RLL Racing seeks to roll on with even better 2016 season

Associated Press

It’s not that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing wasn’t capable of winning races or contending for Verizon IndyCar Series championships, because in its 20-plus year history it had done both with regularity.

But when RLL Racing as a single-car, relatively modest budget effort managed to do so last year after what had been a seven-year drought since its last win and after successive finishes of 18th and 19th in points with Graham Rahal, it came as a bit of a surprise.

Rahal won twice, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway and at his and the team’s home track of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He finished fourth in points after a tough final two races, but was as high as second, nine points back, after Mid-Ohio.

Now, after Rahal’s career year and bond with the new/returning people put in place by father and team co-owner Bobby, the good problem RLL Racing faces in 2016 is the burden of higher expectations for the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake/Hyatt/Mi-Jack Honda.

Not that either Bobby or Graham is acknowledging any pressure.

“I don’t think we should feel under pressure other than we have a chance to do really well this year,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s really the same people; same mechanics, same engineers. There’s one new truck driver, but otherwise, it’s the same.

“That’s the first time that’s been the case for us and Graham in quite a while. It gives us a reason to be more optmisic. I’d rather feel the pressure of expectations of success, versus, ‘When are you guys gonna win a race?’”

“I think there’s probably more pressure from the standpoint people will expect a lot out of us,” Graham Rahal added in a separate interview.

“Personally, I believe the sport is getting more and more competitive. Its gonna be more difficult this year than ever before. But this year we have a good solid base, setup-wise. Having that knowledge is definitely gonna help us going forward. Pressure standpoint, I don’t feel too bad. We’re pretty competitive, and can take some ease in the fact we won last year.”

The personnel and setup point is a key one. Bobby Rahal moved off the box with Ricardo Nault taking over on the bo as strategist. Then, with the combination of engineer Eddie Jones, aero specialist Mike Talbott and shock specialist Martin Pare, RLL found setups last year that worked that hadn’t clicked in the past.

It’s what allowed for a greater comfort level for Graham Rahal behind the wheel, and for Bobby Rahal in observing how well the car worked.

“The difference between now and a year ago is tremendous,” Bobby Rahal explained. “We didn’t have good setups for the circuits. It was a year of discovery in a lot of ways. We’d go for a race where we didn’t know where to start from, while Penske and Ganassi did based on previous setups.

“This is why as the year went on, we got more competitive. At ‘like’ circuits, we started from a better place. We go into this year so much further ahead of where we were last year.”

Graham Rahal, himself, was thankful to reunite with Pare, who helped contribute to his best races during his two year run with Chip Ganassi Racing from 2011 to 2012.

“What helped me last year was all the guys around me,” he said. “I had a tremendous group of people. I knew we’d be competitive, and we could run with everyone. Eddie does a great job of listening.

“Martin Pare is our unsung hero. I already had a great relationship with him, and his advice, even towards Eddie, was that he knew what I wanted and needed.

“For two years, I complained about rear on ovals. It was very numb, and I didn’t know if the rear would stick or not. I legitimately started to think, ‘It’s me; I can’t drive on ovals anymore.’

“But he’d just say, ‘Let’s just do this or that’ from prior experience. And now, my car’s good again! That’s where I got a lot of confidence. I didn’t want to point the finger at myself, but I was.

“Those three guys are magic. Our core is our mechanics, but those three brains behind it are key to keeping it together.”

If there is an area and key point of improvement in 2016 for driver and team, it’s qualifying. Graham Rahal’s grid position average last year of 11th place was eighth best in the field, and best Honda. He had seven top-10 starts, but only one via a Firestone Fast Six session, when he qualified sixth at the Sonoma season finale.

The improvements will come if Honda’s aero kit makes the key strides, but as Rahal related, he knows he can dig deeper in sessions and his Sonoma run was a confidence booster.

“That’s our weakness,” he said. “That’s what we need to get better at for sure. I don’t want to make my life any harder. I haven’t been good to myself.

“But at the same time, from what we’ve seen, I’d fully expect our competitors (Chevrolet) might have a bigger advantage on ovals. They should be quicker on road course qualifying.

“I want to make my life easier. If I can start fifth and only have to get by a handful of guys, it’s so much better than 15th. I know I have a great pit crew that can make up spots, and I know I can pass cars on the track.

“Sonoma gave me a lot of confidence. I wasn’t pleased at all but we qualified sixth. I muscled it around there hard. It gave me the confidence to know, if I have to pull a lap together, I think I can do it now compared to years past.”

While many people point to Graham’s marriage to NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car ace Courtney Force as the key confidence booster, as he alluded to earlier, the overall improvements he said came from the people around him in the team.

It’s a fact Bobby Rahal agrees with it in explaining how the 2015 season was such a success.

“Last year, as the year went on, you’re competitive in a lot of races. The team is working well together. You continue to see progression on engineering, and working in a good communication between yourself. All that does is build your confidence,” he said.

“When a driver’s confident, that’s a pretty powerful component. Certainly that’s what we saw. Even at St. Pete last year, we went in and didn’t qualify that great, but in the race we were extremely competitive. We developed as weekend went on. Morning warm-up, I think we were fastest.

“Graham started passing people, got close to the front, but got penalized. I watched from Turn 1 on the grandstands. I told the team that our car looked better over bumps, with his ability to carry speed through the corner.

“You look at that race, and things were better. It’s just a matter for him, do well, and he’s had a great sense of confidence. Running up front all the time means you’re happier going to races. Everything leads onto the next. Good place mentally. From a personal standpoint, he and Courtney have been a great combination. You saw the results.”

The goal for 2016, of course, is seeing continued strong results for the primarily single-car team. Spencer Pigot is confirmed for three races in the second car, and while both Rahals are keen to see him continue for more, the primary focus will be on the No. 15 car this season.

It’s a message that Bobby Rahal thinks can help Graham win the title.

“All my championships were as a single-car team,” he said. “Everything’s dedicated to a single driver’s likes and dislikes. There’s a simplicity about one-car team that comes from it.

“For a team, the odds of winning are less, but for a driver, it’s greater. It’s about what you do with what you have. I really believe a strong sharply focused one-car team can vie for the championship against multi-car teams.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

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.”