IndyCar: Justin Wilson itching to drive again, but where is the question

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The story has been largely the same since IndyCar and Champ Car merged for Justin Wilson.

The lanky, talented, cordial Englishman has long carried the talent worthy of a top seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series at Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport, but for timing or a lack of funding never had the true opportunity.

So this November, the story remains the same. For now, anyway. Wilson is not yet sure where he’ll be on the IndyCar grid in 2015.

The preparation is full on for another season though, which would be his 12th since coming ashore in 2004, then starting out with Conquest Racing.

And the desire to get in a cockpit, now, is instant. IndyCar’s lengthy August-to-March offseason has Wilson itching to get back behind the wheel.

“It’s a much longer offseason,” he told MotorSportsTalk from New Orleans over the weekend. “I feel like I’m ready to get back in the car. It’s been a long time already, but it’s just November.”

Wilson was in New Orleans as one of two IndyCar drivers (Will Power) helping promote the new Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana, the Andretti Sports Marketing-promoted event.

The hope most IndyCar observers have this offseason is that Wilson, who’s spent the last six years combined between Dale Coyne Racing (the last three from 2012 to 2014, plus 2009) and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (2010-2011), can finally make the jump into the vacant fourth seat at Andretti Autosport.

As ever, putting the various financial pieces together to make it happen is the holdup. For Wilson, it puts him in the position of not knowing when a deal could happen.

“I just don’t know what’s going to happen at the minute,” Wilson admitted. “I’m exploring options. Dale’s a great guy, and the team has made some nice improvements. But I have to see what’s best for my future and what works for me. It’s one of those things, where I could find out tomorrow, or it could be in another month or two months.”

Assuming he is on the grid, Wilson would undoubtedly be one of the drivers who could best develop the new aero kits coming to the cars for 2015. Figure his setup expertise would likely pay huge dividends in extracting the maximum out of the kits.

The schedule sets up favorably for him as well. Ending at Sonoma should be a benefit, he said.

“I like the look of the 2015 schedule. Finishing in Sonoma should really boost that event,” he said. “You get to spend an extra day or two in that region. Everyone has always said what a great place it is to go, but as a driver you didn’t experience any of that. From a personal point of view, I like the look of it. We’ll see how it feels.”

Wilson is unsure whether he’ll be in his traditional endurance race role with Michael Shank Racing, the team that now switches to a Ligier JS P2 coupe from Sebring but is expected to continue with its Daytona Prototype at Daytona.

For now, he just wants to put a challenging 2014 behind him and get something sorted, and ideally sooner rather than later so he can enjoy the rest of the offseason with his family before getting back behind the wheel.

“I look back on it, and it was a tough year,” he said of 2014. “We didn’t make a lot of progress. We learned a lot in the last two races that could have helped for the season. We weren’t far behind, but we never found what we were looking for.

“There was more potential there, but we didn’t realize it. With the competition as tight as it, that’s how it goes. It’s a very tight, tough series… you can’t afford to take too long to catch up. But when you do well, it makes it that much better.”

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.”