Despite its tinkering, Indianapolis 500 qualifying format looks great this Monday

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Whether it’s been one weekend, two weekends, different days, different formats or different point systems, there has been one part of Indianapolis 500 qualifying that has remained entirely intact:

One driver. Four laps. And pure courage.

And in the wake of Sunday’s – at best, controversial until the end – new Daytona 500 group qualifying format, Indy’s qualifying format looks way better than the other marquee 500-mile race in this country.

Single-car qualifying may not be the most exciting thing to watch in this fast-paced, quick-cut day and age.

But when single-car runs represent the tradition and the story of the event, when the drama is associated with one car making the most of its effort for the pole position or even just to make the race, it’s somewhat baffling to change that format to something different.

For Indy qualifying, there are few things more exciting or dramatic to watch than one driver, working in tandem with his or her crew, hanging it all out on the line over four laps, at more than 225 or 230 mph.

The palpable sense of anxiousness permeates the stands – even if the crowds aren’t what they once were –  when it comes to wondering whether a car or driver will be able to pull out “the run.”

The single-car, “all eyes on you” format gives the driver the full stage, the team the full stage and the sponsor – the entity (or entities) paying for the opportunity – the full stage.

To quote Eminem, you have one shot, one opportunity to seek everything you ever wanted.

For qualifying, it’s about nailing that run. You step out of your car after four laps in Indy, knowing you either gave it everything you had or left tenths of seconds – and extra mph – on the table.

You rue every missed moment. You kick yourself and hope you can step it up for your next shot, given that there are multiple attempts per car.

The Indy 500 qualifying format of single driver and four laps was so popular at one point it was adopted for all IndyCar oval races… and it flopped.

Traditions remain traditions because they stand the test of time. Change is needed only when staleness and blandness sets in, or when something is deemed “not exciting enough” for the sake of entertainment.

NASCAR was bold enough to try a different qualifying format Sunday for the Daytona 500, and you do have to give them credit for thinking it could be more entertaining. To some, it was.

But between the slingshot effects, waiting until the last minutes to run, the speed differential, crashes and almost universally unpopular opinions coming in from its own drivers, it was obvious to see it was not a step in the right direction.

Daytona 500 qualifying used to be about horsepower… crews… and which engine shop did the best work in the winter. Sunday’s session was Russian Roulette, almost all about luck rather than outright pace.

If the Indianapolis 500 qualifying format was to go in a similar direction, I’m sure there’d be a similar uprising and outrage.

I’ll leave it to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to sum things up:

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.”