MARYVILLE, Tenn. – One dare was the catalyst for a two-decade-long way of life for Heather Lyne, crew chief for dirt late model veteran Dennis Erb Jr.
It was a push to the closed door of an unknown dream waiting to become reality.
She opened that door in June of 2001 by walking into Erb’s race shop, having never met him, and volunteering herself to join his race team.
Twenty years later, she continues to be his sole crew member and inevitable crew chief on the World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model tour.
In that time span, she’s also juggled managing a full-time job as an electrical engineer for a defense contractor with the military – a job she’s held for more than 20 years.
“We put bombs on bad guys and warheads for foreheads, and bring the good guys home,” she said with pride.
Her passion and drive for the full-throttle lifestyle have been instilled in her since she was young.
“I’m the tomboy of the family,” Lyne said. “I climbed trees. I played with mud pies. I played with GI Joe, not Cabbage Patch dolls. I always did the opposite of what my sister did. I didn’t like Barbies. I decapitated her Barbies (said with a chuckle). I’ve always liked and had that tendency to be outdoors and do something with my hands.
“Something about the dirt world that always intrigued me.”
Her passion for racing was ignited by watching NASCAR on the weekends with her father. Eventually, her passion for the sport exceeded his. While most kids are brought to a racetrack by their parents, Lyne was the one who dragged her dad to his first dirt track.
Tired of spending her time at the lake, she looked for a new adventure. She borrowed her parent’s car one day after school and went to the nearest dirt track in town – in Shawano, WI. There, she fell in love. The kind of love you can’t help but want to share as it builds in your heart.
“I was like, ‘Dad, you’ve got to go.’ He’s like, ‘Ahh, dirt…’ I’m like, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’ve got to go,’” she exclaimed.
Once she got him to the track, he shared the same joy that lit her spirit. First, he sponsored a car. Then, their weekends went from watching racing together to working on a car together. He bought his own limited Late Model and Heather was there every race, helping turn the wrenches.
However, after a few years of racing, her mother decided it was time for her father to hang up his helmet – she wanted her weekends back. Lyne wasn’t ready to hang up her wrenches, though.
While talking with her father one night, he proposed a dare. Lyne saw Erb on TV a few times, running his rookie season with the Hav-A-Tampa Late Models, and realized he lived nearby in Carpentersville, IL.
“Just in conversation, I was talking with my dad and he said, ‘You’re not going to be brave enough to go down there to that shop and introduce yourself and say, ‘Hey, if you ever want any help, call me up and let me know,’” she said.
Still dressed in her business clothes, she left work one day soon after and did just that. Then, the journey began.
“I didn’t know her or anything at the time, but she lived in my hometown,” Erb said. “She came down one day and asked if I needed any help. At first, I didn’t know what she was really going to do. She’s definitely been a great help and has worked very hard at it and she is dedicated to it. I can go off and do whatever I want to do and know my stuff is getting done right. That’s a big lift off of me.”
For the majority of Erb’s career, which includes six World of Outlaws victories, three consecutive Summer Nationals championships and a win at The Dream at Eldora Speedway, Lyne has been his sole crew member on the #28 car.
On the day she first walked into his shop, Erb told her he was racing at Pecatonica Raceway during the week and she could show up if she wanted to. She did and didn’t hesitate to jump in, jacking up the car, putting on the battery charger, making sure there was fuel and changing tires. Eventually, her responsibilities grew as she continued to learn and Erb gained trust in her.
“That first race, he handed me a left rear tire to put on the car and I’m like, it’s leaking air somewhere,” she said. “I rolled it back in the trailer and said, ‘This tire has something wrong with it, it can’t go on. It’s got a leak in it somewhere.’ I guess after that he realized I’m not going to just do whatever he tells me. I’m actually going to pay attention and figure things out. I went to the shop every night and started learning things from him.”
While her job as an electrical engineer entailed working on several sophisticated systems – such as infrared countermeasures and targeting and navigating systems on aircrafts that can put bombs through a very small bathroom window with accuracy and without taking out any collateral damage – she said there wasn’t much she could take from it that could help with setups. However, engineering is the art of solving problems efficiently.
So, while she may not always have an answer to Erb’s problems, her background helped her talk through issues with him and come up with a solution.
Her career choice also familiarized her with the male-dominant atmosphere of motorsports.
“I was raised to believe and do anything you can,” she said. “You’re capable of doing anything you want as long as you put your heart and mind to it. 110 percent. I know I’m in a male dominant sport. I’m in a male dominant field. I work with military pilots. Kind of all guys. Doesn’t faze me at all.
“I just always liked that competitive nature. I always enjoyed racing.”
Lyne doesn’t see herself as “the one girl crew chief” on the tour. She sees herself as just another member of the Series. She isn’t looking for special treatment and doesn’t want it.
“I don’t expect everybody to change just because I’m here,” she said. “I just want to be treated fairly and like any other person in this sport.”
Having her name up in lights was never something she strived for. She’s happy with hiding behind a toolbox or under the hood of the car. However, there is one aspect of being recognized as one of the few women on the tour that she finds rewarding.
“What’s rewarding is when I have a parent come and introduce their daughter to me,” Lyne said. “And they say, ‘She’s interested. She wants to know how you got into it and why you did it. Is it hard because there are so many guys?’ So, it’s nice to say I kind of am a little bit of a role model for that younger generation to potentially bring more women into the sport.”
When she first started working on Erb’s team, Erb said there were probably a few raised eyebrows, but he never cared what other people thought. He knew no one in the pit area worked harder than her.
“Anybody knows over the years and where we’re at right now, she’s definitely one of the hardest working people there,” he said. “I do this for a living and am fortunate to have her helping me out. Anybody wants to sit back and watch now; you’ll see how hard she works. I can walk away, and she can change a motor and get it ready and done.
“She’s had a lot of years at it.”
Being on the road for 20 years, traveling across the country, has brought several highs and lows for Lyne and Erb. She’ll never forget winning The Dream at Eldora or the three consecutive Summer Nationals championships – especially with it being just the two of them.
But she’ll also never forget the hard times, like breaking down on the side of the road and having to rely on others to help then get to the next event.
In an odd, yet fortunate, turn of events, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her company to have her and others work from home more, which, as long as she has internet, can be anywhere. So, since March of last year, Lyne has had the benefit of being able to work while on the road.
Like it’s been since January, home for her most of the time is in the team’s truck.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of long hours,” Lyne said. “But if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be doing it.”