SPM back in Indy Lights… sort of, via Belardi link-up for Urrutia

Urrutia's "Red 5." Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ departure from the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series over the winter, as first reported by Trackside Online, was that series’ biggest story of the offseason. Fortunately, with most of its equipment having found homes in other teams, the car count only dropped by one from the St. Petersburg 2016 season-opening weekend from 16 cars to 15.

However, keen-eyed observers at St. Petersburg will have noticed Arrow Electronics signage appearing on Santiago Urrutia’s red No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing car at the season opener. It was a sign that although SPM the team was gone, there was still enough interest with Urrutia, who nearly won last year’s title for the team, that the story was going to play out more into 2017.

That first glimpse at a greater alignment has now been acknowledged formally by both sides, SPM and Belardi Auto Racing having announced a “driver development program partnership” on Thursday which will now see Urrutia’s car fully adorned in the same Arrow Electronics gold and black colors as James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Urrutia has tested the car in this livery earlier this month and will premiere it to the world this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.

In the release, co-owner Sam Schmidt said this keeps the SPM name involved in Indy Lights, and noted that there’s a link-up for drivers to continue to advance into IndyCar.

“This new program with Belardi Auto Racing is all about assisting young talented drivers any way we can to get them to the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Schmidt said. “Santi did a great job for us in 2016, coming just one point shy of becoming an IndyCar driver this year. Brian Belardi has a great history of doing everything possible with talented drivers, like Gabby Chaves and Zach Veach, so we think this is a great fit. Arrow Electronics and their guests will now have another car to cheer for this season.”

Belardi added, “I’m very excited for this combined effort. I’m looking forward to the partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and having the Arrow Electronics name on our No. 5 car. I believe this new collaboration is a great step forward for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder program. I’m very proud with the fact that our former drivers like Gabby Chaves and Zach Veach will be in this year’s Indianapolis 500, and I know that this new driver development program will help graduate more of the Belardi family into the Verizon IndyCar Series.”

The entry on Urrutia’s car was changed from Belardi only to Belardi Auto Racing w/SPM for Barber, which essentially makes official what was unofficial at St. Pete: although Urrutia and engineer Tim Neff came over from SPM to the Belardi umbrella, they were almost a separate “team within a team.” Teammates Aaron Telitz and Shelby Blackstock were racing in traditional Belardi red cars, although Telitz’s car is Soul Red this season owing to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship he received for winning the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

For Belardi, this link-up makes sense if the Wisconsin native has IndyCar aspirations down the road. Belardi, like Juncos Racing and Carlin, are the next generation of new potential IndyCar team owners, but how they actually enter the series comes down to strategic decisions with a long-term view. Juncos, which announced its entry for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil earlier this year, has found the going tough in assembling its program but will have at least one car in next month’s race.

As for Schmidt, this keeps his skin in the Indy Lights game without having the equipment of a full team itself. The question that will present itself down the road the rest of this season will be if Schmidt will welcome any Belardi team victory this season, or just those by Urrutia in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Dallara IL-15 Mazda.

Urrutia finished second in race two at St. Petersburg to Colton Herta, while Telitz actually won the first race of the season in race one in dominating fashion.

The subplot of the Arrow Electronics-liveried Belardi entry racing against the Soul Red-liveried Belardi entry and the standard Belardi red entry will be one to watch throughout the rest of the 2017 Indy Lights season.

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.”