Plenty of stories, nuggets emerge from MRTI, PWC finale weekend

Indy Lights pre grid. Photo: Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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MONTEREY, Calif. – What follows in this post isn’t so much a recap of things that happened at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, as much as it is an outlining of what is to come following the results of things that happened at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, across the Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge.

  • Whose headliner was it anyway? In theory, the concept of two of INDYCAR’s usual dancing partners – the full complement of Mazda Road to Indy series and the Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS classes (as well as the TC classes, which used to be on INDYCAR weekends but were moved off for 2015 due to lack of available track time) – getting their own headline weekend sounded good. In reality, it didn’t feel as “big” as it should have… which wasn’t really anyone’s fault but stemmed from a few factors. From the promotion of the event seeing both listed as co-headliners with neither taking precedence, to both series feeling aggrieved by track time, load-in dates and schedule quirks, to Pirelli signage needing to be covered up on Cooper Tire podiums and vice versa, it seemed a case of “please, it’s your feature, sir,” to then “no, please go ahead, it’s yours.” With Pirelli World Challenge announcing both Sonoma and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca again for next year, with Mazda Raceway moving to October, it would make sense for the Mazda Road to Indy to crown its champions in front of INDYCAR teams at Sonoma in 2016, rather than in front of a small group of hardcore, dedicated insiders and fans who made the trek out west for the second time in three weeks. You could make the argument the Mazda Road to Indy champions being crowned at Mazda Raceway made sense, and there was live streaming via RoadToIndy.TV throughout the weekend. But in reality, the scope of what champions Spencer Pigot, Santi Urrutia and Nico Jamin wasn’t exposed to nearly as wide an audience or media gathering as they – or the Mazda Road to Indy series and its partners – deserve.
  • Deserving MRTI champions. Now that Pigot, Urrutia, and Jamin have their titles – and their Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarships for 2016 – we’ll break out features on each of them in the coming weeks to tell more stories about what they’ve done and where they’re going next. Suffice to say if they didn’t win their titles, their careers would be at a crossroads…
  • And hard luck MRTI runners-up. … To piggyback off the last bullet point, the question of “what’s next?” for drivers like Jack Harvey, Ed Jones and RC Enerson (Indy Lights), Neil Alberico (Pro Mazda), Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz (USF2000) now arises, as the next generation of drivers who are talented but unsure of where the next step in their career may come. For Harvey, to have lost consecutive Lights titles in crushing fashion, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. However, both he and Jones impressed in IndyCar tests, and hopefully either or both have a chance to join Pigot in advancing into the Verizon IndyCar Series next season.
  • Overlooked weekend race winners. Outside of Pigot and Jamin, who swept the Indy Lights and USF2000 races, winning the last race on a championship weekend is somewhat unfortunate because you get overlooked by the title races. In this case, Garett Grist was overlooked after one of his best weekends yet in the Mazda Road to Indy – he swept the two Pro Mazda races. And in Pirelli World Challenge, aside of the climactic championship battle between Johnny O’Connell and Olivier Beretta, you had Alessandro Balzan show what he can do in a car with an authoritative win over teammate Alessandro Pier Guidi. The other PWC weekend winners included Eric Lux (GTA), Colin Thompson (GT Cup), Kris Wilson (GTS), Adam Poland, Corey Fergus and Ernie Francis Jr. (TC), Jason Wolfe and Paul Holton (TCA) and Joey Jordan (TCB), the latter of whom completed a three-race weekend sweep, in a Mazda 2, at Mazda Raceway.
  • PWC’s next move(s). News came late Sunday night as part of the Pirelli World Challenge championship celebration that WC Vision’s Scott Bove had resigned as CEO, along with its 2016 schedule release. The line of note, “Scott Bove did not do this alone,” from Bob Woodhouse spoke volumes, although it must be stated Bove made plenty of decisive and good strategic moves that helped the championship’s growth over the last five seasons. How the series addresses the concerns and pulse of its paddock from here will determine how much the series can continue to grow beyond what has been done the last few seasons.
  • A thrilling end to GT title bout. While Johnny O’Connell and Olivier Beretta had dueled for the PWC GT season title, O’Connell took several opportunities Sunday to praise Ryan Dalziel, who many will acknowledge as one of the top sports car drivers in the world at the moment. Had Dalziel not had two conflicts that cost him three races, the likable Florida-based Scotsman could well have usurped “Johnny O” for the title. As it was, O’Connell’s championship victory was a popular one – few seemed to care for Beretta’s driving tactics most of the season, and this great photo from Richard S. James showed the reality of what happened at the Corkscrew. It was the defining moment of the season.
  • What’s next for Mazda Raceway? Simple answer is we don’t know. This could well have been the last professional weekend before Porsche Rennsport Reunion in two weeks run under SCRAMP operations; ISC has entered into a 90-day due diligence agreement with the track within the last month or so. As ever, watch this space…

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.”