When you sign on to race for Roger Penske, everyone expects greatness or something resembling it to follow.
While he showed early flashes of the driver that won four races over the last two years with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Simon Pagenaud has yet to find victory lane or finish at the front consistently in his first season driving the No. 22 for Team Penske.
IndyCar travels to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a race Sunday that sees Pagenaud in search of his second podium of the season and his fourth top-five, the last coming in a rain-shortened Detroit race one back in May.
“I’ve been fortunate to have some really good runs at Mid-Ohio in my career, whether it was in the Verizon IndyCar Series or in sports car competition,” Pagenaud said in a release.
“While I’ve won in sports cars at the circuit, I’ve been agonizingly close to winning in IndyCar with a couple of podium finishes.”
Those finishes were third in 2012 and second in 2013, when he led 14 laps before Charlie Kimball took the win.
“It’s clicked pretty well. If you look at my qualifying records so far, it’s the best it has ever been in my IndyCar career,” Pagenaud told the Mansfield News-Journal. The Frenchman has one pole and has started in the top five 11 times in 13 races.
Compare this to 2014 when he started in the top five just six times with one pole (Indianapolis Grand Prix).
“This gives me a great level of confidence for the weekend. Ben (Bretzman, engineer) and I have worked to develop a good package for Mid-Ohio and we’ve been competitive on the road courses throughout the year.”
In fact, all of Pagenaud’s top-five finishes in 2015 have been at road courses (St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Belle Isle).
But Pagenaud is still 10th in the points while his teammates Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power and Helio Castroneves all sit in the top five. The last time Pagenaud led laps was at Fontana with three, but his last time to dominate a stretch of a race were 59 of the first 70 laps at Texas in June before he faded to finish 11th.
“All I care about is we’re working well as a team,” Pagenaud told the News-Journal. “We are building up a new team. Most of the people on my crew were not working together in the past or not even working at Penske before. It’s going to take its natural course. Everybody has to be patient, but when it will click it should be pretty good.”
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.
“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].”
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.”
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.”