JR Hildebrand proving an invaluable asset to ECR’s 2016 season

Carpenter and Hildebrand. Photo: IndyCar

Reserve drivers aren’t really a “thing” in the Verizon IndyCar Series like they are in Formula 1, but Ed Carpenter Racing has used one to its advantage throughout 2016.

While it’s perhaps a shame that JR Hildebrand isn’t in a full-time seat – people probably forget how good the 28-year-old Californian who now lives in Denver still is – Hildebrand’s work with Carpenter this year has easily been the most important of his three years with the team.

Hildebrand has raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an extra Carpenter car each of the last three years but this year has seen him take on a much greater role, if by unfortunate circumstances.

Josef Newgarden’s crash at the now-postponed Texas Motor Speedway race on June 12 forced Hildebrand into action with INDYCAR adding more in-season test days this year. Newgarden was, only temporarily, sidelined with a broken right clavicle and right hand injury.

With Newgarden sidelined for pre-race tests at Road America and Iowa Speedway, Hildebrand has stepped into the No. 21 Direct Supply or Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet admirably to work on setup and develop a baseline for both events.

It’s worth noting that Newgarden’s car might not have been as locked in as it was for Road America – when he pressed through to drive from 20th on the grid up to eighth – without Hildebrand’s feedback and setup.

To hear Hildebrand tell it though, he knew he was really only going to be on standby figuring Newgarden would do everything in his power to make the race. That selflessness is what has made him a huge asset this year.

“I’ve showed up here knowing it was likely that he was going to be able to drive,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports after Road America.

“I mean, I figured from early in the week that if he gets to the point that he can try it, that he’s probably going to be good enough to go for the rest of the weekend. So that was sort of honestly my expectation and showed he was able to do a good job.

“I’m here in a reserve role, that’s kind of my gig with these guys. Certainly if anything happened, I’d have been ready to go. I’ll test for them at Iowa this week, just to give him a bit of a break so it’s all good.”

Newgarden has hailed Hildebrand’s work throughout this year and particularly over the last month.

“JR has been a huge asset to us. He’s like a driver to us full-time anyway,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.

“He’s been huge for me, a lot of advice, coaching, so it’s been nice having him around. He got us squared away for race weekend.”

Hildebrand, without being in the cockpit, wound up in a driver analyst role for IndyCar Radio on the IMS Radio Network during the Road America race.

That provided him a lot of extra insight into how a race evolves from a strategy standpoint that he can use to what he’s already learned and developed over his driving career.

“They have a lot of information to work with there but I think the things that are interesting for us is really understanding what the pit windows are and what the segment times are as you go through the lap,” Hildebrand explained.

“You have so much information on the timing stands. You feel like you’re flying blind a little bit up in the broadcast booth, you don’t know exactly what’s going on with anybody. It’s still cool to see and obviously I sort of know enough about what the look for, what the pit windows should be and where guys have been at to pick up on some of that stuff.

“It’s so interesting to watch and obviously there at the end with that late race caution, all kinds of stuff going on on track. You can hardly keep up with it.”

As noted, Hildebrand tested last week at Iowa to dial in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for this weekend’s race. Newgarden, who’s noted Iowa will be a tougher test for him, thanked Hildebrand for his efforts.

“We had a great test and I am super thankful to JR Hildebrand for getting us in a great spot going into the weekend,” Newgarden said in the team’s pre-race advance.

“We just need to show up and execute well. If we do, I think we have all the ingredients necessary to have a strong weekend.”

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.”