IndyCar ready to return to St. Louis area after long layoff

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MADISON, Ill. (AP) The return of IndyCar after a long layoff to the St. Louis region is welcome news for area racing fans.

St. Louis is still dealing with the election last month, where a bond issue failed that would have provided money for a stadium for a Major League Soccer team.

And also of course the NFL’s Rams, who moved to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.

But the return of the IndyCar racing open-wheel series to Gateway Motorsports Park, the 1.25-mile oval in this small city five minutes from downtown St. Louis has brought high hopes to a track that six years ago was 24 hours away from the grandstands being sold for scrap.

That’s when St. Louis real estate developer and former open-wheel racer Curtis Francois came up with money to help revitalize the once-failing 340-acre facility.

“We’ve been working really hard over the last five years to re-energize the fan base and motorsports in general,” said Francois, whose track will host its first IndyCar series race since 2003 on Aug. 26.

“I think they understand that we’re sincere and that we’re going to keep at this until we get this figured out in a way that they understand that motorsports is here to stay.

“And motorsports is a great opportunity to take your family out for a great afternoon. It’s important to engage them and make them understand that we are trying to give them what they’re after.”

That showed on Tuesday when several hundred fans showed up for two IndyCar test sessions, which surprised the drivers, IndyCar officials and Gateway management.

So much so, that the drivers held an impromptu autograph session during a break.

“This is not very common when we’re going to a place like this and having practice and people are coming over,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves and the last winner of the IndyCar race at Gateway.

“It’s like a qualifying day. That is great. It shows that we do have a market here. I’m happy. This is the way it started when you’re going to new places. You start to practice and people start coming to watch. I feel this is going to be the same.”

On Saturday night, the series raced at Phoenix International Raceway in front of only about 10,000 fans. It was the second time returning to Phoenix after a 10-year layoff.

While the low attendance figure bothered drivers and officials, they also know it’s hard to win back fans after a long layoff.

“It’s only the second year (in Phoenix),” said 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who was second at Gateway in 2003.

“To me it seemed like it was as good, or as bad, whatever you want to call it. Honestly, I think everybody tried there are just some places that has better attendance than others. But I don’t have an answer.”

As for coming to Gateway, Kanaan said “these are the types of places we need to come back to. I’m excited to come back and come back here. We just need to keep pounding on social media that we’re coming back. That’s the best thing to do.

“Then when we come back here and put on a good show for them and the people that didn’t come, they regret it.”

IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye said the series will have to reintroduce itself to St. Louis-area race fans after a 13-year layoff.

“The Midwest is great. There’s a lot of race fans,” Frye said during a break during two test sessions.

“We’re excited to be coming back. Curtis Francois and (general manager) Chris (Blair) have a vision. We understand it’s going to take a couple of years to build it back up. That’s OK.

“As long as we’re lined up together and they have a vision and a plan with where they’re going, we’re partners. We’re excited to be back.”

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.”