IndyCar: ‘New era’ of Roger Penske, aeroscreen showcased at Media Day

Bruce Martin Photo

AUSTIN, Texas – IndyCar’s annual preseason Media Day is like the first day of school for the racing series. It’s a chance to see old faces in familiar places as well as a few new faces who hope to make the grade.

It’s a day filled with hope and optimism that 2020 will be the year speed and performance will take a driver and team to Victory Lane.

Monday’s IndyCar Media Day at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Austin had all of those characteristics.

But this year’s event was different. It was the beginning of a new era on several fronts.

IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway now are owned by Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in auto racing history. Though Penske was not part of Monday’s activities, his influence over the future and the positive reception to his leadership were certainly a main topic of conversation.

“We all have very high hopes,” Alexander Rossi said. “The Hulman-George family did a great job, but it was time for a fresh set of eyes as a group. Look at what Roger Penske has done in his career, whether it is motorsports or not, and everything is exceptional. To have the capabilities and the passion to make it work is very cool.”

Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden has special insight into Penske. In addition to owning the series, the man also owns Team Penske, which features Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Newgarden as the drivers.

“Roger is a man who is better than all of us,” Newgarden said. “I can’t think of anyone who can keep up with him. We are very happy that the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are in the best hands of anybody in the world. He has the passion, the knowledge, the capability and the business structure to make sure that place survives for the next 100 years.”

It also was a chance for drivers and teams to give their thoughts on IndyCar’s aeroscreen. The cockpit safety enhancement will give the cars the look of a fighter jet. Several drivers and at least one team owner hope the new look of the cars will resonate with younger fans.

“I want people of our age to know how cool IndyCar racing really is,” said 23-year-old team co-owner George Michael Steinbrenner IV.

Most of the drivers have accepted the safety enhancement, but there have been a few who remain skeptical. Graham Rahal had a message for those who question the aeroscreen.

“I’m comfortable,” Rahal said. “I haven’t even driven it and I’m comfortable. I said this earlier, all these other guys can complain and make it difficult, but we are here to support IndyCar president Jay Frye and the series. We are here to lift up the series.

“We’ve all driven sports cars, and it’s not any different than that. We are going to face the same challenges. We’ve faced the rain in the sports car. We’re going to face those challenges, and we are going to make the most of it.

“It’s a fighter jet on wheels. My other dream aside from being an IndyCar driver was being a fighter pilot.

“Now, I get to mix both.

“That’s part of the evolution of life. We need to be better protected, and when we go to the ovals in particular, it’s going to be nice to be further protected.”

Cars hit the track Tuesday at nearby Circuit of the Americas (COTA) to begin two days of preseason testing.

Rain and cold temperatures are in the forecast for both days, and that has already led to some anxiety among drivers. Because COTA is a road course and IndyCar has rain tires, teams still could hit the track.

“The weather is not ideal, and that could throw a real curveball at us,” Rahal said. “If they mandate that we run or if they don’t, do the test days get shifted? If that happens, it will be a total nightmare over the next three weeks before St. Pete.”

That could throw teams testing into a mad scramble to prepare in time for the March 15 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Running in the rain could give INDYCAR some valuable feedback on the aeroscreen.

Tuesday will be the first time all cars on the track will have the open-canopy screen that will shield the driver from flying debris. Each aeroscreen will be fitted with tear offs, similar to those used on the visor of a race helmet. Because the tear offs are applied in layers, they quickly can be removed during pit stops to give the driver fresh visibility.

“Visibility in traffic will be important,” veteran oval driver and team owner Ed Carpenter said. “All of the testing has been done with one or two cars, and they have not run together for that much or that long. Some of the other oval races, if you are not running in traffic, you won’t know. That is something I need to get comfortable with.

“There is still a lot to learn with the cooling side of it. Visually, it’s no problem. The safety gains of protecting us from debris is great, but I do need to get comfortable with the visibility.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

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.”