Uncharted territory for IndyCar at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Bruce Martin Photo

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – As the professional sports world enters uncharted territory over the massive amounts of cancellations, IndyCar is trying to steer its ship to calmer waters.

It was able to salvage Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from cancellation, but it will be an IndyCar industry-only crowd.

Not since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has the sports world been universally threatened by something so big. This time, it’s the coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic.

Working in conjunction with Mayor Rick Kriseman, Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, race sponsor Firestone and other key health officials, the race will go on without spectators. No one from the general public will be admitted to the grounds.

Non-essential team members are being sent home.

“There will be a race,” Miles told NBCSports.com about an hour before the official announcement was made at the St. Petersburg Police Headquarters. “It is challenging, but there is a great partnership between the city, the promoters, IndyCar and the other series.

“Everybody came to the discussions today to get the best answers. I think we’ve done that.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman — Photo by Bruce Martin

Mayor Kriseman made the official announcement that the race would continue with drastic changes to who is allowed to watch in person.

The mayor, Miles and race promoter Kevin Savoree (pictured above) explained why the annual race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, could not be canceled and held later in the season.

“From a series point of view, that would be very difficult,” said Miles, who is the CEO of the company that runs IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Nobody knows what the next several weeks or months are going to look like. You have multiple considerations. We’ve built a track. It’s tough to build it twice. There are television considerations. It would be highly unlikely to reschedule this. We have made the considerations we needed to do as we discussed to be able to continue forward.”

Green-Savoree Promotions has been involved in this race in one form or another since 2005. Because the NTT IndyCar Series season opener is conducted on city streets, there are a series of permits that have to be obtained with stipulations that have to be met by strict deadlines.

“We have a city license that we have had since 2004,” Savoree explained. “It’s very specific about build times and removal times and all those details. For us to work and recreate that over a two-month period, just wouldn’t be practical.”

The mayor has the authority to make a decision based on public health safety. He said there are now five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area.

“It’s really about mass gatherings,” Mayor Kriseman explained. “The teams are already here. All of the competitors are already here in town. It’s not like it’s a week-out and nobody has come here yet. They are all here. What we don’t want to see is a situation where you have 150,000 people over a weekend that are all together in one place. It didn’t not make sense for us. That is why we did this.

“Trying to follow the advice of the experts, that is all we can rely on.”

Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was told of the joint decision to continue the race without spectators by NBCSports.com

“Everyone is concerned about the health-related risks,” Hunter-Reay responded. “As racers, we want to race. With that said, these epidemics and pandemics, we are weeks and weeks behind what is actually the rate of infection. We don’t know where we are right now. We are a bunch of racers in St. Pete getting back to what we do.

“Not having spectators here, it’s unprecedented territory. We haven’t been here. It is extremely unfortunate for the fans. They make this series happen and make this event happen. It’s the only reason why we get to do what we do and what we love. They are not able to be here and support us.

“As fellow humans, we need to look after each other’s best interests and that is where we are at.”

This was supposed to be a weekend of great celebration, the beginning of a bright new future for IndyCar. Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation purchased IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 from the Hulman-George Family on November 4 and officially become the owners on January 6.

Fans, media, competitors and partners were excited about the beginning of a new era for IndyCar, starting at St. Pete.

“At IndyCar, we are all about presenting great sport and compelling racing,” Miles said. “There is no place we enjoy doing that more than St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s the kickoff to our season every year. We feel the love here and have always appreciated the support.

“That is what we are about, but unfortunately, events have caught up with all of us here.

“I want to say heartfelt thanks to the mayor and his administration for their support and for Green Savoree for their hard work. The collaboration that went into their decisions today was excellent. We believe at IndyCar; we have ended up at a good spot.

“We are going to race. It will be part of the championship. It will be our first event. It will be seen nationally and internationally. People will still be able to see the beautiful vistas here at St. Petersburg. We accomplished a lot of what we set out to do.

“There are a lot of fans that are already here. I hope the merchants can take advantage of that because they won’t be able to come to the track. For us, it’s paramount, in addition to the support, the safety of the public and the competitors.

“I think we are at a spot that is the best under the circumstances.”

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.”