DiZinno: Mid-Ohio a dream weekend for Rahal, IndyCar, fans

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Usually in IndyCar season 2015, it’s been weather that’s overshadowed the weekend.

At Mid-Ohio this past weekend, it was set to be the cloud of uncertainty regarding the series’ competition and operations department, with Thursday’s news that Derrick Walker would be leaving at season’s end.

Happily, for once, IndyCar weathered the storm. Mostly.

Because this is IndyCar after all, and there is no such thing as a perfectly sunny, clear day without the threat of clouds, rain, or storms brewing on the horizon.

Anyway, Mid-Ohio was a near perfect showcase of what can make IndyCar great – in a much better way than what Fontana did a month or so ago for arguably the most tense, but most thrilling, race of the season.

If you’re a sucker for strategy races, Mid-Ohio is the race for you. Following who is going to pit when, and who covers who when they make a move to the pits – race winner Graham Rahal admitted as much that his team astutely covered Justin Wilson, then got lucky with a full-course caution coming out immediately thereafter ��� is one of the hallmarks of the race.

If you like controversy or drama, Mid-Ohio isn’t usually the race for you, but it was this year. Some competitors thought Sage Karam’s spin on Lap 66 was a little too convenient; Karam told this writer he’d adjusted his brake bias, then misread the speed through the apex of the corner, dropped wheels off and spun out. INDYCAR will release its findings on Wednesday about the incident.

If you enjoy constant, wall-to-wall action, Mid-Ohio is the race for you. There was nary a moment of downtime throughout the three full days on site. With 12 races – IndyCar coming as the showcase after 11 other mostly intriguing races from the Mazda Road to Indy (three USF2000 and two Indy Lights and Pro Mazda apiece) and Pirelli World Challenge (two GT and two GTS races) – plus practice and qualifying, you never went more than 15 minutes without any on-track activity.

If you like uninterrupted working Internet in the press room… Mid-Ohio is not the race for you. An IT glitch on Sunday made posting difficult during and after the IndyCar race. But, as one visiting European reporter told me during the weekend, there’s a quaintness about the “treehouse” media center he doesn’t get at European venues, which have similar stale centers, and that he loved how unique the Mid-Ohio media center is. Thankfully, the staff handled the challenges well.

If you love the ambience of a natural, permanent road course that doubles as a campsite, Mid-Ohio is the race for you. Between hanging out with friends both of Friday and Saturday night and taking in a bonfire the latter night, as well as exploring the infield to see the fans, you remember why you got into racing in the first place. Seeing the grounds as packed as they were this weekend – this was my fifth time to Mid-Ohio dating to 2009 – was a welcome reminder that road racing in this country still can be vibrant, and packed with astute, dedicated, smart fans.

The “Indy Camping” group – find them at @IndyCamping on Twitter – were particular rock stars. With several different shirts throughout the weekend, “Team Dracone,” the circus shirts, followed by the Karam “Happy Buddies” shirt featuring that infamous Instagram shirtless photo he posted with him and his dog Max, then the Rahal Steak ‘n Shake get-up on Sunday, these guys showcased a fantastic sense of humor as well as a keen awareness of what is going on in the series right now.

Seeing those shirts, seeing Karam go over to receive a shirt of his own, then seeing a homemade “Rule 9.3.8” shirt added to the highlights of the weekend.

Oh, and if you love a championship fight featuring two unlikely candidates, IndyCar’s got that too.

Somehow, it’s happened that the expected preseason title favorites – Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and defending series champion Will Power – have taken a backseat to Graham Rahal, in a single-car effort with both driver and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team having an otherworldly year and Juan Pablo Montoya, who looks to complete the Indianapolis 500-title same season double for the first time since Dario Franchitti in 2010.

Montoya has been good, while Rahal has been hot of late with four consecutive top-five finishes, including two wins.

Yes, JPM got “hosed” with the Karam caution timing on Sunday while Rahal, admittedly, got lucky.

But to win a championship, you need the combination of both pace and luck. Once Rahal was out front Sunday, he used the pace part of that combo to perfection, and did exactly what he had to do – survive strategic advances from Wilson, drive deeper into a corner and then pull away from the pack to secure the win.

The moment was there for Rahal with all the pressure on him. Wearing an Ohio State helmet, his family on site, driving a Honda in Honda’s home race, driving for his father in their home race. And he seized it with both hands.

“I dreamt of this for a long, long, long time,” Rahal said in the post-race press conference. “In fact, I had a dream Friday night that I won.

“I guess sometimes dreams do come true.”

A dream weekend for Rahal, and pretty much a dream weekend for the good of what IndyCar can be.

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.”