Preview: Milwaukee IndyFest important short-oval test for IndyCar field

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How will the Verizon IndyCar Series follow up arguably its most exciting, thrilling race in ages?

That is the question first and foremost on the minds of the paddock heading into this weekend’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, or more simply known as Milwaukee IndyFest, at the legendary Milwaukee Mile.

Milwaukee hasn’t necessarily thrown up great races the last few years, but it does reward drivers and teams who unload strongly off the hauler.

Preparation will be key more than ever with what is essentially a one-day schedule, for the race’s third date in as many years (mid-June, mid-August and now mid-July).

There’s a single practice on Saturday afternoon but all of practice two, qualifying and the race will be spread over a 10-hour period on Sunday, starting in the morning and culminating with a 4:35 p.m. local green flag time (live coverage begins at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

One of IndyCar’s younger drivers, Jack Hawksworth, describes the challenge facing the current field with this de facto one-day show.

“These ovals are so hard for drivers and teams because practice is so, so limited,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk in an interview.

“Look at Fontana. There was a 45-minute practice one, and a one-hour practice two. We had a red for an hour in one and 10 minutes in another. You have to roll off the truck good. With a hiccup here or hiccup there, it’s almost impossible to have a smooth weekend.”

Still, the driver of the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda likes the fact the schedule sets up similar to something his team boss, A.J. Foyt, faced on a regular basis in his driving career.

“Having practice, qualifying and race, all a on the Sunday, it feels like an event which is great,” he said. “From a driver or team perspective, we don’t have time to react. Should we try this or that? We either get it right or don’t.

“It will be a very high pressure situation between qualifying and race. There’s certainly an element of gambling. The scheduling sounds good with a lot going on Sunday, but better than when we’re standing around all day waiting with nothing to do. Like Texas had nothing all day, then we raced. This one will be good.”

So who will be good in the fourth oval race of the season?

It’s not as clear-cut as you might think this time around. It’s the first short oval race with the new aero kits, which will be back to the road course, high downforce setup, after three high-speed oval races.

Penske has been great but Ganassi not as much in recent years at Milwaukee. Will Power dominated a year ago while teammate Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan had a great battle for second, although both ripped on traffic.

Scott Dixon was a dominant Milwaukee winner in 2009 but hasn’t finished on the podium since. Milwaukee has frequently been Helio Castroneves’ house of horrors.

The wild card team to watch is Andretti Autosport, as Ryan Hunter-Reay took authoritative wins in both 2012 and 2013 but fought through a suspension failure last year. RHR has been better in recent races, with Carlos Munoz also more on form than not. The team’s driver to watch though is Marco Andretti, who has been on a roll of late since Indianapolis and has traditionally raced well at Milwaukee.

Fontana winner Graham Rahal also looks for a follow-up act on the first short oval of the year, a circuit he’s struggled in two previous outings with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. We’ll see how the team gets the No. 15 Honda set up this time around.

Ryan Briscoe should be good for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and teammate James Jakes has been quietly decent with back-to-back oval top-10s in Texas and Fontana. Briscoe won his first career race at Milwaukee in 2008.

Outside that group, CFH Racing, KVSH Racing/KV Racing Technology, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Bryan Herta Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing may not be fighting for the wins but for decent top-10 positions. CFH has blown hot and cold this year and desperately needs some oval success to match a win apiece on a road and street course.

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.”