Roger Penske remains one of racing’s most crucial figures

Roger Penske
Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s been quite a few days for Team Penske.

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano drove Ford’s new Mustang to consecutive Cup victories the last two weeks, while in Australia reigning Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin swept the weekend in the debut of that new version of the Mustang. Not bad for team owner Roger Penske.

It’s quite a start for Penske, who last month was inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, feted at the Royal Automobile Club in London and celebrated his 82nd birthday. Penske in January hunkered down for the entire Rolex 24 at Daytona, where one of his two Acura entries pulled out a third-place finish.

Penske will spend this week chairing the Penske Corp., his privately held transportation services company ahead of the IndyCar season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. He will have three Chevrolets in the race, all piloted by championship-contending drivers.

The Penske wave of success is a continuation from last year when the organization celebrated its 500th overall win, Logano won the Cup championship , McLaughlin won the Supercars title and Will Power was Penske’s 17th Indianapolis 500 winner.

At a time when the value of motorsports is constantly questioned – the overall spend by teams, resources for technology and development, sponsorship budgets and marketing plans – Penske consistently gets the most bang for the buck. “The Captain” is one of the most important figures in North American racing and his unwavering support and commitment is a steadying force during tumultuous times.

Penske has been a consistent public supporter of NASCAR’s new rules package, which made its full debut Sunday at Las Vegas. NASCAR believes the new rules will make for better racing, though teams still don’t know how it will play out over an entire season. Fans have been essentially promised it will, at minimum, make for a more entertaining show.

The new rules have been received as both polarizing and promising, but Penske has been one of the most important backers of NASCAR’s direction.

“We all have a tendency to do what’s best for us, and at the end of the day we’ve got to think about what’s best for the company,” Penske said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “And my dad told me a long time ago if you’re always thinking about what’s best for you, your company is never going to get there. Your decisions are based on what’s best for the company, best for the industry, best for NASCAR.”

His opinion has been validated with two wins in the two races with the new competition package. The victories for Logano and Keselowski gave Penske the early edge in the Ford camp and the first celebrations with the Mustang. It also gave Penske another opportunity to prove he believes in letting his drivers race each other on the very edge when the checkered flag is on the line.

Logano and Keselowski raced more like rivals than teammates over the final lap at Las Vegas and that intense finish helped NASCAR tout Sunday as a success. But they would not have raced each other so hard if the boss doesn’t approve, and Penske’s philosophy was for the betterment of the overall product.

“I really don’t have any favorites,” he said. “Only one is going to win coming out of the stable. We’ve really told them to take care of each other, at the end of 10 laps the best man wins.”

Penske plans to be in St. Pete this weekend, thoroughly invested in Power, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and the IndyCar effort. Televisions placed throughout his at-track office will be tuned to the NASCAR events in Phoenix, and his executive team will have him briefed on every important development.

Racing at nearly every level is weathering a reset and searching for solid footing in a crowded sports and entertainment space. The rebuilding period has been trying for the entire motorsports industry, but so long as Penske is still firmly on board, the fight still has significant value.

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

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

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.”