‘Next year’ is now a quest for Pagenaud to defend IndyCar title

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Throughout his IndyCar career, Simon Pagenaud was the quintessential example of a driver who would give it all, but at season’s end would invariably fall short, likely saying to himself, “Wait until next year, we’ll get ‘em then.”

Well, Pagenaud can’t say that anymore. As the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, the French native is now in an all-new position in the open-wheel series: that of the hunted rather than the hunter.

But that’s fine with Pagenaud. He firmly believes there’s still a lot more to draw upon after last season’s career year.

“There’s still a lot to iron,” he said at Wednesday’s Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s only our second year together (with Team Penske), so we still have a lot to improve, so that’s what’s exciting for 2017.

“I think it’s about being disciplined. It’s easy to relax after you’ve won one time, but it’s about being disciplined. Myself, it’s to reflect on ’16 and see how I can improve myself physically, mentally, all the aspects of driving, the craft basically. I can definitely improve on a lot of those things.”

Which is not good news for his opponents.

Pagenaud roared through last season, capturing single-season career-highs in wins (five), podiums (eight) and poles (eight) in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.

By comparison, coming into 2016, Pagenaud had earned just four total wins, 12 podiums and two poles in his 85 combined Champ Car and IndyCar starts.

Now, after nearly doubling most of those totals in just one 16-race season, Pagenaud can’t wait to get started on this season’s 17-race campaign – and potentially a second consecutive championship.

One of the biggest keys will be not to become complacent.

“One of the big things for us having won is not to rest on our laurels and keep going, keep pushing to get more,” Pagenaud said. “So being hungry is going to be very important for everybody, not just me but the whole team. … But we can do better.”

While it’s hard to say Pagenaud had any marked weaknesses after the season he just had, he admits he needs personal improvement on ovals.

“I think it’s mostly focusing on the oval for 2017 and trying to raise the level there,” Pagenaud said.

Now that he’s won his first IndyCar championship, the next big goal on Pagenaud’s agenda is to win the Indianapolis 500.

In five starts to date in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, success has been mixed for Pagenaud. His best finish was eighth in 2013 for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. His second-best finish – 10th — came in 2015, his first season for Team Penske, and that was one where he had a car to contend.

Ironically, even with the overall stellar season he had in 2016, his finish at Indianapolis left Pagenaud with a bad taste in his mouth. A mechanical issue relegated him to a 19th place finish, his worst finish ever at the legendary 2.5-mile Brickyard.

Pagenaud knows that as good as his season was in 2016, he could just as easily have a bad campaign this coming season. But he’s ready for it all and however it turns out.

“It’s a job — it’s endless, this job,” he said. “There’s no limit to improving. … You can always improve. It’s just you being curious about it and trying to find more ways.”

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

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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.”