First in a two-part series
There is no better way to begin publishing a new column for Lime Rock Park than to recognize Chris Dyson's exceptional 2021 season in his #20 ALTWELL CBD Ford Mustang. Dyson clinched the 2021 Trans Am title with his win at Virginia International Raceway in September, his seventh win of the year. On his way to the championship, he won the 2021 Trans Am round at the Lime Rock Park Memorial Day Classic in spectacular style, following on his 2019 win at the same event.
Chris is, of course, a favorite son of Lime Rock, for both workers and fans. Headquartered in nearby Poughkeepsie, NY, he has on occasion referred to both our precious jewel of a racetrack and the wonderful Watkins Glen facility as his home tracks. No problem there, and in fact the opposite is true. What better advantage than to feel like you're on home turf for three of the eleven rounds comprising the title chase?
I got the opportunity to visit with Chris at the Dyson Racing shops recently, after he had clinched the season championship at VIR but before the final round of the 2021 Trans Am series in Texas, at the Circuit of the Americas.
Dyson on his 2021 Lime Rock Park TA Victory
Somebody didn’t get the memo.
Memorial Day weekend is supposed to be that first warm and sunny holiday weekend of the year. At LRP in 2021, it was uncharacteristically rainy and cold. When I pulled in to the lot at 7:00 a.m. on race day morning, the temp on my dash read 39°. It never went above 45° that day. The Trans Am race had a wet start followed by drying conditions.
Dyson was starting second, with his championship rival Ernie Francis Jr. on pole.
There’s an old saying in racing that you can’t win a race in the first corner, but you can lose it there. Dyson turned that saying upside down with a spectacular pass through Big Bend (turns 1 and 2) on the outside of Francis on the first lap of the race. With Dyson to his outside, Francis caught some standing water and had a lazy 180° spin between turns 2 and 3.
Dyson managed to not only avoid the incident, but take the lead. He never relinquished that lead, winning his second consecutive LRP TA event in a season that was still young. Although he recovered well from the spin, Francis was unable to mount a serious challenge for the win.
I asked Dyson about that pass when we spoke.
“Some of my most formative memories as a kid were out at Lime Rock on the hillside, standing trackside,” he said. “One of the things that always amazed me about Lime Rock was how quickly guys were able to go in the wet, obviously taking a different approach to the lines.”
“I had seen Butch Leitzinger do an outside pass at Big Bend, actually in the dry, years ago on a start. And I said, ‘Y’know, that’s not a bad idea.’”
“We were starting at a low speed for the wet start of the race. Generally, you want to run a middle line in drying conditions, and towards the outside in fully wet conditions.”
“I happened to be on the outside of the front row. It was a good spot to be in,” he continued. “I sort of rolled in. It took a lot of trust. Racing with Ernie Francis, you know that you’re going to race hard, but it will be fair and even-handed. It turned out that way. I was fortunate, because as I came around I think it surprised him that I was on the outside. But he pinched down into the water on his right front exiting 2. That was bad for him, but fortunate for me because I had just about cleared him at that point.”
“It was definitely a commitment pass, but knowing Ernie and knowing the track, I knew I needed to get something done early.”
Andy Lally in the #21 Car
Drama seems to accompany Dyson in the days leading up to the Lime Rock round of Trans AM every year.
In 2019, he didn’t receive medical clearance to run the event until the last minute, having been injured and hospitalized following a crash in a Silver Crown car at the Indiana Fairgrounds the previous weekend. He was walking gingerly that Memorial Day weekend, but driving hard, and went on to win the TA event.
2020, of course, saw the TA race postponed, and then cancelled due to COVID.
Then, in 2021, Humaid Masaood, the driver of the second Dyson Racing TA car, became unavailable on the Monday leading up to the racing weekend.
Dyson brought in the great Andy Lally, a master of sports and GT cars (actually, anything with four wheels, and sometimes even blades -- he is accomplished in luge racing as well). Lally came in to cover the second Dyson car for the LRP event, and did an outstanding job, running in 2nd position for virtually the entire race. The perfect wingman.
I asked Chris how it came to be that he was able to get someone with Andy’s credentials into that car on such short notice.
“Andy and I have known each other for 20 years,” said Dyson. “We’ve been great friends and contemporaries coming up through the sport. We’re both New Yorkers. We both have a massive love for the northeastern tracks -- I think we would both list Lime Rock and Watkins Glen in our top five of circuits around the world.”
“We’ve always kept in touch. Andy ran with Claudio Burtin’s TA team at Watkins Glen back in 2017. He did a great job, and raved about how much he wanted to be back in a TA car.”
“As it happened, Humaid Masaood had to make a last-minute cancelation for Lime Rock,” he continued.
“I called Andy. He was doing a tire test up at Watkins Glen. I said, ‘Oh, you’re at Watkins Glen? Good! Do you think you wouldn’t mind driving down? We can set a hotel up for you. You can come down after your test on Thursday.’”
“He came in and did a great job,” said Dyson. “He was fantastic. He got right in the car and was instantly fast. I think he did a superb job for us.”
“That open line continues. It’s not the last race he’ll do for us, that’s for sure.”
I told Chris how, as an observer that day, it seemed to me to be critical that he have a strong compatriot in the second car, given his favorable position in the early-season TA championship points standings.
“It was,” he replied, “And honestly we’ve always had a big presence at Lime Rock. James Weaver wasn’t joking when people would ask him, ‘What’s the most important race of the year?’ James would unfailingly say, ‘Lime Rock.’ People would look at him askance, and they would say, ‘Well…Sebring? Daytona? Petit Le Mans? Any of those races?’ And he’d reply, ‘Nope. Lime Rock is the most important because that’s where the most people from our family, and the team, and the Dyson extended network come. They see what we do in person.’ That was a strong statement, but I think it’s absolutely true.”
