Defending IndyCar champ Pagenaud eager to have some fun at Indy

Photo: IndyCar
0 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Simon Pagenaud can quickly recite his favorite and least favorite venues on IndyCar’s schedule.

Toronto has been nothing but trouble over the years. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has been fun.

It helps, of course, when Pagenaud comes to town in May with three major titles – reigning series champ, current points leader and defending IndyCar Grand Prix winner. He also has some momentum and is expected to contend for at least one more victory at Indy this month.

“The goal is to win. If you don’t win, then you probably should do something else,” Pagenaud said Thursday. “For me, it’s just a dream come true. You always want to be fighting at some level, and it’s exactly what you hope for.”

The 32-year-old Frenchman has been the most dominant driver in the series over the last 14 months.

A year ago, he won more races (five), more poles (seven) and had more top-five finishes (10) than anyone else. He also finished the season leading more laps and more races, running away with a 127-point win over Team Penske teammate Will Power in the final standings.

He can’t quibble with the encore, either.

Pagenaud has finished in the top five in all four races this season and grabbed the points lead after winning at Phoenix in late April. He’s done all this while dealing with more challenging obstacles than he had in 2016.

Pagenaud spent the offseason trying to turn himself into a better oval-track driver. After countless hours studying data, reviewing races and working on his race-day mentality, Pagenaud already has seen a payoff.

“Whether it’s hitting the pits faster or being able to manage your tire wear better or to have a better qualifying lap, things like that,” he said. “To me, the biggest improvement I could make was going to be on ovals and so I spent a lot of time on that, and I think it’s working.”

The first big test will come May 28 when he hopes to be starting near the front of the 33-car starting grid for the 101st Indianapolis 500, a race that hasn’t been kind to Pagenaud.

In five previous Memorial Day weekend starts on the 2.5-mile track, three with Sam Schmidt’s team and two for Roger Penske, Pagenaud has one front row start and has never finished higher than eighth. It’s simply not good enough in Pagenaud’s mind.

“After winning the championship, my No. 1 goal is winning the 500,” he said.

Practice for this year’s 500 begins Monday, with qualifying scheduled for May 20-21.

But it’s Saturday’s race, the IndyCar GP, in which Pagenaud has really excelled. He won the inaugural road-course race in 2014, was knocked out of the 2015 race with a bad gearbox and became the first two-time winner last season after taking the pole. It was Pagenaud’s third consecutive victory.

If he can do it again, Pagenaud can enjoy a couple more weeks in Indy with an even bigger lead in the standings.

“There are a few races where you know have bad luck and races you know you have good luck,” Pagenaud said. “For me, the bad luck has always been in Toronto and the good luck is always in the Indy GP. It (Indy) suits my style really well. It’s about braking and traction out of the corners, which suits me really well.

“The grand prix is my specialty and I have a lot of confidence going in and we feel like we can win that.”

More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
0 Comments

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.”