Long Beach Grand Prix has party mood, but racing there is no day at the beach

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Drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series love traveling to Southern California for the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

They can let down their hair, and like the Beach Boys sang in Surfin’ USA, you might even see a few drivers “wearing their baggies (shorts), Huarachi sandals, too” when they’re not in their race cars.

“It’s like a big party at the beach,” said 1999 TGPLB winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

But the 1.968-mile, 11-turn race contested on a temporary street course that abuts part of the Pacific Ocean shoreline will not be a day at the beach by any means.

Scott Dixon won last year’s 80-lap, 157.44-mile event for the first time in his career, eventually capturing the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, while former TGPLB winner Helio Castroneves started from the pole with a record-setting speed of 106.331 mph.

Dixon is looking to make it two wins in a row not only at Long Beach but also in the early part of the 2016 season, having won two weeks ago at Phoenix.

“Long Beach has such an amazing history,” Dixon said. “It’s a truly iconic American event that started gaining a lot of popularity with Formula One back in the day.

“With the layout of the track, it’s truly one of the best street circuits anywhere around, and more importantly you actually get to race there. It took me forever to get to victory lane there, but we managed to accomplish that last year and I hope we can return to that form again this year.”

Sebastien Bourdais is a three-time winner (2005-2007) at Long Beach, while Will Power is a two-time winner (2008, 2012) there. They are the only active multi-race winners in Sunday’s race.

“It is a great event because of the atmosphere,” Bourdais said. “Next to the Indy 500, it is the premier event on our schedule.”

Other former TGPLB winners in the field are Juan Pablo Montoya (1999), Helio Castroneves (2001), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2010), Takuma Sato (2013) and Dixon (2015).

“It’s always a lot of fun racing in Long Beach,” Castroneves said. “It’s incredible that this will be 42 years that this event is here. There’s so much tradition and history with this race and it’s a pretty special event to have on our Verizon IndyCar Series calendar every year.

“I remember when we won at Long Beach in 2001. That was awesome and we’ve been close a few other times, including last year when we won the pole and finished second. We will be looking for our first win of 2016 on Sunday in the No. 3 Auto Club of Southern California Chevy and Long Beach will be a great place to do it.”

Added Sato, “Long Beach is always a special place for me. I simply love the venue, atmosphere, great restaurants, enthusiastic fans and, of course, I enjoy driving the track so much. It holds an incredible memory for me (2013 win), so I am looking forward to going back there very much.”

Montoya laments that it has been 17 years since his lone win at Long Beach. He’s ready to break that winless streak Sunday.

“That’s been a long time,” Montoya said. We’ve been pretty strong there the last couple of years, running in the top five, and hopefully we’ll be in a good position to continue that this weekend.

“We always get a great crowd at Long Beach – it’s one of the best atmospheres for racing that we have in the Verizon IndyCar Series. … I’m hoping we’ll have good reason to celebrate with everyone on Sunday after the race.”

James Hinchcliffe is looking forward to returning to Long Beach not only because of the atmosphere, but he’s hoping it brings a turnaround to what has started out as a tough season.

“Long Beach is one of the best events on the calendar,” Hinchcliffe said. “There’s a reason it’s been around more than 40 years. The track, the city, the events around town, they’re all great.

“Long Beach has been nice to me in the past, so hopefully we can have a solid weekend there after a few tough events and really kick off the season.”

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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.”