IndyCar 2016 driver review: Graham Rahal

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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fifth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a roller coaster year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg. Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 5th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 5th, 4 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 8 Top-10s, 14 Laps Led, 12.8 Avg. Start, 8.9 Avg. Finish

For Graham Rahal, the year ended only one position worse in points than in 2015. The difference was, last year fourth was a disappointment after contending for the title down to the final race in Sonoma, while this year, Rahal often languished in the lower regions of the top-10 or outside it before finishing with a surge to vault into the top-five. It was an inconsistent campaign results-wise, but one, which also showed that Rahal’s ability and the collective efforts from his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team of a year ago were not a fluke.

The yo-yo dynamic of the year was such that although Rahal banked eight top-fives – his only top-10s of the year – he only strung them together in back-to-back races once all season, when he was a tough second at Barber following a duel with Simon Pagenaud and then rebounded from a qualifying penalty to finish fourth at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Otherwise, he followed a top-five finish with a result outside the top-10 in every instance. Pace deficiencies were rarely the reason for the poor result. Sometimes he got punted, sometimes he got caught out by yellow timing and sometimes, like at Watkins Glen, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when battling Charlie Kimball for position.

The highlight, naturally, was his win at Texas. It was an incredible run in the closing laps to make the moves he did, then push past James Hinchcliffe on the inside for the win into Turns 3 and 4, and then win it by 0.008 of a second. That he did so with the news coming later that night his grandmother had passed made it all the more poignant; similar to how he won at Mid-Ohio last year on home soil, sharing the podium with the late Justin Wilson. He would have never known it at the time what it meant to win there.

A second-place at Sonoma was just desserts for the campaign – it rewarded the crew and Rahal’s pace for the year, which was evident with five Firestone Fast Six appearances. RLL ended ahead of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as the most consistent contenders for Honda, more so than Andretti Autosport, which often languished in the midpack.

Rahal delivered a year that wasn’t quite the encore of his career 2015, but it was an important one in that he proved he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder and has the consistent pace and performance to be considered a legitimate title contender on an annual basis. That he did so on the one-car team, down in terms of personnel, budget and data feedback compared to the four-car mights, spoke volumes of their collective ability to make even more happen.

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.”