DiZinno: Hinchcliffe, SPM, Honda strike gold in Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – The gold rush that lives in California historical lore occurred up the coast in San Francisco, but it came a few hours south this weekend to Long Beach.

Because there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for James Hinchcliffe and his gold and black No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team, who won Sunday at Long Beach, to provide the second great story line to emerge to kick off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The team’s street course program has improved by leaps and bounds in Hinchcliffe’s three seasons with the team, and you only need to look at the qualifying improvements at St. Petersburg and Long Beach from 2015 to 2017 to note the tweaks.

At St. Pete, Hinchcliffe has improved from 16th in 2015 to eighth last year to third this year. Long Beach is similar; 13th in 2015 to seventh last year to now fourth this year.

The crew led by engineer Allen McDonald – a setup wizard whose nickname is “Squirrel” – and Hinchcliffe’s strategist Robert Gue have helped propel the No. 5 car forward, back to regularly threatening the leaders as they did when Simon Pagenaud was their lead driver from 2012 to 2014. McDonald even jumped in the water behind the pit lane after the race Sunday night to pay off a pre-race bet.

A two-stop strategy call was key to Hinchcliffe’s victory Sunday, but he still needed the pace over the stints while saving fuel to be able to pull it off.

“Yeah, it’s always a tough call here, you know, because one caution falling at the right time or the right length of laps can throw everything for a loop,” Hinchcliffe said post-race.

“You know, when (Scott) Dixon dove into the pits there, kind of predicting the yellow coming up for whoever was off in Turn 8, for Marco (Andretti), a smart move. It didn’t pay off, but especially after what we saw in St. Pete, they’re protecting against that. It was kind of a good idea.

“At that point now you’re second-guessing, maybe did we do the wrong thing. Luckily it played into our favor. When those cautions fell at the end, I thought a caution was going to ruin my day. Luckily we had the car to hold them off.”

Hinchcliffe was caught out on the wrong end of that in St. Petersburg, where he led 21 laps but was trapped when the yellow flew. He ultimately ended in ninth.

Today though was all about the comeback, and the story line of the guy who entered the national consciousness again via his fun and entertaining run on “Dancing with the Stars” going one spot better, and doing so in the Los Angeles market.

And that inevitably brings back the whole comeback story to the fore once again, from his accident in practice in 2015 before the Indianapolis 500 that then sidelined him for the rest of the year. It’s been told repeatedly in the now two years since, but this was still a case of “completing the comeback” as it was.

“I mean, last year the (Indianapolis 500) pole was a unique set of circumstances, return to the scene of the crime, so to speak. To do what we did there, what we accomplished as a team, all throughout the entire month, but especially on qualifying day, was huge.

“This does feel different. I feel like we’re back. I feel like we’ve been back for a while now. To finally do what was goal number one when we set out at the start of the season, to get back into winner’s circle, to do as as early in the season as we have, as convincingly as we did, it was a great race.”

The win is Hinchcliffe’s second for SPM, the first for both himself and the team since NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015, one of the goofiest races in recent memory. He pitted on Lap 13 in an ultimately rain-shortened, 47-lap, one-off race thanks to Gue’s strategic call, and while he appreciated that win, he explained why this one feels so much better.

“I mean, winning like this means so much more than wins like NOLA. At the same time you take wins like NOLA because I’ve lost way more races because of situations like that than I’ve won,” he said.

“When I watched the race in NOLA afterwards, I thought, Man, celebrating a little bit too much for a guy that pitted on lap 13 and won the race somehow, you know.

“But you got to take ’em. This series is so competitive. Like I said, we got a lot of wins ripped away from us for a lot less weird circumstances, you know, so…

“As much as winning is nice, everything it like this definitely feels a lot better.”

Putting aside his celebrity value, Hinchcliffe and Long Beach have had a torrid love affair from the track being so good to him in his career anyway.

He got his first ever Atlantics podium here in 2006. He won his first Indy Lights race here in 2010. He got his first IndyCar top-five with fourth in 2011, and his first IndyCar podium with third a year later in 2012.

In 2014 he was so close to a possible victory before getting taken out by Ryan Hunter-Reay at Turn 4, when the two were Andretti Autosport teammates.

He would have had to hold back Hunter-Reay Sunday, before Hunter-Reay’s car seized up with an electrical issue he determined was the same one that cost him a likely win at Pocono.

Hinchcliffe with the SPM crew. Photo: IndyCar

So winning at IndyCar’s second “major” – the most prestigious event on the calendar other than the Indianapolis 500 and the biggest road or street race on the calendar – was always going to mean a lot to him. The fifth win also sees him tie his countryman and hero, the late Greg Moore, with career wins.

“If someone told me after NOLA last year that five wins was the number Greg had, the number Jacques Villeneuve had, and I believe the number Patrick Carpentier had. Only PT is higher than that in the list of Canadians in in Indy car racing. To drive at a level with those guys, I mean, it’s tough to put into words,” he said.

“Greg was a huge motivation and a huge inspiration to me as a child. I followed Jacques’ career religiously. When Pat and Greg were teammates, followed Pat as well, to now be level with those guys is incredible.

“You know what, when I came into this sport, I felt a huge responsibility, to be honest, to keep up the good name that Canadian drivers had in Indy car. There haven’t been a ton of us. The ones that have been here have been race winners, they’ve been contenders week in and week out. I wanted to maintain that, you know, record for Canada, not be the guy that let us down.”

And about the Long Beach prestige?

“To do it here and finally at this place, a track that I love so much, a track that’s been very good to me in my career, one that I think is the Indy 500 of street tracks, it’s the second longest running race after the 500.

“I think because of that history, it makes it a very special event, one that every driver wants to win. The greats have all raced here, the greats have all won here. To get in the winner’s circle was huge.”

A classic Hinchcliffe deadpan summed it all up:

“Well, you put your face in the ground when you win, which is amazing. Who wouldn’t want that?”

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.”