“We didn’t want to not run two cars at the Lime Rock race,” he continued. “We were committed, we had the crew, and I said, ‘Look, if Humaid can’t make it we want to make sure we get the best possible result.’ Not just for the championship, but just for the team. It really is home for us out there.”
Dyson on his first Trans Am Championship
Chris Dyson is going to need to make some room on the somewhat crowded trophy shelves at Dyson Racing to make room for whatever he receives as a tangible record of his 2021 Trans Am Championship. He won the LMP675 championship in 2003, and the LMP1 championship in 2011, both in the IMSA American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Those two trophies, along with dozens of race wins, and championship and race win trophies from his father Rob’s storied career, already occupy almost every available square inch on those shelves.
Since its beginning in 1966, the Trans Am series has produced a long list of champions that are icons of the sport. During our visit, I pointed out to him that winning his first TA title puts Chris' name in the books with Mark Donahue, Parnelli Jones, George Follmer, Wally Dallenbach, Bob Tullius, Scott Pruett, Boris Said -- and the list goes on.
I asked him how he felt about this championship in particular, and also how it feels to put his TA title next to his other two titles in dramatically different cars.
He said, “It’s really meaningful for exactly the reason you said. Certainly for me, Tommy Kendall, Scotty Pruett, Scott Sharp, Dorsey Schroeder, Ron Fellows -- the guys I grew up watching in the ‘80s and ‘90s -- it’s great to be alongside them in the record books.”
“The Trans Am series has been going on for over 50 years. And that’s 50 years in a straight-line continuum. It’s a series that everyone knows and recognizes. I’m staggered all the time by the recognition that the series still occupies, even amongst folks that aren’t necessarily race fans. When I tell people that I race in the Trans Am series, there’s a lot pre-existing knowledge of the series. I think that’s based on the fact that it’s got a tremendous heritage, and historically it’s had a lot of mindshare in the market.”
“People in racing know exactly what Trans Am is,” he continued. “It has never diverted from its mission. It has never had to apologize for what it is. It has never retreated. I think there’s respect that comes with accomplishments here.”
“I would say for those reasons it’s a huge accomplishment. You’re on the shoulders of giants a lot of times in this sport. I know that we’re only here for a short time racing, and really only a short time on this earth. It is good to be mentioned and considered alongside those guys.”
“For me, every single championship is meaningful. This is my third major championship, and we’ve finished second in quite a few as well. Across the board, winning in IMSA was a dream come true for me because that’s where the family heritage was. And we did that twice.”
“When you win the championship, it’s a great relief,” he said. “You pour your heart and soul into just being consistent and executing. Not that we play it safe, but when you’re racing for points, you’re conscious of not only every competitor, but also what you’re doing all weekend long. In Trans Am, you’re awarded points for qualifying, for fast lap, for most laps led, plus the race results. So it’s a composite.”
“To come in and do as well as we’ve done, I’m really grateful for it.”
Chris went on to compliment his primary rival for the 2021 championship, Ernie Francis Jr.
“I think Ernie Francis Jr. is one of the best ever in the Trans Am series, so to have beaten him and ended his streak is meaningful to me because it matters. It matters when you’re going up against the best in anything. To come out of it with your name alongside theirs is a great feeling.”
Looking Ahead to 2022
I speculated that with his incredible successes of 2021, Chris’ phone must’ve been ringing off the hook lately with opportunities for 2022. I asked whether he intended to defend his TA championship next year.
“Well right now that’s my plan,” he replied. “I love running programs out of the shop. We’ve got a team that’s one of the best in the business, we’ve kept our core together, and everyone here is hungry to do more.”
“I’m open to opportunities,” he said. “I’m frankly selective now about what I can do. I’ve got a lot of other obligations outside of the car that probably keep me from saying ‘yes’ to as many things as I get considered to do. But I’m just trying to keep myself fit for any opportunity that comes along.”
“The last five years have been so exciting, because not only have we done the Trans Am championship here, but I’ve done some USAC racing, I’ve raced in the Silver Crown, and I raced in the World Endurance Championship.”
“All that came after a period where I wasn’t sure if or when I was going to race again. I took a couple years off back in 2016 and 2017, and really since 2018 it’s been a hell of a ride. I’ve just enjoyed it so much. I savor every chance I can get in a competitive car.”
“I’m not going to lie to you -- I’m not satisfied with winning just one,” he continued. “I want to win more. Right now we’re kind of turning the page and looking at 2022 already, and focusing on the testing program for the fall and winter. I just want to stay fit and keep doing this.”
“I’m fortunate to have had the career I’ve had. I’m obviously a few years on from my first championship. It means more to me now than winning did when I was younger. I think I’ve done more races than I’m going to do, but it’s just nice to reaffirm that you’re still at the top level.”
Anyone who watched him race in 2021 knows that Chris Dyson definitely still has his game.
Words by Andrew Johnson
Image by Chris Clark
Andrew Johnson is a from-the-cradle motorsports fanatic that has followed sports car racing since childhood. As a young boy, he often stood at the magazine rack to read titles such as Sports Car Illustrated and Road & Track while his mother shopped for groceries. He has been a corner worker for Lime Rock Park (and occasionally for the Rolex 24 in Daytona) for many years. This is the first in a series of columns he has created relating to Lime Rock Park in particular and to sports cars and motorsports in general.