electric hybrids. Industry experts predict that sales of vehicles with alternative drive systems will top 2 million next year.

All of which makes the Green Grand Prix very relevant, especially since so many students are now involved – more than 1,000 students have participated in the event. Alfred State Motorsports Technology is a regular and this year brought two bright yellow, all-electric, open-cockpit, single-seat race cars, which finished first and tied for third in the autocross competition after the rally. A 2012 Chevy Volt was second, while a Tesla Model 3 was fifth.

“I think it’s a great way to expand the audience and do the education for the public,” Toyota’s Brian Kiser said. “As a company, we love this direction – help support these initiatives but educate the public on environmental issues and alternative fuel.”

Mike DiGiacomo epitomized what Gillespie envisioned when the Green Grand Prix started. DiGiacomo and his team from SUNY Broome Community College used their ingenuity to win the most fuel-efficient vehicle award. They took an abandoned 20-year-old Chevy Metro LSI that had been in a flood and transformed it into a full electric commuter using battery packs from a Nissan Leaf and solar roof panels that still picked up enough of a charge in the awful weather to allow the car to average the equivalent of 179 miles per gallon.

“That was awesome,” DiGiacomo said. “It was the culmination of a semester of everybody working together and hard work paying off. We did a really good job. Our little, bitty eight-man team was more efficient than the guys at Tesla.”

All of that was music to the ears of Alfred State professor Jason Kellogg.

“We’re heading that way (toward electric cars),” he said, “whether you like it or not.”

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.”