Simona de Silvestro carving her own path in IndyCar

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Danica Patrick’s rise to prominence in motorsports has been both a blessing and a curse for fellow female drivers. Those wanting to carve a path as “racers who happen to be female,” rather than simply “female racers” who use their sex appeal to their advantage, have found the road tougher to advance up the ladder.

This is where Simona de Silvestro enters the equation. She’s one of a handful of non-Danica women who’s been in IndyCar since Patrick’s memorable 2005 arrival (others include Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge and Milka Duno). But along with Fisher, who has since retired as a driver and now is a team owner, de Silvestro has been the only other woman driver with staying power. The others have struggled to put full-season budgets together, or been in the wrong environment at the wrong time.

Her resolve has been tested. At any point in the last three years, de Silvestro, who’s still only 24, could have quit. She’s been on fire twice (Texas, 2010 and a practice accident at Indianapolis in 2011) and with woefully down on power Lotus engines a year ago, never stood a chance at being competitive. Her and former Formula One race winner Jean Alesi’s best laps were anywhere from 12-16mph off the leaders, and both were parked less than a dozen laps into the 500-mile race.

Rather than bitch about the situation, de Silvestro said the year out of the spotlight gave her peace and resiliency. She could ease back into racing on ovals and regain confidence.

“Last year helped me a lot on the ovals to be honest,” she said Wednesday. “I was skeptical about oval stuff. I think maybe last year really helped me. I had absolutely no pressure, and I got comfortable. Now I go out and feel confident with what I learned last year. It’s been rewarding to myself. When you have a big hit like that, it takes a while to get it back.”

Her switch to KV Racing Technology afforded her the chance at a Chevrolet engine, the mentoring and pushing from teammate Tony Kanaan – her first in IndyCar (and first since “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz in Formula Atlantic in 2009) – and the renewed confidence that her talent plus her equipment could finally pay dividends. She already has three top-10 finishes in four races, after entering the year with only five in three prior seasons.

On-track, she has these benefits. Off, she’s still got the same, carefully managed persona and image that only sees her align with partners dedicated to growing Simona, the racer. Because that’s what she is.

Her management team includes Imran Safiulla and Shane Senaviratne, who have been at almost every stage of her development since her time in Formula Atlantic. They’ve made a conscientious decision to see her through all the difficult stages and the support of partners such as Nuclear Clean Air and Entergy has made it possible for her to keep racing in IndyCar. An excellent report on how the image has been crafted is here, in this ESPNW article authored by Brant James.

When de Silvestro arrived, by default, she was viewed as the “anti-Danica.” Still, that does both an injustice. If Patrick hadn’t had the success she did in IndyCar – and a race win (Motegi, 2008) and fifth in the points standings (2009) is no small feat – there’s no guarantee de Silvestro would have made the leap to begin with. She was at a crossroads at the end of 2009 anyway, when a competitor took her out in the final Atlantic race of the year and cost her the title.

With the learning and challenging years ideally behind her, and Danica out of the way to steal the spotlight and attention, this month de Silvestro could truly enter the broader landscape beyond the core group of race fans and observers that already know her name and her ability with a good run at Indy.

She’s not obsessing over winning, instead methodically going about the process similar to what she did in 2010, when she won Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year honors (finished 14th).

“I think anybody that qualifies has a chance to win it,” she said. “It’s always been hard to put a result as a goal. But if we do all the work we can, we’ll take it. When you’re not expecting too many things, things can go well. They did my rookie year going through the motions. And now with a better team, engine and everything, things can work out. I’m working hard toward that goal.”

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.”