IndyCar 2017 driver review: Alexander Rossi

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. In seventh place, Alexander Rossi leapt up to the top-finishing Andretti driver in the standings, won another race with a wreath, and firmly established himself as one of the leading lights of the championship in an entirely more comfortable second season.

Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2016: 11th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 7th, 2 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 23 Laps Led, 14.3 Avg. Start, 11.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 7th Place, 1 Win, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 99 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 9.5 Avg. Finish

In a single sentence, Alexander Rossi was the most improved driver of IndyCar, season 2017 – and it wasn’t even close.

Rossi’s on-track results grew exponentially as his embrace of being a key part of IndyCar’s present, and its future, grew along with it as the year went on. It made covering his sophomore season a joy as his proper integration into the series truly felt achieved this season, whereas last year it was a slower process negatively affected by poor performance.

That Rossi’s results were as good as they were this year spoke volumes of his adaptation to new circumstances. He had to learn the dynamic of working with a new engineer in Jeremy Milless and also lost Bryan Herta as his race strategist, but got a like-for-like replacement on the box in veteran strategy whiz and Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards. Milless, considering he was coming from working with Josef Newgarden on a Chevrolet kit at Ed Carpenter Racing, acclimated incredibly well to his new team and his new kit, even if the results took a few races to come good.

And interestingly, they could have been even better. As we wrote earlier this year, between a puncture at St. Petersburg, engine failure at Long Beachfueling issue at Indy and being trapped in a “Ganassi sandwich” at Texas, Rossi lost close to 100 points alone between those four races. But he went on a tear from Toronto through the Watkins Glen, with five straight races between first and sixth, capped off by another fuel issue-turned-recovery drive to win at “The Glen” and defeat Scott Dixon in a straight fight. Rossi ended 148 points back of Newgarden in the championship, P7 and top Andretti Autosport entry, but could well have ended as high as third – perhaps even second – had he caught a few breaks.

Where Rossi starred as much if not more so than on-track was in his development outside the car, and shaped up as a driver IndyCar was truly lucky to have. Rossi grew into one of the year’s more candid, insightful quotes – never missing an opportunity to explain something in a smart, refined, mature level. He performed some ambassadorial tasks, particularly in the run up to the Sonoma finale. He wrote some great blogs for RACER’s website. He bonded with friends and fellow drivers Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe, with he and Daly set to appear on the new season of “The Amazing Race.” He perpetually poked fun at Marco Andretti on Instagram. He coined his No. 98 car “baby girl” and never missed an opportunity to thank NAPA Auto Parts for their support; NAPA and Andretti Autosport rewarded him with a two-year extension at year’s end. His advice offered to teammate Takuma Sato before Pocono qualifying spoke to his selflessness and dedication to his team. Thanks for that should be extended to his personal assistant Liza Markle, who rocked it in her first year working with him this year, but also to Rossi’s family and close friends around him – particularly his dad Pieter who’s been there all the way.

Going into his rookie year in IndyCar, I didn’t know how to feel about the American driver who’d long pursued his F1 dream coming into the series in what felt at first like a last-minute, last-ditch arrangement. After the conclusion of his second year, for me anyway, now it’s hard to imagine IndyCar without him.

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.”