Helio Castroneves eagerly gearing up for IndyCar season debut

IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves monitored the first four IndyCar races of the season from afar.

He learned to cope with the emotions of competing outside the series, being away from longtime friends and surrounded by his biggest fans. The itch to be out there, competing, never waned, though.

On Friday, the beloved Brazilian will get the best belated birthday gift he could: Returning to the track as he prepares to make his season debut Saturday in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

“It’s really hard when you drove for 20 years and all of a sudden you’re doing something else,” Castroneves said Thursday as he celebrated his 43rd birthday. “It doesn’t connect. But I’m super happy have the opportunity I do have.”

Sure, he knew this day would come.

But the wait has been the hardest part for one of the world’s steadiest open-wheel drivers.

After making 344 starts, winning 30 races, collecting 141 top-five and 226 top-10 finishes and placing fifth or higher in IndyCar points 13 times in 16 full-time seasons, Castroneves’ career turned in a new direction.

He switched to Roger Penske’s new sports car program after last season and now anchors one of the team’s Acura entries along with defending series champion Ricky Taylor and is happily running full-time on the IMSA circuit.

“It’s great to be back, awesome,” Castroneves said during last week’s testing. “It’s like you’re playing with your old toy that (you) miss so bad.”

Castroneves’ comeback couldn’t begin at a better venue, either.

Only three drivers – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears – have more Indianapolis 500 wins than Castroneves, who also has three runner-up finishes and three additional top-fives in 17 starts on the 2.5-mile oval.

For now, though, Castroneves must remain focused on tinkering with this year’s new aero kit on the track’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course. Practice begins Friday morning with qualifying set for later in the day. There will be another practice round Saturday morning prior to the race.

Weather conditions could create another wrinkle. Saturday’s forecast calls for a high temperature of 93 degrees with a 20 percent chance of rain.

“It should be a bit different than the last two years. It should be a bit warmer, as well, so that should change how the race is going to go,” defending winner and Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud said. “I think the drafting is pretty good here. It’s been strong on the straightaway, so you can certainly get sucked up really well, you can follow closer and not get as affected as before. So there’s more opportunities (to pass) for sure.”

Fortunately for Castroneves, he’s in the best situation of any part-time driver.

He’s been with Penske’s team 19 seasons, has a crew he’s worked with previously, three teammates he worked with last year and just happens to be driving for a team that has won three of the last four series championships and each of the four other Grand Prix’s at Indy.

The question, of course, is how long will it take Castroneves to get up to speed?

Penske’s ballyhooed return to IMSA started slowly. Then last weekend, Castroneves and Taylor drove to their first victory in a race at Mid-Ohio.

Castroneves also won the pole – nipping fellow Penske driver Dane Cameron for a 1-2 Penske start to the race – and he and Taylor combined to lead a race-high 87 laps. The other 38 laps were led by Penske teammates Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished second.

It was Team Penske’s first IMSA win in nearly 10 years, and Castroneves’ first win on the circuit since taking the LMP2 class win in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 4, 2008.

That gives Castroneves momentum heading into the weekend – and renewed hope of becoming the first top-series level driver to win on both of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s courses.

“I do think about that and I have been thinking about that since this race started,” Castroneves said. “I’m ready to go here.”

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.”