Pagenaud, Rahal extoll “unbelievably fast” Watkins Glen

Rahal (15) and Pagenaud (22). Photo: IndyCar
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The Verizon IndyCar Series points leader and most recent winner are high enough on life anyway following Saturday night’s resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.

But Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal might be even happier headed into this weekend’s Watkins Glen Grand Prix (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), a late add to the 2016 calendar to replace what would have been a first-time street race in Boston.

We caught up with both drivers a few weeks ago before Pocono, while IndyCar was in the midst of a couple off weekends (albeit still with a heavy testing slate).

And both drivers have extolled the 3.4-mile permanent road course in Upstate New York, recently repaved, while noting how “unbelievably fast” it is after testing there.

“It’s really quick man. It was good fun. I was definitely impressed with what we’re experiencing there,” Rahal, who won Saturday night at Texas, told NBC Sports.

“G-load wise, it might be insane. Mid-Ohio was 4.5 Gs in qualifying in Turn 1. There might be some spots at the Glen where it’s that and then some. It’ll be intense.

“For whoever will go and see it, they should enjoy myself. Watching that on-board, which isn’t even at eye-level, because the camera is a little higher up, you can visibly see a lot more… and people are like holy crap!!

“Everyone is blown away by the speeds. If the fans want to go to any race, go to that place, because it looks like unbelievably fast.”

Pagenaud added similar thoughts from an earlier test this year in June, a Firestone tire test.

“Watkins Glen… oh man, it’s absolutely nuts!!” he told NBC Sports. “The tarmac design they have is really grippy. The tires are very consistent. Not much degradation. There’s very high pace and the commitment level is what impresses me the most. So much downforce but also so much grip, it’s doubly what we get! There’s a video game kinda feel!

“You’ll have to brake as little as possible. It’s hard to feel the car. Push those commitment limits, float with the limits. The reaction is really fast.”

Pagenaud, who tested in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet colors but will have a different primary sponsor this go-around, explained how he thinks the race could play out.

“Passing will be difficult… but you can make it happen before the Bus Stop. Push to Pass is awesome for acceleration. It might be more of an advantage uphill. Should be good device. Honestly… there could be a big game of downforce levels. Some might trim out, or put more on.”

Rahal spent his morning session at the August test watching Ed Jones – the Indy Lights driver, not his actual engineer of his No. 15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda Eddie Jones – in the car. And he was blown away with what he witnessed.

“It looks crazy from outside. I was telling [Jake] Query – and I went out and watched – Ed Jones was in my car, and I was like, holy crap!! How am I gonna get up to speed that fast?!?

“It looked insane. I watched from Bus Stop, then the Carousel on down. That left-hander before the pit entry and then the last right-hander onto the front straight is ridiculously, crazy fast. You’re flat through the left, and it’s nuts man. From the outside, there’s the grandstand, and your jaw just drops.

“It’s one of the first times you sit and watch… you legitimately will be blown away.”

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.”