Final preparations are in the books for the quartet of rookies who will be making their Indianapolis 500 debuts this Sunday.
Only one of the four is contesting the full IZOD IndyCar Series season, Schmidt Peterson’s Tristan Vautier. Team Penske’s AJ Allmendinger is in the midst of his IndyCar return from a seven-year NASCAR sojourn, while Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have had polar opposite IndyCar series debuts throughout the month of May.
Munoz starts second for the 500 after a whirlwind month of doing double duty for Andretti Autosport. His Firestone Indy Lights commitment for the month ended Friday when he led 27 laps in the Firestone Freedom 100, but fell from first to fourth on the last lap when Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam all passed him.
Still, Munoz will be able to take what he learned into his IndyCar debut Sunday.
“I learned, really, that I can’t be leading going into the last lap. It’s like the death penalty,” Munoz joked during the post-race press conference.
For Allmendinger, who starts fifth in the No. 2 IZOD Chevrolet, a 500 debut is like a homecoming after his open-wheel hiatus.
“I’ve thought a lot about that. Honestly, maybe it’s my background and where I came from,” he said. “Daytona is special and believe me, I’d love to win the Daytona 500 one day. But we haven’t even gotten to Sunday yet and walking in this place, walking through Gasoline Alley and taking it all in – there’s nothing that comes close to it. It’s so special.”
Vautier starts 28th after a wicked qualifying run, where he was on the edge of adhesion and the limit of grip, hanging on for dear life. His pace was stunted by hitting the hard rev limiter on two of his four laps. It’s a far cry from when he made qualifying look easy in his first two races, at St. Petersburg and Barber, when he qualified in the Firestone Fast Six.
“We expected a tough qualifying because of the Long Beach engine change, so we couldn’t put a fresh engine in,” he said. “We had to make the most of it and maximize everything on the chassis. Considering that, it wasn’t so bad.”
Meanwhile, Daly – who spent Media Day with a check for all of $0.31 to equal his 31stt starting position – will have the thrill of a lifetime spending race day at Indianapolis on the grid, rather than a spectator, for the first time in his 21 years. A lifelong Hoosier, Daly is the son of Derek Daly, an ex-Formula One and IndyCar driver, and a six-time Indy 500 starter. Daly is balancing this race with a full season of GP3 in Europe.
“I know how much my heart races as a fan. So it will be pretty cool,” he said. “Now I’m part of this deal. Slowly walk around and see who I can see. Now I have my own program, and I’m ready to start race myself.”
Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series
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.
“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].”
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.”
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.”