McLaren seeks to overcome setbacks at Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver
INDYCAR Photo by Matt Fraver
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INDIANAPOLIS – If Fernando Alonso and McLaren thought they got off to a slow start in Tuesday’s “Opening Day” for the 103rdIndianapolis, then Wednesday’s second round of practice was downright miserable.

It was potentially devastating to his chances to have a competitive Indy 500 in 2019.

He lost control of his McLaren Chevrolet at 12:34 p.m. on Wednesday when it drifted high into Turn 2 and brushed the outside wall. It then rebounded across the track and slammed into the infield retaining wall.

“It was just pure understeer on the car,” Alonso explained. “Even if I lifted the throttle on the entry to the corner it was not enough. I lost completely the front aero. The wall came too close and too quickly. Unfortunately, it happened today, and we will lose a little bit of running time again. I’m sorry for the team.

“We’ll learn and come back stronger tomorrow.”

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McLaren took the damaged car back to its garage in Gasoline Alley to assess the damage. It was determined the primary car should be moved aside in favor of the backup car that was used at a recent test at Texas Motor Speedway.

McLaren IndyCar president Bob Fernley said both are McLaren-built cars, but the one that will hit the track on Thursday was built by McLaren at the Carlin Racing garages in Indianapolis.

The chassis that got damaged will be rebuilt and prepared as a spare car by Friday time, in time for this weekend’s qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

INDYCAR PhotoFernley confirmed the issue that sidelined the team on Tuesday was an alternator problem. According to several crewmembers, there was some debris inside the alternator that kept it from functioning properly.

“Chevy will look into that,” Fernley said.

Two full days of practice have gone by, and McLaren has yet to have more than a few hours of running time. That has set the team back in terms of preparations for this weekend’s qualifications for the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

“You can never have enough laps,” Fernley said. “It’s not helpful in the process, but I think, unfortunately, it’s part of the Speedway program. I think we’ve reacted pretty quickly. The boys are doing a great job and we’ll be back out tomorrow.

“We definitely thought we were going to have a good run. And it was looking very good. Very steady, so it’s unfortunate.”

Unlike 2017 when McLaren formed an alliance with Andretti Autosport that gave the program a fully prepared Honda with crew and engineering support from Andretti’s IndyCar operation, this year is much different.

McLaren is attempting to create its own NTT IndyCar Series program. It is a Chevrolet operation because Honda officials in Japan prohibited Honda Performance Development (HPD) from doing business with McLaren after its Formula One team disparaged Honda’s F1 effort in 2017.

“I think this is an enormous challenge under any other circumstances,” Fernley said. “But it’s something McLaren has to do because what it’s done, it’s given them the foundation for the future.

“Working with Michael (Andretti) is fantastic, but you don’t learn anything. And that’s what you need to be able to do. In order for McLaren to take those next steps, they need the knowledge and foundation of what we’ve been doing the past few months.”

INDYCAR Photo by Walt KuhnMcLaren has an engineering agreement with Carlin Racing and can share data and other information, but the cars are built and prepared by McLaren.

“I don’t think we can rely on Carlin at all,” Fernley said. “They’ve got three cars to run. We have enough crew to do this ourselves.

“The Carlin part of it was mainly about logistics and helping us in the beginning, particularly with equipment. What we’ve had to do to set up a team, they did a year earlier. So, they were the nearest to what we’ve been having to do. So, they were very, very helpful.

“I think it’s slightly bigger challenge, not necessarily in terms of the organizational elements of it. The technology has moved on. All of which we expected, but all were a little more challenging than we thought it would be.”

Zak Brown, McLaren’s CEO, told NBC Sports.com in April that a full-time NTT IndyCar Series effort in 2020 depended on how well the team performed at the Indianapolis 500. If the team is able to overcome the obstacles it has been dealt in the first two days of practice, that might prove the mettle of this operation.

“I think what it will show, and I’m absolutely sure we will overcome the obstacles, is how good a little team we’ve built in a short period of time,” Brown said Wednesday. “The guys have worked incredibly hard to get it where it is today. And now they’re going to have to work very hard now to get us back on track again.

INDYCAR Photo“A lot depends on how tomorrow goes. The annoying part for us is we’ve had two perfect days weather-wise, and we’ve lost a little in both those days. But it’s one of those things. You have to recover from it and get on with it. It shows the depth of the team to recover from something like this. Tomorrow we’ll brush ourselves down and start all over again.

“Every has to have one (that first hit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). We’re looking at it like that. It’s part of IndyCar. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Fernley has no doubt that once the backup car is repaired and Alonso returns to the race course on Thursday morning, he will be fully focused on getting up to speed.

“You never faze him,” Fernley said. “The beauty of it is he’ll dust himself down — of course there’s a little knock in confidence — but he’ll get a few laps under his belt and be back to normal.”

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.”