IndyCar’s different strokes for different folks in iRacing Challenge

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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When Simon Pagenaud drove to victory in last Saturday’s Chevrolet 275 at virtual Michigan International Speedway in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner was in full race gear. That included his Team Penske firesuit and driving shoes.

When five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon started to build his sim rig for the virtual racing series, he wanted to install a beer holder.

For three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, his sim rig is located in his garage in Miami. Because it’s 85 degrees outside, it’s even warmer in Castroneves’ garage. He has been competing in sim racing shirtless and wearing a pair of flip-flops.

The diversity of apparel is indicative of the range of attitude toward virtual racing and how it has replaced real racing during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The fourth race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge is the Firestone 175 at virtual Twin Ring Motegi (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). New to this week’s field is two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves.

“I’m probably the old-timer here,” Castroneves quipped on Friday. “The sim that I’m normally used to was in Mooresville. When it was myself, Josef Newgarden, and Will, Simon, they were so much faster than me. I wasn’t very much into video games.

“In this situation I’m excited because we’re not doing anything, so why not try something? Hopefully the oval is still challenging, don’t get me wrong, but it looks like I’m hustling just like a race car. It’s very interesting.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Dixon is 39. This is his 20th season of IndyCar Series competition, but his first in sim racing. He admits, he doesn’t really know what to think of the virtual series that has become a phenomenon during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I ordered my sim with a beer holder,” Dixon said. “I’ve actually had to move past that now because it wasn’t serious enough.

“It’s not really the same (as real racing). The format itself is fun. I think having the accessibility and ease to have that crossover is pretty cool, probably more so for the sponsors.

“The reality of it is very unreal in a lot of ways. I think the racing has been a lot of fun. Yesterday I think Motegi leading into this weekend, the multiple lines, what we’ve seen so far, it’s going to be pretty cool.

“Last week at Michigan, even though I had to watch most of it from my couch, it was pretty cool to watch.”

Dixon admitted it didn’t take long for the competition level to escalate as many IndyCar Series drivers started enlisting their ace engineers to help in iRacing.

“I think anything gets taken to next level,” Dixon said. “You had guys that were just using very simple sims, to now teams using their full-on engineers, strategists, spotters, all that kind of thing.

“It can be fun at a level, then I think we’re very competitive people, and it keeps going and escalating to the next level. It quickly reached that level where it’s extremely competitive.

“I think if you win, it’s probably fun, otherwise it can be probably very frustrating.”

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Castroneves tries to play it cool in the heat of competition from his garage in Miami.

His sim racing apparel is much different than the racing uniform he wore as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series competitor when he won four poles and two races at the real Twin Ring Motegi in the 2000s.

“I have to say I will try this time to not use sandals,” Castroneves cracked. “I’ll probably put a little bit of shoes to see if I’ll be okay. But I still have to use shorts, sometimes no shirt, because where my sim is right now is in the garage. Right now, it’s 85 degrees in Florida. It’s melting.

“Other than that, I’ll see what happens. Actually, I did some race yesterday, and man they take too much serious. It is like pushing, get out of the way. Let’s see what happens. I will try to have as much fun as possible and hopefully see what happens.”

Castroneves has been a regular competitor in the Legends Series at The Race, which uses a different sim platform than iRacing. The Legends Series includes older and retired drivers from international racing including Formula One and IndyCar.

“I tell you that that has been hilarious,” Castroneves said. “Obviously it’s everyone that’s not very familiar with the virtual world, especially with the sim. To see everyone exchanging messages, trying to figure it out, it’s more fun than actually driving.

“Plus, we are driving a very old car, by the way. The first race was a 1983 or 1975 McLaren, or something like that. It’s really kind of fun. But the most fun actually is the interaction with everyone.

“Again, we just trying to keep ourselves busy, no question. Let’s see what’s happening in the end. Now it’s been very interesting this whole new virtual world that I’m getting myself into it.”

Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

And then there is 29-year-old two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden. He’s in the middle group of drivers where he isn’t considered old, but he’s not a gamer, either.

“I went through a roller coaster of commitment,” Newgarden recalled. “Didn’t get my sim setup until 24 hours before Watkins Glen (the opening race on March 28).  I crammed in about 12 hours of testing in 24 hours before the race and I did okay.

“Then, I got so excited and serious about it, so for Barber I spent the entire week practicing. I mean, I practiced every day for like eight hours. It was out of control.

“I didn’t have that great of a race, got like three different wrecks for different reasons. I got so angry at the thing, I spent four days off of it, didn’t touch it. Then, I only did a couple days before Michigan.”

Newgarden is seeking moderation in his approach to iRacing. He wants to improve but doesn’t want to become obsessed.

“I think that is when I learned you have to find a balance with this,” Newgarden said. “You have these sim racers that they spend every day on this for hours and hours and hours. I just don’t think you can catch up that quickly, within a couple weeks. You have to try to find a nice middle ground where you’re not losing your life to this simulation, but you’re prepping enough where you can still have fun in the race.

“The ovals have been better for that. At Motegi you haven’t had to do as much practice. It’s not as technical as a road course where the sim is very specific on how you can drive it, what you can get away with on the tires. It’s just a lot easier to learn that on the oval on the sim. I think you’ve had to spend less time. I found that middle ground where you can put a lot of practice in and be competitive.”

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
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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.”