Catching up with Alexander Rossi: On testing, the season, the future

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Looking at the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil champion Alexander Rossi’s season only in the context of “Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi” fails to properly measure what he’s done, achieved and learned in his first full-time race season back in North America since 2008.

And as Rossi heads into a busy test cycle along with a number of his Verizon IndyCar Series compatriots in the next week – he’ll test tomorrow at Pocono, Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next Thursday at Watkins Glen International – he’s more focused than ever on finishing his maiden IndyCar season strong to have better results beyond his two best ones on ovals.

“This year’s been a refreshing surprise (with the level of camaraderie),” Rossi told NBC Sports. “It’s what makes this championship fun to be part of.”

Rossi is one of only four drivers (teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal) scheduled to test in all three of those test days, and his inclusion in Monday’s Firestone tire test at IMS is very important to note.

Firestone ordinarily doesn’t bestow tire test duties on rookies, but Rossi’s participation and feedback was impressive enough from his first tire test at Watkins Glen to have merited him being included at IMS.

Sure, being the ‘500 champion doesn’t hurt – but as anyone who followed Rossi throughout the full month of May would know, he was seriously on form from the time he took his first laps.

Rossi admitted the honor at being asked back for another tire test, alongside Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Rahal, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ed Carpenter – all of whom have been in the sport since the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s.

“It’s great. And yes, it’s something that started happening after May … I don’t think that’s coincidence,” Rossi said. “But it puts me in the car more and gives us more opportunity to work on our deficiencies, plus help on feedback. It’s been very positive and I’m very proud to be asked.”

Rossi’s test at IMS next Monday will be his first time in a car at IMS since his ‘500 race win. However it’s not the first time he’ll have been back at the Speedway, since.

The 24-year-old Californian was one of a number of IndyCar drivers who took in part of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 weekend and as Rossi explained, it was beneficial in several ways.

“It was my first NASCAR race (on site); I hadn’t seen one before,” Rossi said. “It was cool! I would love to see another one. I was pretty entertained.

“It was great to be there with NAPA Racing. We did quite a bit. They have the local division NAPA – Balkamp – and I’ve got to know them there really well.

“The head of Balkamp (Tip Tollison, President of NAPA Balkamp) has become a friend of mine. He came to Mid-Ohio in his motorhome, and he’s been to other races even though they haven’t been on the car.

“It’s a very positive relationship. Hopefully it leads to something in the future.”

And there’s those words – “the future” – two words which seem to swirl around Rossi on an annual basis and particularly more this year given his primary IndyCar focus while also maintaining a reserve role with Manor Racing in F1.

He wouldn’t be available for any Manor F1 race appearances until after the Singapore Grand Prix on Sept. 18, a date which is the IndyCar season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Rossi doesn’t expect to make a formal decision about 2017 until the end of this season – or at least publicize one – owing to the fact he wants to end his first IndyCar season a higher note.

“I’m sure you know from me at this point that I’m only focused on what’s on track at this point,” Rossi said. “We have Pocono next, and the question becomes how are we better and how are we going to win?

“On the whole, yes, there’s conversations that are had. It’s that time of year – and as ever, it’s an unknown.

“There’s lot of positives this year. I’ve enjoyed my time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, driving for Andretti, and I have a lot of good things to say about it. What it means about the future, I don’t know.

“With how busy the schedule is, it’s tough to make a full decision before the end. There haven’t been serious enough conversations. There could be something after Sonoma.”

The Andretti Autosport team made a bit of progress at Mid-Ohio last weekend, but a fuel probe issue hampered Rossi’s momentum after he’d climbed from 12th to eighth in the opening stint in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda.

In the final four races there are still boxes to be checked to end the season on a high note.

With the 14th place finish at Mid-Ohio, Rossi fell out of the top 10 in points for the first time since that Indianapolis 500 win, when he’d vaulted from 17th to sixth.

He’s now 11th on 316 points, only two points behind Charlie Kimball in 10th – yet he’s only 57 points out of third place, currently held by Helio Castroneves. It’s funny the gap for those eight spots is so small, because Will Power sits second in points, 58 behind points lead Simon Pagenaud.

Rossi also made it out of Q1 for the first time since the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May, equaling his season-best start on a road course of 12th.

He’s also in search of a second win, podium or top-five – sixth at Iowa is his best result outside of the Indy win.

Given how strong he was at Indy and how well he’s adapted to ovals, he should be good at Pocono; he starred early at Texas before losing the rear tires; he’s tested at Watkins Glen and he has a small amount of experience at Sonoma.

This weekend marks only the third weekend off from a race track for Rossi since the week before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April (April 10). Between IndyCar dates and two Grand Prix trips to Sochi, Russia (May 1) and Speilberg, Austria (July 3), the only weekends Rossi hasn’t been at a track since were May 8 and June 19.

“I knew it’d be busy, but I’ve had no issue with that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of it. Obviously the Pocono test, then Indy test, Glen test. It’s still pretty flat out.

“(At Texas), we learned why we had big issues early. The pace was pretty good before the rear tires fell off. I was as high as third, and Carlos (Munoz) was on pole. Package was strong. We know what we have to not have the moments we had. I don’t want to go through that again. I’m glad we made it through.”

There’s been a couple other notable moments for Rossi this year and one of the cooler parts for him occurred this weekend at Mid-Ohio, when he presented team co-owner Michael Andretti with his winning helmet from Indy.

“It was my dad (Pieter) and my idea,” he said.

“That race changed my career and life. So it was appropriate.

“Michael had called me in mid-February out of the blue. So it was good to give them the recognition.”

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.”