Friday Sonoma notebook: Schmidt and Honda, JR, Briscoe return and more

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This morning at Sonoma Raceway, three IndyCar press conferences were held. Here’s a few bits and pieces from those and other news and notes from around the paddock at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (4 p.m. EST, Sunday, NBCSN):

  • Sam Schmidt’s team is the first to announce it will continue with Honda powerplants into the 2014 season, as Honda switches from single to twin turbochargers, for the Schmidt Hamilton and Schmidt Peterson teams. Schmidt is likely to retain Simon Pagenaud in the No. 77 HP SHM entry; HPD vp and COO Steve Eriksen and the rest of the manufacturer rate Pagenaud highly. Interesting to me here is that Schmidt’s group is ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing in confirming; CGR was Honda’s anchor team when engine competition was reintroduced in 2012. I spoke to team co-owner Ric Peterson, who said rookie Tristan Vautier has an option for two further years, and he also hopes his team’s three Indy Lights drivers will continue for a second year. The only way that changes is if either Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam or Jack Hawksworth wins the title, and is awarded the champion’s incentive from IndyCar to move up.
  • Ryan Briscoe returns to action this weekend for Panther Racing, with a brace on his right wrist. He has gotten several days of testing in, first with Panther at Sonoma last week and again on Wednesday, and also in his Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b P2 class car at Austin earlier this week. Asked if a Panther/Level 5 weekend double-dip at Baltimore was possible, Briscoe said, “I wanted to and I pushed hard for it. But it came down to whether Level 5 would let me do it. It’s funny because earlier this year, when I said I’d do some Indy races, I said, ‘Come on, nothing will happen.’ And then I broke my wrist – so I lost that argument!”
  • For JR Hildebrand, there isn’t so much any extra “motivation” or anything to prove on his return to the series with Barracuda Racing. “I don’t look at it like that,” he said. “It’s more about me coming out here, doing a good job and collectively putting together a good weekend.” He said the situation differs from his last one-off outing for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, also at Sonoma, in 2010, because now he has 2.5 years of experience to draw on that has made him more prepared. He said he seriously enjoys working with team boss Bryan Herta, and seems fairly relaxed. The irony for JR this time around though is that his Barracuda team is parked right next to his old squad, Panther Racing, in both the paddock and pit lane.
  • Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Will Power have had two interesting media events with a Hitachi technology event at a Penske Nissan Infiniti dealership in downtown San Francisco on Thursday night, and a Google+ Hangout through Verizon Wireless this morning. A full replay of the Hangout is linked here on YouTube.
  • Josef Newgarden showed off a new “Power Nap Pillow” a fan gave him in the paddock before first practice, linked in the below tweet. Newgarden was one of six drivers who took a tour of Twitter’s headquarters Thursday in San Francisco, an event Tristan Vautier raved about. Meanwhile as to the business of Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team, which fields a second car this weekend for Lucas Luhr, team co-owner Fisher told IMS Radio during first practice that expansion to a second full-time entry is the goal. “We need to be in a second car situation to be in the premier elite and help him grow,” she said. Luhr, for what it’s worth, is in a new RW/SFHR firesuit and now his usual one he wears in the ALMS for Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.

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.”