PWC: 2017 GT, GTS season preview

Barber start last year. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge’s name is more accurate than normal entering 2017.

The Pirelli portion is the component that stays most intact, while “World” represents both the diversity of cars and drivers entered as the series continues its push to be further aligned with SRO and the international sports car scene. “Challenge?” That’s deciphering the newness that’s on tap this year with SprintX taking a greater role in the overall series structure at its standalone weekends, and navigating the switch from longtime sanctioning partner SCCA to USAC.

Alas, one thing that remains intact for 2017 is the depth in the quality of the GT field, which has no shortage of top names, teams and manufacturers present this season.

Alvaro Parente returns to defend his title in his No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3, following a dramatic championship victory of a year ago. Parente now knows all the circuits he didn’t this time last year and will be perhaps a greater force to be reckoned with. In new teammates Bryan Sellers and Mike Hedlund, Parente also has two capable gunners who should pose more of a win threat more regularly than talented but lesser experienced youngsters Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson last year. Hedlund, a GTA entrant, has the Flying Lizard crew at his disposal for a title pursuit there.

Two other teams mirror K-PAX with drivers capable of winning both in GT and GTA. The first is Wright Motorsports, with Patrick Long and Michael Schein in their two Porsche 911 GT3 Rs. Long was desperately unlucky to lose last year’s title at the end while Schein won races but missed a few races early that cost him points. The other is Magnus Racing, which arrives in PWC with a strong two-car entry of Audi R8 LMS cars. Pierre Kaffer is a winner-to-be in GT with John Potter capable of the same in GTA.

Johnny O’Connell and Michael Cooper will be keen to return the Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs to the top of the perch after being dethroned last year. O’Connell, a four-time champion, has lost none of his speed nor motivation. Cooper impressed last year with a couple wins and fully justified his promotion to the Cadillac team after winning a GTS title with Blackdog Speed Shop’s Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in 2015. Both will again be title contenders this season in their Velocity Red and Vector Blue liveried cars.

The two other two-car, GT-only teams come from RealTime Racing with its Acura NSX GT3s and Bentley Team Absolute with its Bentley Continental GT3s. Ryan Eversley has won races in each of the last two years in RealTime’s old TLX-GT and will look to continue that run aboard one of the new NSX cars; sports car veteran Peter Kox will be keen to prove he has the consistent speed to contend. Bentley lacks a dynamic star at the moment; Adderly Fong has some potential while the absence of young talent Andrew Palmer, injured last year at Lime Rock, still stings.

Plenty of one-car efforts are set to contend in GT, though. Between Ryan Dalziel’s CRP Mercedes, Jon Fogarty’s GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Porsche, Alex Riberas’ R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari and James Davison in a TRG Aston Martin, there’s no shortage of talent here.

The GTA field also includes GMG Racing with two Porsches, including one for last year’s GT Cup champion Alec Udell. The capable, experienced and still super young Udell, only 21, is the 2017 candidate who can be most like Bryan Heitkotter and Michael Lewis, who starts out as a GTA driver and can win races there before an eventual progression into GT. Sadly, neither Heitkotter nor Lewis – race winners last year – are present for this year’s season opener. Notable in the rest of the class is the perennially active Tim Pappas, in a new Mercedes-AMG GT3 after recent years running either an old Mercedes, Viper or Porsche for his Black Swan Racing team.

GT Cup is still active but with only two cars, one of which a Ferrari Challenge Evo which will mark the first time a non-Porsche Cup car is entered within the previously single-make class.

GTS’ 19-car field includes a couple venerable old GTS-spec cars mixed in with more of the new GT4-spec cars. With last year’s champion Brett Sandberg not listed, it’s left to others such as Lawson Aschenbach in the debuting Camaro GT4, Nate Stacy now in a Flying Lizard Porsche Cayman GT4 MR and Parker Chase in the Ginetta G55 who are among the class favorites. Andrew Aquilante returns with his Phoenix Performance Ford Mustang Boss 302. Ian James, in the debuting but as-yet-not-homologated for GT4 Panoz Avezzano GT, will also be one to watch. Like the Ginetta, the SIN R1 GT4 and KTM X-Bow GT4 are also still in the field, joined as well by the new McLaren 570S GT4.

PWC will be interesting to watch this year because its five weekends with IndyCar see the traditional sprint format, a PWC staple, maintained. The two-driver, 60-minute SprintX format, introduced in a three-race trial last year, takes on a greater role starting at VIR in late April. That weekend will see PWC fully on its own, with all of its classes between the GT combination, GTS, and the three Touring Car classes (TC, TCA, TCB).

The fate of a lot of competitors can also in large part come down to Balance of Performance, which in tandem with SRO continues into 2017 and sees different BoP tables issued for different tracks. How you battle/overcome the BoP may have an impact on your year.

That said, PWC has prided itself on ensuring a largely fair and level playing field, and the number of manufacturers entered within GT largely bares that point out with a total of nine in GT/GTA again (Mercedes-AMG, Cadillac, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, McLaren, Acura, Bentley, Aston Martin) set to run starting this weekend, and that’s before a Nissan return.

Enjoy what’s known for now, and look forward to the series’ continued evolution as the year goes on.

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.”