MRTI Weekend Preview: Mazda Raceway

The full Mazda Road to Indy field at IMS. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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MONTEREY, Calif. – The Mazda Road to Indy seasons come to a close this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, for their lone road course standalone weekend of the year (Pro Mazda and USF2000 also raced at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in May).

All three of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda have two races apiece at the Northern California road course, which takes the place of Sonoma in the calendar.

Title bouts will be intense in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda for sure, while USF2000 may well see its title wrapped up after the first of two races on the weekend.

Each of the three categories are powered by Mazda racing engines, and Mazda scholarships will be awarded from the more than $2.3 million season-ending prize fund.

Race fans who are unable to attend the action in person at Mazda Raceway can watch the the six races streaming live at RoadToIndy.tv or on the Road to Indy mobile app. Live timing and scoring can also be found at IndyCar.com and on the Road to Indy app. The Indy Lights race broadcast will air September 24 at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

INDY LIGHTS

Indy Lights will again have a 13-car field, same as it did at St. Petersburg to open the season, for bookend best fields of the year. Is it perfect? No. But the competition all years has again given rise to the “quality over quantity” measurement in the first year of the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda package.

Jack Harvey, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones are separated by only 18 points, and fourth place RC Enerson still has a semi-realistic chance in fourth at 36 points back. Of the title-contending quartet, it’s actually Enerson who’s won most recently, having secured an overdue first win at Mid-Ohio last time out.

All have teammates who could help steal points off the other title contenders. For Harvey and Enerson at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, it’s Ethan Ringel, Scott Anderson and series debutante Heamin Choi, who joins in a fifth car.

Pigot’s teammate at Juncos Racing, Kyle Kaiser, is a top spoiler with a wealth of track experience and a win in last year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma in Pro Mazda.

Jones’ Carlin teammate, Max Chilton, has been on a roll the second half of the season and looks for his first road course win in Indy Lights to go along with his first oval win at Iowa back in July. Chilton has one prior Mazda Raceway start, in Pro Mazda, back in 2007 as a 16-year-old.

The two drivers in single-car teams have been better of late too, with Sean Rayhall starring to win twice for 8Star Motorsports and having nearly won the TUDOR Championship race in PC here last year. Andretti Autosport’s Shelby Blackstock has past track experience in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Belardi Auto Racing’s pair of Felix Serralles and Juan Piedrahita round out the field.

The Indy Lights championship will be determined in two races: Saturday at 3:45 PT (6:45 ET) and Sunday at 2:40 PT (5:40 ET) this weekend.

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PRO MAZDA

The stage is set between Santiago “Santi” Urrutia and Neil Alberico to duel over the Pro Mazda crown. Urrutia enters with a 29-point lead over Alberico and could clinch if he gains more than five points on Alberico on Saturday.

Top spoilers elsewhere include the drivers from Juncos Racing (Timothe Buret has an outside title shot, Garett Grist and Will Owen have been fast, Jose Gutierrez unlucky) and Andretti Autosport (Weiron Tan is a title contender and Dalton Kellett has past track experience).

Notable others looking to impress include Daniel Burkett and Florian Latorre from Cape, Pato O’Ward of Pelfrey, Victor Franzoni of M1 and Michael Johnson of JDC, the latter of whom is paralyzed.

The Pro Mazda doubleheader will feature race one at 2:45 PT (5:45 ET) Saturday and the finale Sunday at 11:40 PT (2:40 ET).

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USF2000

The “Nico, Jake and Aaron show” that has defined the 2015 USF2000 season has its closing act this weekend, as Nico Jamin closes on the series championship. He can clinch on Saturday, but if he runs into issues, Jake Eidson has a chance.

Aaron Telitz and Anthony Martin look to continue their strong seasons as well. Another storyline to watch this weekend is the Team Pelfrey teammates, as all four drivers – Ayla Agren, Luke Gabin, Garth Rickards and Nikita Lastochkin – are only separated by 20 points. Agren, Rickards and Lastochkin are separated by only one point.

The USF2000 weekend features a doubleheader with race one at 10:30 am PT (1:30 ETSaturday, followed by the finale Sunday at 4 pm PT (7 pm ET).

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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.”