IndyCar: CFH has opportunity for all-American dream team for 2015

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With Thursday’s news that Mike Conway won’t be returning to the merged CFH Racing in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series, there is a golden opportunity for the team to become the all-American darling of the championship.

The vacancy alongside Ed Carpenter in the shared No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet is bound to attract a wealth of interest.

However, for a series struggling at times with a lack of identifiable drivers, or with a substantial American driver presence, it would likely behoove the series if CFH is able to bring in another American alongside Carpenter for the road and street races.

This past season, there were only five full-time American drivers: Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport, Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Charlie Kimball of Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. Carpenter and a handful of others ran partial seasons.

While it is not ideal for a series to feature only Americans – IndyCar’s strength has always been its diversity of drivers – IndyCar could use more in the series for 2015 and beyond.

It would be an identifiable selling point for CFH, which holds the last links in modern day IndyCar to the prior Indy Racing League era, where homegrown American talent and an all-oval series were selling points.

In Carpenter, they have a canny businessman who is still one of the series’ best on ovals, partnered with team co-owner Sarah Fisher, a popular driver and team owner in her own right for more than a decade.

In Newgarden, they have the series’ only American driver for the moment under age 25 – Rahal turns 26 in January. Young, marketable, personable, comedic and certainly quick, Newgarden is one of IndyCar’s rising stars who was desperately unlucky not to have come away with his first series victory this season.

And here’s who they should be considering for the vacant seat alongside Carpenter, all of whom carry the red, white and blue:

  • JR Hildebrand. The leading candidate who has one race and one additional test with Ed Carpenter Racing already under his belt, the 26-year-old Californian deserves a second chance after his time with Panther Racing ended mid-2013 when his contract was terminated.
  • Conor Daly. Stepson of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles, Daly has had his eyes set on a full-season IndyCar for years, but has seemingly had to take anything and everything both domestically and internationally to keep his career going. Hungry and no doubt focused, he would be a welcome first-year participant to the series.
  • Alexander Rossi. Rossi could enter the discussion here given some previous press clippings where he mentioned his dislike of ovals, but is still keen on running in IndyCar next season. Rossi has long been America’s best F1 hope, before a challenging 2014 season saw him aligned with both Caterham and Marussia, who each went into the administration.
  • Gabby Chaves. Although a joint Colombian American, Chaves could fit in well here and still maintain the all-American vibe. Chaves may only have the budget for a partial season, although he remains focused on securing a full-season effort. With that as the goal, that may take him out of consideration here.
  • A.N. Other. Sage Karam and Zach Veach, Americans who have spent years in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, each could work here but are pursuing other team options. Guy Cosmo, an American sports car veteran, has also made overtones about wanting to race in IndyCar. There are others as well who could work and fit the all-American description.

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.”