Mazda Road to Indy: Ten to watch in 2014

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The three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder – now all run and operated by Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions – also kick off in earnest alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg this weekend.

Much of the action will be chronicled via the new Road to Indy TV outlet; additionally, NBCSN will have extensive coverage of all three of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda.

Indy Lights opens with a single race while both Pro Mazda and USF2000 will have double-header races.

Here are 10 drivers to watch of note between the three championships this year, following the conclusion of Cooper Tires Winterfest and our projections on some likely championship contenders.

INDY LIGHTS (Full Entry List)

Matthew Brabham, No. 83 Andretti Autosport

Perhaps the highest-touted prospect on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, “Matty Brabs” has the opportunity to capture his third championship in as many series in as many years (Pro Mazda 2013, USF2000 2012). Mature beyond his 20 years, but still with a laid-back demeanor outside of the cockpit, Brabham’s an absolute speed demon once he gets behind the wheel of his car. Andretti Autosport has been close-but-no-cigar to the Lights title the last four years, and Brabham is the guy most likely to break that streak.

Zach Veach, No. 26 Andretti Autosport

Veach is only 19, yet enters his fifth full year on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder in 2014. He’s always excelled at the branding and marketing side of the game; he’s still yet to make that last jump in consistency and performance on-track. After spending two years in USF2000 and a single year in Pro Mazda, Veach’s first year in Indy Lights had sporadic highlights but was otherwise spent learning the ropes. He should improve in 2014, taking his first win (a short oval his best bet), with the goal of attaining podium finishes on a more regular basis.

Jack Harvey, No. 42 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

The next young English talent who seeks to star in North America, Harvey is not Jack Hawksworth, who was the English Jack H who raced for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013. Harvey, 20, enters the four-time defending championship team from GP3, where he finished fifth last year. Should win multiple races, and we’ll see how he adjusts to ovals.

Luiz Razia, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

You could argue Razia, the 24-year-old Brazilian, is almost overqualified for Indy Lights since he was on the precipice of a Formula One race seat 13 months ago before funding fell through. Razia has an Esteban Guerrieri-type of feel to me at first glance; a talented and very experienced South American, coming into Schmidt’s team, who should be immediately on the pace. Although he wasn’t the out and out fastest in GP2, he should be in race-winning contention almost from the off in another Schmidt Peterson entry.

Pro Mazda (Full Entry List)

Neil Alberico, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing

I’ll pinpoint Alberico more than Scott Hargrove as the guy to watch within Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in Pro Mazda this year. That’s not a slight on Hargrove, who should be a dependable, consistent performer this year and did well in Winterfest. Alberico, 21, has the pedigree where he should have a higher ceiling, in terms of outright pace. He’s also gotten extra seat time this winter in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.  The Rising Star Racing-backed driver and former Team USA Scholarship recipient needs a bit more consistency and luck for his 2014 campaign.

Spencer Pigot, No. 7 Juncos Racing 

Pigot, like Veach in Indy Lights, is a guy who’s been around a while on the ladder, and is still only 20. But it’s fair to say he’s the early season Pro Mazda title favorite, with a year’s worth of experience, the championship-winning pedigree of the Juncos Racing team behind him and determination to avenge what was largely a difficult first season in the series. Like Alberico, has the Rising Star Racing support and dominated Winterfest. He has moved to Indianapolis to embed himself within the open-wheel hotbed city.

Shelby Blackstock, No. 28 Andretti Autosport

The son of country music legend Reba McEntire made some key leaps and strides in his jump from USF2000 to Pro Mazda last year. As he enters a second season with Andretti Autosport, he should emerge as the team’s leading driver, provided he keeps talented but young Canadian teammate Garett Grist at bay. Blackstock, 24, has done a great job of accruing seat time as he doubles his open-wheel efforts with racing a BMW M3 for Fall-Line Motorsports in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge GS class (he won at Daytona to open the 2014 season). He could win multiple races and challenge fellow Americans Pigot and Alberico for the title.

USF2000 (Full Entry List)

RC Enerson, No. 7 Team E Racing

The 17-year-old emerged as a surprise champion of Winterfest for his single-car, family team. The question now is whether they’ll have the consistency and performance to back it up over the course of the regular season. Enerson was a midlevel to occasional top-five driver in 2013; in a deep field, he’ll need top-five finishes with more regularity to contend for the full season crown.

Jake Eidson, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing 

Eidson, 18, follows Alberico and Pigot as the anointed Team USA Scholarship recipient in a Cape USF2000 seat, and he should be quick from the get-go. He nearly won Winterfest despite not winning a race. He made a handful of starts in USF2000 last year with a midlevel team and overachieved, but with the best equipment at his disposal in 2014, he should contend for regular wins.

Michael Epps, No. 44 Belardi Auto Racing

Epps, the 22-year-old Englishman, certainly has the years most of his USF2000 rivals don’t, and emerged as a potential star toward the end of 2013 and into the 2014 Winterfest. He won twice at Winterfest, and should lead Belardi Auto Racing’s four-car effort this season. He’ll have stiff internal competition from teammates Florian Latorre, Daniel Burkett and Nico Jamin, which should push the team forward. Belardi has been one of the few teams to take it to Cape the last two years, which bodes well for them going into 2014.

OTHERS OF NOTE

Belardi has its best set of Indy Lights drivers in Gabby Chaves and Alexandre Baron, but hasn’t quite had the equipment to match in recent years. We’ll see if that changes this year. Michael Johnson, who is paralyzed, steps up to Pro Mazda with JDC Motorsports and continues to develop as a driver despite his handicap. Italian teammate Vicky Piria, who will race with JDC at least at St. Petersburg, is a promising ex-GP3 shoe. The USF2000 field is very deep, with potentially 10-15 podium-contending drivers, and that makes it hard to pick just three or four to watch. Of the others, Peter Portante and Aaron Telitz (ArmsUp), Clark Toppe (JDC), Henrik Furuseth (JAY) and Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) should provide some highlights throughout the year.

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.”