Are IndyCar’s new aero kits set to change the game in 2015?

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It’s been roughly 10 years since there’s been full season chassis and engine battles in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

In 2005, teams had their choice of either Dallara or Panoz chassis, while Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota supplied engines.

With every passing year the element of variety on the technical side went away. Chevrolet and Toyota dropped out after 2005, and the Panoz chassis only ran part-time from 2006 until it faded completely in 2008.

Four years of single-spec racing followed, until the Dallara DW12 chassis was finally introduced for the 2012 season. Chevrolet also made its return too, and with Lotus also on board the series had reopened an element of technical variety of competition.

Lotus wasn’t long for the series, and so the last two years have seen the same chassis paired with either Chevrolet or Honda’s variant of their 2.2L V6 engines.

This year, it all changes with the most radical visual difference on an IndyCar in years.

As new INDYCAR president of competition and operations Derrick Walker put it in his first weekend on the job in Detroit 2013, “the infamous aero kits” finally make their race debut in 2015.

But will the kits – both of which GM and Honda wanted for brand differentiation and technical innovation, featuring hundreds of parts, albeit at a high cost in the millions – affect IndyCar’s best aspect of the last three years, the close racing and parity of competition?

Or will the kits only manage to increase the competition, while also providing a substantial visual difference?

The first battleground is at St. Petersburg this weekend for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix. The debut comes after two previous delays and years worth of buildup.

“When Chevrolet made the decision to come back into IndyCar or not, one of three things we looked for was the ability to design and engineer our own aero kit, so we can create differentiation from our competitors,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told MotorSportsTalk.

“That creates another element of the competition in addition to engine, teams and drivers. We’ve been working on it for quite a while; as you probably know, it got pushed back a couple times.

“Once you do an aero development, the more time you have, the more development work you do. The time we had from last race to beginning of the season, candidly, was just part of the longer development process. We didn’t waste a day. The competition is too intense.”

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Photo: INDYCAR

The competition to the Pratt & Miller-designed GM kit comes in the form of the Wirth Research-designed Honda Performance Development kit, which elicited a stronger and more evocative “look” response when unveiled earlier this month.

“We’re excited to reveal our aero kits as Honda welcomes this era of enhanced competition in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Art St. Cyr, president of HPD and vice president, auto operations, for American Honda said at the car’s launch.

“Coupled to our proven Honda Indy V6 engines, these aero kits are the products of literally thousands of hours of research, development and testing, as we seek to give our drivers and teams the tools they need to win races, the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship.”

Campbell stressed GM’s focus on an aero kit that provides the optimal combination of downforce, drag reduction and engine performance. HPD has stressed the aero element more so, having produced this kit on the back of its sports car programs its done over the years.

Simon Pagenaud, who’s renowned for his technical development and expertise, is a driver well versed to describe the aero kits. He had been a Honda IndyCar and sports car veteran, but now makes the move to the GM camp this year with Team Penske in a Chevrolet.

“There’s been a lot of evolution on the kit since I first tested at COTA,” Pagenaud told MotorSportsTalk. “The car already feels better and much faster; the first laps I turned, the laptime came quickly and we were already one second faster than the pole last year.

“The difference between the two should make it really exciting for the fans. It’s great for IndyCar, and it’s definitely a new era.”

Pagenaud said the unknown both in the aero kits and the engine development between both companies adds two additional storylines to the season.

His line about the fans, though, is the most important.

With an aging, graying demo as IndyCar’s primary fan base, it’s important the kits reach a newer and younger demographic.

The Honda kit in particular has made it to mainstream technical outlets Wired and Verge, which hits an audience newly exposed to IndyCar. In Wired’s case, it has more than 4.2 million Twitter followers – by comparison, IndyCar itself is in the 140K range.

The aero kits are risky, certainly, in terms of what they cost and what they’ll actually provide to the competitive landscape.

But for open-wheel racing, which has endured for more than a century, innovation and technical development was something it had to get back to by birthright.

And it would make a manufacturer’s championship all the more special, as Campbell alluded to.

“We’ve done a lot in the past, but focusing forward this year, it’s all history,” Campbell said. “If we could do it in a year where we provide the engine and aero kit, and partner with some excellent teams, it would be really special.”

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.”