Tony Stewart will race a Top Alcohol dragster in his NHRA debut at Las Vegas

Tony Stewart NHRA debut
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart will make his drag racing debut this weekend at the NHRA Nevada Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Stewart will compete for McPhillips Racing in a Top Alcohol dragster – the equivalent of NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series.

“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely going to be a big learning curve, and to do it at a national event right out of the gate adds to the challenge. But it’s something I’ve really been wanting to do and I’ve been working toward this moment. I’m not taking it lightly. It’s a serious business and I’m going to be as prepared as possible when I get to Las Vegas.”

Stewart is guaranteed a minimum of four passes at Vegas beginning with Q1 and Q2 on Friday, Q3 on Saturday and at least the first round of eliminations on Sunday. Although he has a Top Fuel license – earned over two multi-day sessions at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and a handful of tests over the last two years – the 51-year-old felt Top Alcohol was a smarter entry point.

“I’ve been a rookie in a lot of different cars over the course of my career. That part won’t be new, but the drag racing side is so different from anything I’ve driven in the past. It’s all about procedures and knowing the routine and doing it the same every time,” Stewart said. “In all the other forms of racing, you blow a corner and you fix it and do better the next lap. There is no next lap if you screw up in these cars. You have to do it the same every time for the team to be able to tune the car the right way, and you have to do your job. You have to cut good lights and stay in the groove.”

The three-time NASCAR champion, one-time IndyCar champion and USAC triple crown winner is in his first season of NHRA ownership. Tony Stewart Racing fields a Top Fuel dragster for his wife, Leah Pruett, and a Funny Car for Matt Hagan. Both drivers have qualified for NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship, and Pruett gave the team its first win in July.

“There are a lot of things people don’t think about just by watching on television. I’ve learned a lot from our teams this year,” Stewart said. “I’m sure it will be sensory overload, but you have to start somewhere.”

Stewart’s drag racing debut will have sponsorship from longtime partner Mobil 1, which was both a sponsor and technical partner for him when he won his third Cup title in 2011. Stewart’s partnership with Mobil 1 encompasses Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR and Tony Stewart Racing in the NHRA and World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series.

“Throughout his storied career, Tony has been known for his commitment and dedication to his craft, which is why he’s long been a perfect fit as a Mobil 1 partner,” said Rob Shearer, an ExxonMobil marketing director. “His desire to be exceptional has always aligned with our goal to do the same.

“His laser focus and intense competitive spirit that we all know so well will be on display once again, but this time on a quarter-mile dragstrip. We’re looking forward to cheering him on in his NHRA debut.”

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.”