It’s “never-say-die” for Graham Rahal with three races left

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What is Graham Rahal thinking?

Let’s start with points. Rahal is a career-best second in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, 42 behind Juan Pablo Montoya.

The 26-year-old is a month removed from his second series win. The first came in 2008.

Surrounded by Penske and Ganassi drivers, Rahal is the only Honda driver in the top five.

Don’t forget that Rahal is all by himself. Where others have data from two to three teammates, every week the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver goes once more into the breach, a one-man army.

All of it has Rahal thinking more like a founding member of “The Goonies.”

“We’ve got to have this never-say-die attitude,” Rahal said Tuesday in a media teleconference. “If I have a race-winning car, we have to win. We can’t finish second or third. If we have a 10th-place car, we have to find a way to finish fifth.”

Rahal and the team behind his No. 15 Honda have been doing just that. In a year where Honda has been lagging behind the Chevrolets of Penske and Ganassi in grasping the new aero kits, Rahal’s Honda is the only that’s been at the front at the front consistently through nearly all 13 races, earning a career-high five podiums.

The exceptions: being penalized at St. Petersburg, an unavoidable wreck in Detroit race one and then the Firestone 600 at Texas, the only race Rahal believes the team actually made a wrong decision, which resulted in a 15th-place finish.

“We took for granted the amount of downforce we thought we needed and we just didn’t put enough on,” Rahal said. “We didn’t have the data to know otherwise, versus the teams that got it right were multi-car teams.”

Those multi-car teams get data from everywhere.

“Every lap that gets turned throughout a practice, qualifying, a race, they’re getting four times the amount of data for every single lap that they do,” Rahal said. “Without a doubt, that’s a huge advantage.”

For awhile RLL Racing was getting the wrong information from the wrong people. The weekend of the team’s “one little-slip up” at Texas, Rahal shared one example of how the team had been led down the wrong path before this renaissance year.

“Last year we were convinced by an engineer that we had to go one way on dampers, so we spent a quarter of a million dollars buying all those dampers and found out what we had before was better,” the driver said.

“Unfortunately, that was kind of the directions we’ve been led in before, but we’re back to where the Rahal Letterman team has been for a long time.”

Since the dismal visit to Texas, Rahal has finished in the top 10 in all four races, including his Fontana win and bouncing back from multiple near-disasters at Iowa to finish fourth.

During that stretch, Rahal’s father, team co-owner Bobby Rahal, hasn’t been anywhere near the track.

“My dad’s been on vacation the last two weeks. I haven’t even heard from him. Hasn’t been at the last three races. Maybe that’s the way he wants it to be,” Rahal said. “He kind of just said to me, ‘I don’t know, maybe I should just not show up the rest of the time. If this is the way things are going to go, maybe you’re best on your own.'”

He won’t be on his own this weekend. With the IndyCar series rolling into Mid-Ohio, the family’s home track, the elder Rahal will be back to watch his son kick off what could be the final leg of a championship season.

“To me, that track, the connection I have with that venue, is really a big part of why I am doing what I am and what I love,” Rahal said.

“Being in this position, in a position to win a championship, is something I truly never dreamed of. Hard to believe we’re in the battle now.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

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.”