Plenty of positives as Hinchcliffe prepares for 2016

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Toss 2015 out for James Hinchcliffe.

It was a year to be remembered more for the incredible life-saving heroics of the Holmatro Safety Team and the Trauma Pit Crew from Indiana University more than anything on track, save for a well judged strategy-driven win at NOLA Motorsports Park, his first with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

As the Canadian looks ahead to 2016, improvements should be coming across the board. Even in the five Verizon IndyCar Series races he did do, one of the areas he struggled was in qualifying; he had only a 13.6 average starting position and only one top-10 start.

“We were missing as a group,” Hinchcliffe told MotorSportsTalk, in advance of his participation with the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in Boston.

“We have to look at all the elements to try to improve it. We’ll get a handle on that. By the time of Boston late in the year, we’ll have had full testing and more street course events.”

Hinchcliffe likes how the new testing regulations for 2016 are spread out more over the course of the season, rather than stacked prior to the season opener. He’s already had several tests back in an IndyCar this fall, at Road America, Mid-Ohio and Phoenix.

“The new testing regs have been spread out more over the season. It makes it quieter in the preseason. But once we’re on the road, we can apply things we’re picking up to race weekends.”

He noted how INDYCAR’s decision to utilize Rule 9.3, to help Honda close a gap to Chevrolet in aerodynamic performance (in layman’s terms, the rule was enacted for any manufacturer that was deemed by INDYCAR to be too far behind) should help level the playing field, but was not done to promote one manufacturer over another. Hinchcliffe, like many in the IndyCar field, has driven for both at various stages in his career.

“I’m not mad about it!” he joked. “I obviously see both sides of the argument. But look at qualifying and the edge Chevy had. The series isn’t doing anything to give us an unfair advantage; it’s being done to make the competition better.

“When we get to St. Petersburg, we look for a better playing field, which is more fun for fans, and more fun for us. Even Will (Power) I think said when it was four Penskes in the (Firestone) Fast Six earlier in the year, he wanted more different guys up there. We’re on the right track to getting there.”

Hinchcliffe is also bullish about INDYCAR’s direction as an organization into 2016, following the recent appointments of Jay Frye as president of competition and operations and with TV numbers continuing their steady – if slow – growth.

“I’ve had a good working relationship with Jay since he came on board,” he said. “He has good experience and credentials. More things are coming to get people excited. We’re in a good period of growth as a series. I know I’ve said that for a few years; it’s slow but steady.

“What’s even more important is that other motorsports have seen declines in that five-year period (since Hinchcliffe was a rookie in 2011). The key is we’re growing.”

The Schmidt Peterson team should be in a better state, as well. Hinchcliffe will continue for a second season, first full season, with a similar crew on his No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda while Mikhail Aleshin returns to the team’s second seat. Hinchcliffe expressed major thanks for Arrow’s renewal of three more years, a rarity in modern-day IndyCar.

“It’s incredibly exciting, and not just in a selfish way, but really that company has so much reach and so many great ideas to make IndyCar better as a sport,” he explained. “It’s not just for the team, but also for the fan experience. They have some great ideas in terms of technology. We have three more years to kind of explore those opportunities.

“Mikhail, I thought he did a great job given the situation at Sonoma,” he added. “The last time he’d driven one it didn’t end awesome (bad accident at Auto Club Speedway in 2014). He got back in, no reservations, and did a good job.

“Hopefully he’s back up to speed before season starts, but the speed was always there. We’re learning the ’16 kit as well, and together we can get it sorted.”

Hinchcliffe, a regular in the Rolex 24 at Daytona having driven with the Mazda team the last three years, is unlikely to return to the race this year.

“We had a cool program lined up for 24, that due to factors beyond our control fell apart,” he said.

But he’s hopeful he can still assemble something last-minute, and also continues to plug away at a potential NASCAR Xfinity Series debut on at least one of the August 2016 road course races (Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Road America).

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.”