DiZinno: Red Bull GRC boasts long-term potential, faces intriguing road ahead

Photo: Olsbergs MSE
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There was a mix of surprise and new elements awaiting me upon attending my first Red Bull Global Rallycross race last week in Las Vegas.

There was a fluid, ever-evolving schedule, there were solid, quality teams up-and-down the paddock, there was an engaged, young fan base… and then there was rain, in the desert, in Las freaking Vegas of all places (yes, I blame myself).

All the fluidity and newness compared to say, an open-wheel or sports car weekend, helps keep you on your toes.

Perhaps that’s the point. If you knew what was coming, when, that would be predictable, status quo.

And if there’s one thing Red Bull Global Rallycross doesn’t want to be, it’s that.

Few series seem to actively promote itself as being a series for the next generation of motorsports fans. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with drivers, teams and series insiders, that seems to be not just the goal, but the purpose for GRC.

The races are short by design. It initially takes some getting used to, the fact you’re only witnessing anywhere from say a six to 10-lap race at any point.

It’s also weird that at any point you’re only seeing half the field, or slightly more, on the track at a time. You have to figure out who’s in what race, at what point you are in the day’s activities (qualifying, heats or semifinals) and who’s advanced to what based on the preliminary rounds.

The fans? They dig it. And generally, they’re not septuagenarians… they’re millennials.

Rather than sit in my usual media center perch – which at Las Vegas was an open-air tent, not exactly great for technology and electronics given the rain and wind – I opted to watch with a couple friends from a GA section of the grandstands for most of the action.

Standing on the grandstands, that close to the action, the noise of the 600-hp beasts coming past with the spray coming up and the drivers on the ragged edge of adhesion was a reminder of why I got into racing in the first place (the ride-along with Sebastian Eriksson helped prove the cars were amazing, too).

It’s small, it’s intimate… and it’s also packed. The grandstands were sold out and it showed an impressive dedication and heartiness for the fans to come out, brave low-50s to high-40s, miserable temperatures and take in the finale.

The teams? They’re operating at the same professional level you’d expect to see at an IndyCar race. Probably because most of them have or had IndyCar programs.

In seeing Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, Chip Ganassi Racing, SH Rallycross, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, you’re seeing a lot of IndyCar experience and expertise as these teams take on a new endeavor. All bar DRR have had a hand in winning an Indianapolis 500; DRR, a former full-time team that is currently an Indianapolis-only entrant, has been close on several occasions.

That’s not to discount rally squads like Olsbergs MSE or Hoonigan Racing Division; far from it. It’s obvious though that the influx of IndyCar squads has only raised the game in the paddock.

The drivers seem keen to perform. Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet Jr. have found homes after circuitous careers through F1 and NASCAR, with both still able to run in Formula E. Tanner Foust, Ken Block, Brian Deegan and Bucky Lasek are among the action sports stars converting to rally. Young rally aces like Joni Wiman and Sebastian Eriksson are emerging talents – Wiman already has a GRC title under his belt – and others like Steve Arpin, Patrik Sandell, Sverre Isachsen, Austin Dyne and Jeff Ward have often had pace but not luck for most of the year. The next round of Supercar stars are already present within GRC Lites.

The key word for this championship is potential… which is a dangerous word.

While it has a core group of owners and manufacturers involved at the moment, keeping them active and engaged would figure to serve the series’ long-term growth.

An announcement of the Racing Entitlement Program, this morning, however, is an intriguing development. If there’s one thing history has shown us when team owners take on too big of a role within a series and/or possibly its management structure, the series can get compromised as team owners may want to serve their own interests first (cough, CART).

The drivers are certainly well-known – Foust and Block, for instance, are national stars – but drivers like Speed and Piquet have that “ex-F1 driver” label often applied at first glance. It’s in Red Bull GRC’s best interest to have them known as Red Bull GRC drivers first, and Speed winning this year’s championship only serves him well in that regard.

The other thing that’s fascinating to me is that the series seems to work better for TV than it does in person. Given the at-times fragmented nature of the weekend, the cut-and-chop format can be processed into a 90 or 120-minute TV window more than what it feels on the ground. On the ground, you could be waiting for a while, then a race happens and say if you’re in the middle of something, you might miss it. Again, this goes back to the whole preparation bit. When you’re watching on TV, you don’t see the hours, blood, sweat and tears of preparation as you do on site because that’s not something that you can fully appreciate in a 15-to-30-second block.

There’s a decent optimism I have about this series. I think it has a lot of positive elements, but I also worry it could, if it’s not careful, make some ill-advised strategic decisions that could prove damaging down the line.

But for the moment, I’ll enjoy the gnarliness and hope to get to more than one race next year. It was an incomplete first race week, but one that did enough to pique my interest for the future.

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.”