EVANSVILLE, IN – Oct. 17, 2007 – Dennis Erb Jr. will never forget his 2007 season.
“By far, this has been the best year ever for me,” said Erb, a 35-year-old, fulltime professional dirt Late Model driver from Carpentersville, Ill. “It’s just been unbelievable.”
Erb was the king of the UMP DIRTcar Racing Late Model world in ’07, becoming the first driver in the organization’s history to win both the grueling Summernationals tour and national points championships in the same season.
Of course, capturing the $25,000 Summernationals crown for the first time in his career was his primary objective for the campaign. Adding a first-ever UMP DIRTcar Racing national title, worth $20,000, to his spectacular 23-win (and still counting) season was an unexpected bonus.
“We didn’t have any plans to do it,” Erb said of chasing the national crown. “We basically started a month late (his first Northern start came in late April) because our new trailer wasn’t ready when the UMP points started (in late March), so we just went out and did our normal thing at the beginning of the year.
“We were really concentrating on the Summernationals this year. That was our goal – we put our minds to it and tried to get everything prepared to win that. When we ended up with that championship, it really made me feel good.
“Then, after we got out of the Summernationals, we realized we had a pretty good shot at the national deal,” he added. “We decided to go for it, focus on that and see where we’d end up.”
Erb was hundreds of points behind leader Wes Steidinger of Fairbury, Ill., when he began his pursuit of the national championship, making it appear unlikely that he could rally over the final two-and-a-half months of the season. There were even some who told Erb that he had no chance, but that only fueled his desire.
“When people say that it can’t be done, that gives you a little bit of extra incentive to go out there and do the best you can do,” said Erb, who turned 35 on Oct. 12. “It wasn’t like we were out to prove them wrong, but we knew we could still win it. With only your best 50 races counting (to determine the national title) and the way you got bonus points for good car counts (a 40-car field represented maximum points), we just had to keep plugging away at it.”
Erb caught fire after turning his attention to accumulating national points, winning nine times from July 20 to Aug. 31. His explosion included four August victories at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway; three wins at Kamp Motor Speedway in Boswell, Ind.; and single triumphs at Kankakee (Ill.) Motor Speedway and Vermilion County Speedway in Danville, Ill.
While Steidinger by no means fell into a slump – the 24-year-old won a career-high 20 features this season – he couldn’t hold off Erb’s charge. Erb grabbed the points lead after the weekend of Sept. 15-17 and didn’t look back. He clinched the title the last weekend of September when he pushed his edge over Steidinger to 41 points, allowing him to run the season-ending UMP DIRTcar Racing Fall Nationals on Oct. 5-6 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, without any championship pressure
A third-place finish in Eldora’s 40-lap UMP DIRTcar Racing Fall Nationals A-Main unofficially left Erb’s final winning margin over Steidinger at 53 points (3,390-3,337).
Erb said the full magnitude of his historic UMP DIRTcar Racing accomplishment will “take a while to sink in,” but he’s already quite clear about what propelled him to so much success this season.
An owner/operator in the truest sense, Erb knows he wouldn’t have been able to enter nearly 90 events – including 67 under UMP DIRTcar Racing-sanction – without the assistance of his primary sponsors and benefactors.
“To make this thing work,” said Erb, “it takes people like Lee Thomason from Thomason Express; Ed Petroff from Petroff Towing; Johnny Johnson from J&J Steel; C.J. Rayburn (Erb’s chassis builder), who will give you anything he can to help you out; and Malcuit (Race Engines), who’s done a great job for us.
“Without all those people’s help and support, there’s no way we could be out there doing this. I owe a lot of thanks to them.”
Erb also would have a hard time performing at such a high level without the aid of Heather Lyne, who serves as his chief – and usually only – mechanic. Lyne, a 35-year-old electrical engineer for defense contractor Northrop Grumman, volunteered to help Erb in June 2001 and has been his right-hand “woman” ever since. She uses comp time and vacation days from her job to travel the circuit with Erb.
“We work pretty well together,” Erb said of Lyne, a favorite to win the 2007 UMP DIRTcar Racing Late Model Crew Chief of the Year Award that is voted upon by the organization’s membership. “She knows what I want done, and she knows how to do it. She’s definitely the hardest worker I’ve ever had.”
Erb and Lyne combined to prepare cars that rarely failed to finish races this season – the real key to Erb’s championships. He didn’t drop out of a single Summernationals event (25 races made up this year’s ‘Hell Tour’), and his worst finish in a UMP DIRTcar Racing event all season was 14th.
“The big thing is, we didn’t really have any mechanical failures,” bottom-lined Erb. “Everything held together real good for us. If there was a problem, we actually caught it before it caused anything. We just kept up on our maintenance.
“When you can finish all the time, it definitely helps when you’re running for points.”
Since he has been making his living as a fulltime dirt Late Model driver for the past eight years, Erb understands that he must sacrifice plenty to be successful. But the payoff is a season like 2007.
“You give up everything for this deal,” said Erb, whose wife, Michelle, supports his racing endeavors (the couple doesn’t have any children). “There ain’t much free time to do anything, because you’re on the road so much, especially during the Summernationals, and you’re always working on your cars.
“So it’s big to get out there and run good. That’s what you have to do to keep things going.”
And for Erb, it’s extremely satisfying that the biggest glory of his career season came under the UMP DIRTcar Racing banner.
“I started running Late Models (in 1990) and basically grew up racing UMP tracks when (the organization) was growing too,” said Erb, who had previously finished as high as second in the national Late Model points standings (2006). “I’ve been a part of UMP and watched it grow over the years.
“Heck, I remember going and running some Summernationals shows with one car, traveling up-and-down the road following (six-time Summernationals champ) Billy Moyer with his big semi (hauler) – and now we have the equipment to go out and win championships too.
“I guess,” concluded Erb, “that growing up in UMP and finally winning a championship – winning both championships – means a lot to me and I think says a lot about what we can do.”
Erb will receive his points-fund cash and be crowned champion during the annual UMP DIRTcar Racing ‘Night of Champions’ Awards Banquet on Jan. 12, 2008, at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield, Ill.
For more information on UMP DIRTcar Racing, visit www.umpracing.com.
UMP DIRTcar Racing Late Model National Champions (1984-2007):
2007 – Dennis Erb Jr., Carpentersville, Ill.
2006 – Randy Korte, Highland, Ill.
2005 – Rodney Melvin, Benton, Ill.
2004 – Rodney Melvin, Benton, Ill.
2003 – Rodney Melvin, Benton, Ill.
2002 – Terry English, Benton, Ky.
2001 – Rodney Melvin, Benton, Ill.
2000 – Ed Dixon, Washington, Mo.
1999 – Ed Dixon, Washington, Mo.
1998 – Mark Faust, Breese, Ill.
1997 – Randy Korte, Highland, Ill.
1996 – Donnie Tudor – Shawneetown, Ill.
1995 – Tony Izzo Jr., Bridgeview, Ill.
1994 – Ed Dixon, Washington, Mo.
1993 – Randy Sellars, Mayfield, Ky.
1992 – Kevin Weaver, Gibson City, Ill.
1991 – Kevin Claycomb, Vincennes, Ind.
1990 – Bob Pierce, Danville, Ill.
1989 – Jim Leka, Buffalo, Ill.
1988 – Jim Curry, Norman, Ind.
1987 – John Gill, Mitchell, Ind.
1986 – John Gill, Mitchell, Ind.
1985 – Gary Webb, Blue Grass, Iowa
1984 – Gary Webb, Blue Grass, Iowa