IndyCar: Alexander Rossi’s greatness is in real racing; not sim racing

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Alexander Rossi’s greatness is on display when he straps himself into a real race car; not a sim rig.

Though the IndyCar iRacing Challenge has provided competition-starved fans a nice diversion during the COVID-19 shutdown, nothing replaces the real thing.

The sights, the sounds, the color, even the smell of racing affects nearly every sense of a race fan at the track. TV also highlights the excitement and technology of racing.

But in order to truly appreciate how great an IndyCar driver truly is, one must watch drivers such as Rossi compete in the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda in an actual race.

Many of the younger drivers in IndyCar, have excelled on iRacing from the beginning. Veterans such as Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have used iRacing since 2008.

Rossi, however, was very frank in his assessment early in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge that he’s doing it to help support the series. Once real racing returns, he doesn’t plan on climbing into another sim rig in the future.

“I’m out, I think,” Rossi told recently. “As long as racing returns to normal, I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”

If the real series had started on schedule for 2020, IndyCar would be coming off the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend.

Rossi’s celebrates 2019 Long Beach victory — INDYCAR Photo

Rossi’s greatness has been on display the past two seasons on the streets of Long Beach. The back-to-back winner of North America’s greatest street race has started on the pole and won the race both years.

In 2018, he led 71 of 85 laps in the contest. Last year, Rossi was even more dominant, leading 80 laps in the 85-lap contest.

The Andretti Autosport driver relinquished the lead only on pit stops; no driver passed Rossi on the track. He defeated Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden by 20.236 seconds.

Who knows what Rossi would have done if this year’s Accura Grand Prix of Long Beach had not been canceled because of COVID-19?

For now, Rossi’s greatness will have to wait until at least June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway (where he made an incredible save in last year’s race).

Like a good soldier, Rossi will continue the final two races of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, but his primary focus is a return to real racing.

“The motivation is there until I can win every single race, which will never happen,” Rossi said. “I’ll never be short on motivation. That is what gets me out of bed each day, knowing there are people trying harder, pushing harder, training harder to beat me. The competitive nature of myself and the personality that I am, I want to beat them worse than they beat me.

“That is what drives me regardless of whether it was a good year, bad year, indifferent year. You are only as good as your last race.

“Every race weekend, every time you are in a race car is a new opportunity and time you have to prove yourself. As long as that mentality doesn’t change for me, the motivation will always be there.”

Rossi has owned the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach the past two seasons. But the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 also delivered a major beatdown at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in 2019.

He started second in the race after rookie Colton Herta won the pole. At the start, he sized up Herta heading into Turn 1, and passed him for the lead. He would 54 of 55 laps and defeat Team Penske’s Will Power by a whopping 28.439-seconds.

Ironically, he doesn’t consider that his best race of last season.

“I would say Indy was probably my best race,” Rossi said of his second-place finish to Simon Pagenaud. “I wish I knew what we did at Road America, Long Beach last year and Pocono in 2018. It’s weird. There are days when it all clicks. We’re trying to quantify that and understand why those days go the way they do. We don’t seem to win races by seconds, it’s by big margins.”

Rossi won the Indy 500 the first time he ever strapped into his car as a rookie in 2016. He has been a contender ever since.

“Indy is such a weird place,” Rossi said. “In 2016, I did not have the best car at all, and we won. We had the best car and couldn’t get it done in 2018 and 2019. It’s a wild place. The saying the track chooses the winner is very true. That is what makes the event so special. It’s why it means so much when we pull it off.

“You can have the best car; the best strategy and the best things fall your way and you still don’t win. But, that’s the Indy 500 and IndyCars.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Rossi has arguably been the most talented driver on the track in terms of raw racing ability. But he has yet to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship.

The value of winning a championship has increased because he has come close, but not succeeded.

“If anything, it makes it more desirable,” Rossi admitted. “I talked to Josef Newgarden, and he appreciates the second championship much more than the first. I get that because I’ll appreciate my second Indianapolis 500 much more than the first.

“It’s one of those things once you get it done once, you have the subconscious road map how to accomplish it. Right now, that map is buffering. It’s not all the way there. In 2018, it was 85 percent. In 2019, it was 90 percent.

“Hopefully, we can take a 10 percent chunk this year and get it done. There are so many factors, and so many things that have to work out right for you. The pace has to be there. The team has to be on it. There can’t be mistakes. All of the stars have to align a little bit.

“If anything, the whole team is hungrier. There is zero complacency. The whole team is motivated to try to figure out how to get it done, but you don’t want to get caught in the trap of trying too hard. That’s a slippery slope.

“We are all happy with last year in terms of execution and performance. We will go into this season with the similar mindset to carry on 2019.”

Meantime, Rossi has to deal with the uncertainties that have made 2020 an historic time, for all the wrong reasons.

“It’s a very difficult time for everyone right now,” Rossi said. “There’s a lot of unknowns. Everyone’s world kind of got shook up without a lot of notice. We all were excited to get the season under way in St. Pete. Obviously, that wasn’t meant to be. We weren’t able to really do anything that weekend.

“I think a lot of the fans have been waiting since September to see us race again, to see cars on track. We are disappointed.

“So now we’re very lucky to have this partnership with iRacing and the opportunity to have a platform to give the fans something to look forward to, to give the partners a way to get their brands and their colors back out in front of people.

“It’s pretty cool. The technology is good enough to allow us to do that now. It’s important that we as IndyCar drivers kind of embrace at least our new temporary role of sim drivers.”

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.”