Montoya’s evolution evident after statement victory in St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG – On a weekend when drivers with experience dating back to the 1990s or early-to-mid 2000s seemed to dominate, one somewhat unlikely driver stood above them all Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Juan Pablo Montoya.

It’s not that Montoya wasn’t expected to be a factor, but the storylines at Team Penske heading into the season-opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series season centered around his three teammates.

Will Power is the defending champion. Longtime rival Simon Pagenaud had joined up in a new fourth car. Helio Castroneves was in the news earlier in the weekend for a partner extension for Hitachi.

So Montoya almost flew in under the radar heading into Sunday’s race, but delivered the win courtesy of an excellent middle stint on Firestone’s primary black tires, and a perfect defense against Power’s one passing attempt at Turn 10 on Lap 99.

Post-race, the story centered on the evolution of the man almost as much as the evolution of the day’s events itself.

Montoya swept through the IndyCar paddock like a ridiculously strong Colombian cup of coffee in 1999 and 2000.

He took no prisoners. He was fast, he kicked ass, and you dealt with it. But he wasn’t necessarily the most personable driver.

Then he went to Formula 1, NASCAR and came back to IndyCar.

Today, in St. Petersburg, he took the immediate moments after the win to celebrate with the fans in victory lane.

“I’ve never been a big believer what people say about me, to be honest,” Montoya said in the post-race press conference. “As long as I feel I’m doing a really good job, I’m driving the wheels off the car, the people I drive for are happy, that’s all that really matters.

“Do I pay maybe a little more attention to the fans? Yeah, I would say I do. When you’re out there, I’m still the same… if you want to call me the ‘asshole,’ whatever you want to call it… it’s good. You said ‘jerk,’ so that’s pretty close.”

Tony Kanaan, who finished third and raced against Montoya in those 1999 and 2000 CART seasons – and actually won his first race against JPM at Michigan International Speedway in 1999 – said age has mellowed JPM, but hasn’t affected his driving.

“Let’s not call him old because I’m older than him,” said Kanaan, who turned 40 in December, while Montoya turns 40 in September 2015.

“Honestly, what I like about him, I don’t think he changes his personality. But we all grow up. We have kids. I think we kind of change a little bit in a way.

“So, yes, seeing Juan celebrating with the fans the way he did today, I can assure that wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago. But that was Juan back then. I think you go through experiences in life to learn.

“I can still see the old Juan sometimes on him, which it’s great to see. Juan is a good guy to have beside you, not against you. That’s the way I put it. That’s still there.”

As for Montoya behind the wheel, he reflected on how far he’s come back in IndyCar from 12 months ago. Although his trademark car control was there, he didn’t have the outright pace this race in 2014 – he qualified 18th and finished 15th.

“It’s exciting. Last year was very disappointing,” Montoya said. “It was tough not only here but generally on the street courses. I’m a guy that always excelled at street courses everywhere I raced. To come here and have a year with really bad street course racing, it was pretty tough. I was never happy with the car.

“You know, with my engineers, we decided to go in a completely different way the than the other guys. It paid off. My pace on black tires was pretty, pretty good.”

Montoya said it was his stint on the blacks that won him the race, but he said he still has more to learn on the red alternate tires.

“I mean, I still feel I didn’t do a good enough job in qualifying,” said Montoya, who qualified fourth. “I felt I left a lot out there. I don’t know. It’s a building process.

“But I’ll tell you, I was amazed how quick we were today, especially on black tires. I mean, I had as good of pace as the reds, but more consistent. That was pretty exciting.”

What’s the scary part for the rest of the field?

If Montoya is this good, this early, and still self-reflective enough to know what he still has to learn and improve upon, 2015 could be a long year for his rivals.

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.”