After frustrating 2013, don’t count out a Ryan Hunter-Reay 2014 comeback

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One was the loneliest number for Ryan Hunter-Reay in the 2013 IndyCar Series season.

The 2012 IndyCar champion opted to swap the No. 28 for the champion’s No. 1 on board his DHL Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport. Like the old number, the good luck that was a part of his title-winning success also went begging.

Some would – and have – argued “RHR” drove a better overall season in 2013 than he did the year he won the title. His qualifying was excellent, with six Firestone Fast Six appearances on road and street courses and additional strength on the ovals. His 5.3 season average was beat only by Will Power, at 4.3.

He still won twice, with great drives at both Barber, and also at Milwaukee for the second straight year.

But man, if it could go wrong, it did for Hunter-Reay last year. Various DNFs – either accident or mechanical-related – offset the good days and left him an unrepresentative seventh in the final points tally.

Entering 2014, the 28 is back, as is Honda for the Andretti brigade. The team achieved great heights with Honda as a factory-supported effort from 2003 through 2005, and additionally in sports cars with the Acura LMP2 program from 2007 to 2008.

“(If) the advantage is Honda at any point, we need to take full advantage of that,” Hunter-Reay said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I’m sure that was the idea behind the move.  Not only the relationship that Andretti Autosport has with Honda, how many championships they’ve won with them.  But, yeah, it puts us in a unique situation that if something does go our way, we can hopefully and potentially take advantage of that to get closer to another championship.”

Some good testing this offseason leaves the Florida native optimistic he can restart another title charge. Hunter-Reay explained the change between the Chevrolet twin-turbo and the Honda one, new for 2014, from his perspective.

“We’ve been balancing the two of them,” he said. “We’ve been working with Honda, it’s completely different than the single turbo, the drivability side of it.  Honda has a lot of work to do just to catch up to what Chevy has been used to.”

As has been the case each of the last two years, the Andretti team chemistry dynamic endures, with Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti all very good in exchanging information. Fourth driver Carlos Munoz should pick up the slack as well, having been with the team in Indy Lights the last two years and making two IndyCar cameos in 2013.

“Coming back, working with the same group of people, the communication is there,” he explained. “As I’ve always said, it’s an open book of communication between us. That’s how things work well.

“When James is finding something, it transfers to Marco and myself.  Marco and I have different driving styles, so it doesn’t always transfer.  James and I are a little bit more similar on the street circuits.”

Hunter-Reay has grown over the course of his IndyCar career to be accepted as one of the top two or three drivers in the series, and he’s one of only five drivers in the field with a past title (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais).

But Dixon, who emerged as 2013 champion with a torrid second half of the year, is someone “RHR” both respects and has an innate desire to want to beat.

“Scott is just relentless,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “He’s a guy that goes about his business quietly, professionally, always be there threatening for a race win. I have a lot of respect for him, the way he goes about his job. He’s a guy that you always know will make your Sunday hard.”

As Hunter-Reay heads to St. Petersburg, he’s yet to win there despite a series of good runs.

He was just 22 when he made his American open-wheel debut there in 2003, the lone Champ Car race held in St. Petersburg, driving as teammate to Jimmy Vasser with Stefan Johansson’s team. He had an accident and failed to finish.

In his other St. Pete appearances: 17th and out of fuel despite leading for Bobby Rahal’s team in 2008, second in an 11th hour deal with Tony George’s Vision Racing in 2009, 11th in 2010 in his first St. Pete start for Andretti, 21st in 2011 after being caught up in a first-lap accident, third in 2012 and 18th last year after an electrical issue.

“I love that it’s the kickoff to our season,” he said. “It feels like it’s been hot or cold there for me.  Either we DNF, have an issue, don’t finish, strategize our way out of it, or we finish on the podium. Hopefully it will be the latter this time around.”

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.”