IndyCar Season in Review: Simon Pagenaud’s triumphant comeback

Joe Skibinski / IndyCar
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Josef Newgarden may have stolen the headlines when he won his second NTT IndyCar Series championship last month at Laguna Seca, but the man who finished second to him in the points standings deserves an equal amount of praise for his phenomenal 2019 performance. 

That man is Newgarden’s teammate, Simon Pagenaud, who made a triumphant comeback this season after a lackluster 2018 campaign that saw the Frenchman fail to win a single race.

Though every driver experiences a lengthy winless streak at some point in their career, Pagenaud entered this year’s IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course having not won a single race since September 2017 – disappointing to say the least considering that he races for Team Penske, the most sucessful team in IndyCar history. 

If there was any time for Pagneaud to win, it was then, and he did just so by passing Scott Dixon for the lead with two laps remaining to end a lengthy 21-race winless streak. 

“I know what I’m worth,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports following his first victory of 2019. “The stars just didn’t align before, but the performance has always been there this year. The team has been fantastic at giving me what I need, so here we are.”

Chris Owens/IndyCar

The stars continued to align for Pagenaud through the remainder of the month of May. One week later, he won the pole position for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, a race he went on to win the following weekend after a memorable battle with Alexander Rossi for the checkered flag.

Pagenaud wasn’t just done after Indy, however. He would win once again on the streets of Toronto in July, and finished no worse than seventh in the final six races. Pagenaud showed consistency all season, finishing outside of the top 10 only twice in the 17 races contested this year.

Though he didn’t win the series championship, Pagenaud’s consistency allowed him to remain in the title hunt all year, and he even briefly took the points lead following his win in the Indy 500.

For Pagenaud, his 2019 performance was more satisfying than his 2016 championship season.

“2016 was pretty awesome, but I think I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “Winning Indy really allowed me to just step back and enjoy things a bit more.”

Indeed, winning Indy gave Pagenaud plenty of opportunities to celebrate his accomplishment. In June, Pagenaud and his crew were invited to the White House to meet President Donald Trump – becoming the first Indy 500 winner to visit the White House since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006.

Later in August, Pagenaud also had the opportunity to return to his native France to celebrate his Indy triumph with his fellow countrymen.

“Winning the race [as a Frenchman] for the first time in almost a century was very special for people, and it meant a lot to them,” Pagenaud said. “Racing still means a lot to people over there.”

Though Indy cars have never raced in the country, Pagenaud stated that those he met in France expressed a significant amount of interest in the series, and he feels the need to continue to further educate European audiences about the sport that has given him so much. 

“I feel like it’s a duty,” Pagenaud said. “I’m faithful to IndyCar and I will continue to be faithful. I’ve loved it. 

“IndyCar has really helped my career take off. The Indy 500 has changed my life and made my career what I wanted it to be. Now my goal is to try to be more present in Europe educating people and letting them know what the Indy 500 and IndyCar is.”

If Pagenuad’s comeback performance this season was any indication of future success, expect to see the No. 22 car up front once again in 2020.

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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.”