Who’s in Indy’s ‘under-the-radar’ crowd? Depends who you ask

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At most Indianapolis 500s, there are distinctive tiers for the field of 33. Usually there are three or four headliners, five to seven “contenders but not favorites,” a dozen or so “they could be there if not for one thing or another,” and the rest who are there to make up the numbers.

In 2013, throw any such tier breakdown out the window.

As Townsend Bell, NBC Sports Network analyst and driver of the No. 60 Sunoco/ “Turbo” the movie Chevrolet for Panther Racing, told me on Thursday in Indianapolis, there could be anywhere from 25 to 28 cars that could win this year’s race.

He’s among them. You could consider Bell an “under-the-radar” threat, but he’s always been adept at getting up to speed quickly and managing the race in what is often his first IndyCar start of the year.

“The quicker I can get up to speed, going big early, then the sooner I can trust things and really start drilling into the finer details,” he explained. “Sometimes it takes a couple outings. But if you can go fast early, you’ve got that out of the way.”

Like Bell, another top-10 finisher of a year ago who some in the field project as one of this year’s top “sleepers” is Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson. Wilson, whose oval skills have increased over the last couple years, downplayed his chances in advance of the weekend.

“To be honest, last year the first two stints, I thought we were terrible,” he admitted. “But then we made a couple changes and we started passing everyone. The track continuously changes and you have to keep up with it.”

Another two drivers in the “sleeper” camp are fellow Honda runners Josef Newgarden (pictured, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) and James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

Neither’s really a household name – Newgarden could be in time – but they are a pair of sophomores who now have a year’s experience under their belt and know how to run the race. A year ago, Newgarden was the fastest Honda qualifier, while Jakes’ RLL squad nearly won the race with Takuma Sato. Jakes has been the quickest in the RLL camp all month.

“This year we’ve had a much better focus on my end. I just understand the process a lot better,” said Newgarden. “We’ve prioritized our race package over everything. When we didn’t qualify well, it didn’t bother me because that wasn’t where we needed to be strong. I think it would be a ‘shock’ for those on the outside, but I feel confident we can win.”

Strategy has always been RLL’s strong suit; despite a pace gap all month, Jakes and/or Graham Rahal will likely move forward as a result of some good pit calls.

“That’s everything here,” said Jakes. “They’ve been so close the last two years. It’s massive for me to have had a year under my belt now and know how it works, what the team does, and experiencing what this race is like.”

There are others who’ve had good under-the-radar months – Alex Tagliani (Barracuda Racing), Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing) and his 2012 teammate Katherine Legge (Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey) starred on Carb Day, for instance – but no one really knows how the race will shake out yet. Suffice to say it’s going to be hard for anyone in the 33-car field to break away.

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.”