MRTI Friday Notebook: Watkins Glen

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – All three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires kicked off their season-ending weekend on Friday at Watkins Glen International, with the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda completing practice sessions and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires completing both practice and qualifying for Race 1 (Saturday, 11:30 a.m. ET).

Pro Mazda and USF2000 will see their championships come down to the final races of their seasons, with Oliver Askew leading Rinus Veekay by 13 points in the USF2000 title chase, and Victor Franzoni leading Anthony Martin by a scant two points in Pro Mazda, with a double-header on tap this weekend as well.

Below is a wrapup of Friday action for all three series.

Pro Mazda

Victor Franzoni led opening practice and then followed that up by snagging pole for Pro Mazda Race 1 (Saturday, 11:30 a.m.). Franzoni’s best lap of 1:42.4376 was over eight tenths of a second quicker than Anthony Martin, who qualified second with a best lap of 1:43.2497. Critically, this also gives Franzoni one bonus point, bringing his points lead over Martin to three entering Race 1.

Title combatants Victor Franzoni (right) and Anthony Martin (left) will be on the front row for Race 1. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Despite the pressure of battling for a championship and a $790,000 Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship to move up to Indy Lights next year, neither driver appears fazed.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Franzoni asserted in a press conference prior to qualifying that featured all of the Mazda Road to Indy championship contenders. “I’m not thinking about the championship. I have to win it; if I do that, I can’t think about championship. There’s two races to do everything perfect, and whatever happens after the checkered, happens.”

Martin, too, expressed confidence ahead of the weekend, and described that his experience battling for last year’s USF2000 championship, in which he beat Parker Thompson to the title, gives him a foundation to build on.

“Last year I learned about handling the pressure. It’s immense fighting for championships and the Mazda scholarships. I learned more from last year and it’s made me a lot better today,” Martin said of his mindset ahead of qualifying.

Carlos Cunha, TJ Fischer, and Nikita Lastochkin completed the top five.

Qualifying results for Race 1 are below. Of note: Robert Megennis, running both USF2000 and Pro Mazda events this weekend, qualified sixth for Race 1. He was also ninth fastest and 15th fastest in the two USF2000 practices.

USF2000

A pair of practice sessions are in the books for USF2000, with Rinus VeeKay firing the first shot. The 16-year-old Dutchman led the opening practice, with a quick lap of 1:47.0341, which was nearly eight tenths of a second ahead of second-place runner David Malukas. Championship leader Oliver Askew was third in opening practice with a quick lap of 1:48.4421, 1.4 seconds behind VeeKay.

Rinus VeeKay was fast out of the box at Watkins Glen. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Second practice saw a more jumbled order, with Veekay not turning a flying a lap in order to conserve tires per Trackside Online’s open-wheel junior series site, TSO Ladder.

Veekay’s teammate Calvin Ming led the way in second practice, ahead of Kory Enders, Oliver Askew, Kaylen Frederick, and David Malukas.

Practices times for each session are below, beginning with Practice 1 and followed by Practice 2. Of note: six drivers (Alex Baron, Devin Wojcik, Callan O’Keeffe, Darren Keane, Niall Murray, and Kaylen Frederick) were listed as not turning laps during Practice 1, owing to transponder issues.

 

Indy Lights

Unlike the other two Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Indy Lights crown has been all but clinched. Points leader Kyle Kaiser, with a lead of 31 points over second-place Santi Urrutia and a maximum points swing of 27 possible, given the 14-car lineup, Kaiser needs to only start Sunday morning’s lone Indy Lights race of the weekend to clinch the 2017 Indy Lights title.

Kyle Kaiser has three victories in 2017 and is in position to clinch the Indy Lights championship. Photo: IndyCar

Kaiser revealed that entering the weekend with the championship all but wrapped up has been surreal.

“It’s started to sink in over five days,” said Kaiser, whose fourth-place finish last week at Gateway Motorsports Park has him in position to the clinch. “I’ll wake up and still can’t believe it! It doesn’t feel real yet. I need a wake up call. Have to treat this weekend the same. Let’s put on a show. I’m excited to go out there.”

In his third year in Indy Lights, and fifth total on the Mazda Road to Indy (Kaiser contested two seasons in the Pro Mazda ranks), Kaiser described that driver development and growth is critical in a driver’s time on the Mazda Road to Indy, and he highlighted his own growth as an example of what other young drivers can follow.

“Learning and developing is what the whole program is about,” Kaiser said of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. “I’ve taken three years, a year more than most would say; taking your time to compete for the championship, not making rookie mistakes is the way to do it. You can see the progression. Sixth as a rookie with mistakes, then third last year and now in position to win the championship. That’s what (young drivers) should strive to be.”

Indy Lights did not venture out on to the 3.4-mile road course until late Friday afternoon, their lone practice session rolling off at 4:25 p.m. ET. Shelby Blackstock of Belardi Auto Racing led the way, turning his fastest lap of 1:32.7903 on his final lap of the day. Colton Herta, Matheus Leist, Aaron Telitz, and Neil Alberico completed the top five. Blackstock has extensive experience at the track in sports cars, raced here in Indy Lights last year and made his IndyCar test debut here with Andretti Autosport last year.

Practice 1 results are below. Practice 2 for Indy Lights begins at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday.

Follow @KyleMLavigne

 

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.”