Third year a charm for Hinch, Hildebrand, Kimball?


The impact of three rookie quarterbacks in the 2012 National Football League season – Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III – helped change the game as their presence created a new wave of talent.

Two years ago, IndyCar featured a similar crop of three rookies who have the potential to become dynamic stars within the series. In their third year, it’s time for JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe (right) and Charlie Kimball to take the next step in their careers.

None has yet tasted a victory although they’ve been tantalizingly close. Hildebrand’s near moment of glory, which turned to heartbreak mere moments later, came in the final turn of the 2011 Indianapolis 500, when he smacked the wall while leading and after lapping Kimball.

Kimball’s best career finish of second at Toronto last year featured some spell-binding passing maneuvers, but he didn’t get the chance to battle Ryan Hunter-Reay for the win as the race ended under caution.

Hinchcliffe is one of IndyCar’s most dynamic and engaging personalities, but that doesn’t do justice to his determination and poise on track. Still, although he broke onto the podium in his second year on two occasions, he has yet to finish better than third.

Some of the long-established veterans in the series had at least one win under their belts right now. Dario Franchitti (1998), Tony Kanaan (1999) and Will Power (2007) each won their first race in their second seasons, Helio Castroneves (2000) in his third, while Scott Dixon (2001) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2003) each scored a win during their rookie year.

It’s been since 2007 that a first-year driver has won a race in either the IndyCar or Champ Car ranks. Robert Doornbos at Mont-Tremblant, Quebec in 2007 beat Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power to that win in the Champ Car series, the last year it ran before folding into IndyCar prior to 2008.

Hildebrand and Hinchcliffe have new engineering talent at their disposal this year. Hinchcliffe’s 2012 engineer Tino Belli has shifted, incidentally, to Panther Racing for Hildebrand. Luckily for Hinchcliffe, he is reunited with engineer Craig Hampson, who helped aid his development during his rookie season at Newman/Haas Racing in 2011; that year, “Hinch” beat Hildebrand and Kimball for rookie-of-the-year honors.

Kimball’s now more fully integrated into the single Chip Ganassi Racing umbrella, as the de facto third car from the main team rather than one of two from the satellite operation. Kimball’s 2012 teammate Graham Rahal went to drive with his dad and so Kimball should work closer to the Dixon/Franchitti Target squad.

The rookie crop has been sparse since they all entered in 2011. Although Simon Pagenaud was IndyCar’s rookie-of-the-year last year, he was a rookie in name only given his prior experience levels of driving in Champ Car and sports cars the four years previous to that. In truth, Firestone Indy Lights rookie Josef Newgarden was really the only true “first-timer,” and despite some flashes he struggled to garner any significant results.

With an increased schedule, there are more opportunities for any of these three to break through. They did a rather humorous video last year playing off each other in introducing themselves, which is below.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

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.”