Tanner Gray not looking back at NHRA after first NASCAR win

DGR-Crosley
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Adrenaline is adrenaline.

But how Tanner Gray experiences it has changed dramatically since he won the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock championship.

The 20-year-old traded in the adrenaline shots that came with seven-second runs at over 200 MPH for the more drawn out adrenaline rushes of NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series.

“You get different kinds of adrenaline rushes throughout the race, like the initial start you’re pretty amped up and ready to go,” Gray told NBC Sports. “The feeling on a restart is the same feeling you’re going to get lining up for a drag race.”

That’s what Gray experienced last Saturday when he claimed his first K&N Pro Series East win in an overtime finish at South Boston Speedway, a track he’d never visited before.

After earning his first career pole, the DGR-Crosley driver led 79 laps before a late caution set up a battle with Sam Mayer, the only other driver to lead more than one lap in the race.

The two drivers banged doors as they took the white flag with Gray grabbing the lead and then the win in just his fourth NASCAR start.

The win was a “relief” for Gray after his decision to change course in his career and return to racing on ovals after having previously competed in super late models.

“I think it definitely is a little bit of a relief to know when everything lines up we have the ability and have the talent and everything to do it,” Gray said. “It’s just a matter of doing it.”

A third generation drag racer, Gray’s last two years had been spent racing Pro Stocks, culminating in becoming the youngest NHRA champion in history. But the New Mexico native always had his sights set on NASCAR, believing it provided a better future for him.

“I was pretty dead set on doing this,” Gray said. “I told my dad (former Pro Stock driver Shane Gray) whether I won the championship or even won a race, I said ‘I think this will be it.'”

As a member of David Gilliland’s DGR-Crosley team, Gray is now “100 percent” more busy than he ever was in the NHRA, splitting time between the K&N East and West and the ARCA Menards Series.

“This year I think I have close to 30-something races,” Gray said. “(Compared to) the NHRA schedule I raced in 24 races. When you go to the NHRA race you’re at the same place from Thursday to Monday … You fly in Thursday and you usually fly out Monday. But you’re at the same place.

“This week I go to Tuscon (for the K&N West race) and then fly straight from Tuscon to Toledo to test … I’m constantly moving around to different places, testing a lot more and everything else.”

Three days after his win, Gray experienced another first: he drove on a speedway for the first time in a Tuesday ARCA test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Before that the biggest thing I had been on was a half-mile,” Gray said. “It definitely took a couple of runs just to get used to getting down in the corner and stuff. It didn’t feel really fast to me. … But I didn’t feel like it really took long to get used to everything. It’s going to take me a little bit to get to where I’m competitive.”

Despite the win in South Boston, Gray still feels very much like the rookie he is.

“I feel like I make new mistakes every race,” Gray said. “You’re just constantly learning. Last week at South Boston I had a really good race, ended up getting the brakes hot there towards the end and when you get brake heat, it creates tire heat and tire heat (causes) the tire to grow and it just gets tight. Even though I won, I still did some things wrong. Everything kind of lined up there for us to have that final restart and edge out Sam (Mayer). If it wasn’t for that final caution there, Sam probably would have won.”

Gray has blinders on now that he’s on his NASCAR path. Don’t expect to see him make any return visits to a drag strip. He considers that chapter of his life over.

Why ruin a good thing?

“It ended so well for me it’s almost not worth it to go back and go again,” Gray said. “My last race there I won the championship and won my last race the same weekend and ended with the best reaction time average. A bunch of different cool stuff. … If I’m not going to do it all the time then I really don’t feel the need to go back out there.”

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.”