With study upcoming, Long Beach F1 vs. Indy political football is back

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A little more than a week after the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has been completed, the long-term planning of the event and the political football about whether it should remain a bastion of the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar or be open to a Formula 1 switch is once again back in play.

Per a report from the Long Beach Gazettes, the Long Beach City Council approved a contract for a consultant to study whether IndyCar should stay – as it has since 1984 – or whether its predecessor, Formula 1, could come back. F1 ran at Long Beach from 1976 through 1983.

The council signed a contract worth $150,000 with KPMG Corporate Finance, LLC for the work, and while the contract is for a year, it can be terminated by either side with 30 days’ notice.

This is, of course, not the first time this political football has been tossed around regarding the two open-wheel series, one of which is worldwide and the other is this country’s top form of open-wheel racing.

There’s been previous looks, most recently in 2014, about the viability of F1 returning to Long Beach. But that year saw Long Beach extend the deal with INDYCAR for three years through to 2018, the end of the current contract.

Of course a ton has changed in F1 from a leadership standpoint over that time period. New owners Liberty Media are keen to expand F1’s presence in North America and have talked openly about the possibility of a Los Angeles race, and given Long Beach is established and has the F1 history there, it seems to make sense.

Except that it doesn’t. The cost of bringing F1 back would likely be an astronomical leap for the city, which would need to build proper pit garages, lengthen the track beyond its current 1.968-mile layout and would perhaps need to add further accommodations. A concern that comes along would be that higher ticket prices would likely have an adverse effect on attendance over the three days.

Race chief Jim Michaelian, who has steered this race to its continued success over the years, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern beyond 2018 it’d very much need to be an either-or situation as there’s no room for both, and that makes sense.

Michaelian told reporters in the Long Beach deadline room he expected the crowd close if not above the 2016 total of 182,420 and a Long Beach Press-Telegram editorial board column on this year’s race confirmed just that, more than 183,000 patrons over the weekend.

The Press-Telegram column also noted this:

“There was something for everyone this year — race car aficionados, music fans, families — in picture-perfect weather.

“The city never looked better than it did on live national television for a record 7 1/2 hours. It was a great way to show off the city’s waterfront, downtown and skyline.

“It’s difficult to put an exact pricetag on what that kind of TV exposure is worth to a city, but it’s a marketeer’s dream.”

Naturally, the editorial ignores that worldwide international TV exposure from an F1 race could well be bigger, but that’s beside the point. For just what was on the 2017 docket, the editorial is spot-on.

Beyond the marquee Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for IndyCar which was on NBCSN, IMSA also had a national showcase with its BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix airing live on FOX network, and Pirelli World Challenge got a same-day TV race as well on the CBS Sports Network.

A change from IndyCar to F1 wouldn’t just affect the headliner but it also affects the other series that participate on the weekend.

More to the point, it’d affect the fans. With a heavy amount of locals that comprise the 183,000 – some of whom who may not have the same resources to go to an F1 race if it switched – it’d be hard to see attendance in that same ballpark at least at the outset.

Some in the F1 media world think the prospect of Long Beach being back in their court is real, and they may have the connections to think that prospect is legitimate.

It is imperative, though, for INDYCAR to strike a deal to keep Long Beach a part of its calendar. Long Beach remains the gold standard for street course races in this country and for IndyCar, a critical tentpole in its schedule that puts it second to the Indianapolis 500 in terms of importance, history, length, attendance and cache.

This year’s winner James Hinchcliffe was effusive in his Long Beach praise as he drove into victory lane. He knows how much this race means and understood the magnitude of it – the value of Long Beach to him seemed as great if not greater than the overall story line of his comeback from his near-fatal injuries sustained in an accident in practice before the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

If INDYCAR was to lose Long Beach, it’d be a bitter pill to swallow. There’s no immediate event that then steps up to be the lead road or street race on the calendar, because the remaining ones all have their strong selling points, but none is head-and-shoulders above the rest. St. Petersburg or Barber would probably be the leading candidates because of their established date equity at the start of the year while Road America and Watkins Glen are iconic road circuits, but both now only in their second year back on the calendar.

The Press-Telegram editorial closed: “The Grand Prix Association’s contract with the city expires at the end of 2018, but it’s difficult to see how this partnership will not be renewed.

“For 43 years, the Grand Prix Association has provided the city with an outstanding event that continues to grow and showcases the city across the nation.

“It has become the city’s signature event and is no longer just a street car race. It has become an entertainment festival that has taken years to build with people who care about Long Beach.”

So watch this space to see not whether the Grand Prix continues – that seems a near lock – but whether INDYCAR and Long Beach can nail down a critical extension beyond 2018.

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.”