Filippi gets his chance; JR awaits his next opportunity

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A couple months ago when the Verizon IndyCar Series news cycle was at a standstill – some might say after the events of this week it almost would be better to have no news than bad news – I pondered the possibility of CFH Racing having an all-American team of drivers for 2015.

It was a nice idea at the time, but it has now come to pass without that being the case.

Indeed JR Hildebrand, Conor Daly or whoever else was a potential candidate for the vacant road/street course seat alongside CFH team co-owner Ed Carpenter in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet would have made a lot of sense from a red, white and blue standpoint, but not necessarily a green one.

In Luca Filippi, CFH has a bona fide road and street course ace who hasn’t had a season set in stone in January for years, and someone who is well-positioned to add to the team’s win totals as a potential first-time winner in 2015.

Filippi could well be the Italian incarnation of his predecessor, Englishman Mike Conway – a Jedi knight behind the wheel whose raw speed and high ceiling masks an otherwise quiet, humble, focused and genial demeanor outside the cockpit.

He grew to excel in GP2, particularly in the 2011 season when he switched to the Coloni team midseason and won four races en route to finishing second in points. His test and development skills, which he has showcased for Pirelli and Honda in the past, will also be an asset in 2015.

It didn’t get much press, but Filippi qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six in his first day in an IndyCar in nine months at Houston last June was one of the standout performances of the season, particularly as there were fewer one-off appearances during the year.

With time and proper testing, something Filippi hasn’t enjoyed in his two prior opportunities with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing last year and Bryan Herta Autosport in 2013, he is already a contender to be one of the surprise stars of the season.

The other thing this confirmation provides Filippi is peace of mind as he worked toward this chance. He made a number of mistakes in his first eight IndyCar starts and he only has one top-10 finish to show for it, but consider as a driver looking to prove his worth to the field, he needed to “go big or go home” for the most part. You can rein in a driver who’s got speed to burn and makes the occasional mistake, but you can’t necessarily speed up a guy who is easier on equipment and, detrimentally, easier on the gas pedal.

I’d be surprised if we don’t see him on the podium at least twice in 2015, and if the cards fall correctly as they did for Conway a year ago, in victory lane on the odd occasion.

As for Hildebrand, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him after what was his best potential opportunity fell through once again, and ironically to a driver who he’s linked to more than you might think.

Hildebrand and Filippi split the balance of the 2013 season for BHA after the team and Alex Tagliani went their separate ways, and it was Filippi who had the inside line on that seat all winter before that fell through.

Now it’s Hildebrand, having tested once with the team at Barber last fall, who seemed the perfect fit as a blue-blood, STEM-teaching, MIT-accepted American in the potential all-American driver lineup at CFH, on the outside looking in. He could still be in play for an extra car at the Indianapolis 500, as he was a year ago – CFH will run three cars for that race.

This signing is one of those classic good news/bad news cases that seems to be a common thread in IndyCar these days. Hildebrand has the hard luck story that has befallen others, while Filippi has a long overdue shot beyond a one-off weekend or two.

It is now the Italian’s moment to seize the opportunity he has received.

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.”