100 days out from Indy 500, questions abound to get to 33 cars

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Today marks 100 days until the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

In those 100 days, there’s going to be a heck of a lot of questions and documenting exactly how the field will get to 33 cars this year.

It will, as it always has, but for the first time since the North American open-wheel merger in 2008 there seems to be fewer confirmed cars for this time of year.

Here’s what we know will be happening from what we’ve gathered and what’s already been announced:

You can count 21 expected full-season cars:

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (4): Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Max Chilton
  • Team Penske (4): Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud
  • Andretti Autosport (4): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, TBA
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2): James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2): Takuma Sato, Jack Hawksworth
  • Dale Coyne Racing (2): Conor Daly, TBA
  • KVSH Racing (1): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1): Graham Rahal
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (1): Josef Newgarden

Then we factor in the cars that have already been announced as extras for either the month of May only or selected races:

  • Dale Coyne Racing (1): Bryan Clauson
  • PIRTEK Team Murray (KVRT technical alliance) (1): Matthew Brabham
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1): Spencer Pigot
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (1): Ed Carpenter
  • Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (1): Sage Karam
  • Grace Autosport (1): Katherine Legge

Grace, as we noted last week in an interview with team principal Beth Paretta, is at an important stage in its race to make the field – it will need a team technical partnership and an engine partner to be determined probably by early next month.

From the aforementioned 27 cars, the six extras joining the 21 full-season, here’s the projected engine breakdown:

  • Honda (13): Andretti 4, Coyne 3, SPM 2, Foyt 2, RLL 2
  • Chevrolet (13): Ganassi 4, Penske 4, Carpenter 2, KVSH 1, PIRTEK 1, DRR 1
  • TBD (1): Grace

The engine numbers are vitally important here. If Honda and Chevrolet can provide up to a total of 17 engine leases apiece – Honda’s Steve Eriksen has already told MotorSportsTalk that’s it’s likely target – that means there’s only four remaining engine leases per manufacturer still available.

For it being only February 19, Honda’s four “extras” as you were beyond the 13 that we know are confirmed could already be accounted for.

In recent years, Andretti, Schmidt Peterson and Foyt have each run an extra car at the Indianapolis 500. Even with Thursday’s news that Andretti Autosport and Bryan Herta Autosport have partnered, Andretti still has the capabilities to add a fifth car.

It’s a de facto net loss of one potential extra car between the two of them. Andretti accounted for five cars in 2015 (Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Munoz, Simona de Silvestro and the late Justin Wilson) and Herta one (Gabby Chaves).

Then, if you factor in a potential fourth Coyne entry for Pippa Mann, as was not-quite-confirmed-but-strongly-suggested in December, that coupled with the same three teams adding one car each would take Honda up to 17, and its potential limit.

The Chevrolet teams tend to keep their cards closer to their vest. Ganassi has added an extra car each of the last three years, for Ryan Briscoe (2013), Karam (2014, DRR with Ganassi technical support) and Sebastian Saavedra (2015). Carpenter, KV and DRR could have the potential to add extras as well. But whether Ganassi goes to five and/or Carpenter and KV goes to three this year remains to be seen. Buddy Lazier’s family-run team has been present at each of the last three Indianapolis 500s, but failed to qualify last year.

Assuming Grace Autosport secures its lease and a team partnership, that removes one extra spot at either manufacturer and limits the number to three remaining leases, again if 17 is what we’re going for to make 34 cars and thus one over the limit of 33.

Then you get to the drivers who could be in the frame for seats, again, based on past history.

  • 2015 Indianapolis 500 drivers not currently announced (13): JR Hildebrand, Ryan Briscoe, Townsend Bell, Gabby Chaves, Alex Tagliani, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann, Sebastian Saavedra, Stefano Coletti, James Davison, Tristan Vautier, Oriol Servia
  • Young guns of note seeking to make their way in (3-plus): Stefan Wilson, Jack Harvey, Alexander Rossi, others TBD
  • Other veterans who’d be keen to race: TBD, but they’re out there

Bell, Mann and Saavedra have generally, consistently assembled programs to make their Indianapolis 500 dreams come true.

Of the others in that 2015 range, Tagliani or Servia are solid veterans who can help a team, Chaves is a rising talent now left sidelined, Vautier impressed in limited running last year at the Speedway and Hildebrand could well be in the frame too.

Where they fit is the question, and where the other cars come from for the race is also a question.

It’s going to likely be an interesting next 30 days, as the countdown to the 100th hits 100 today.

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.”