A good run, but Kanaan, Rossi ready to move from iRacing to real racing

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May is here, and just because there won’t be an Indianapolis 500 this month, a former winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway still is taking the virtual Brickyard’s sanctity seriously.

After some sloppy practice races, Tony Kanaan called for more decorum in Saturday’s IndyCar iRacing Challenge series finale at Indy.

“I think we got to do a better job,” the 2013 Indy 500 winner told reporters Friday. “It was extremely frustrating (Thursday) to see how some of the guys were driving. Obviously it’s not representative of the racetrack because if we do that, we’re going to have three cars finishing the 500 this year.

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“We have actually two more mock-up races today so we have a chance to dial in and stop hitting each other. I was very frustrated. I actually at the end kind of thought that I needed to just relax a little more because it’s going to happen. We were racing extremely close. I hope we don’t race the way we did yesterday.”

The First Responder 175 will close the six-race virtual racing series with 70 laps around the famed 2.5-mile oval Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The 33-car field will include all of the big names who likely will take the green flag in the 104th running of the Indy 500, which has been rescheduled to Aug. 23 and will be broadcast on NBC. It also will have Formula One McLaren driver Lando Norris, who became eligible by winning at Circuit of The Americas last week.

Among the former Indy 500 winners competing will be Alexander Rossi, who also was somewhat taken aback by the behavior of some peers on iRacing but seemed more amused than miffed as Kannan was.

“I just find it very interesting how kind of bent out of shape people are getting about it,” the winner of the 100th Indy 500 in 2016 said. “Like, I agree it’s frustrating because everyone puts time into this to kind of perfect their setup in terms of their sim equipment, finding the optimum line for the best lap time. There are little tricks to it you have to learn. Ultimately, I think when people get so annoyed, generally it just kind of spurs the people that don’t really care as much on to continue what they’re doing. I think Tony knows when you have a kid, if you ignore them when they’re trying to get attention, then they stop. If you keep responding it gets worse.

“I think it’s been a long road for everyone. Everyone is itching to get back into a race car. We’re now in the month of May, and we’re racing virtually at IMS. There’s a lot of pent-up kind of excitement to go racing. I think that’s what we’re kind of seeing in the homestretch here. As Tony said, every practice race we’ve done has been challenging in the past. When the actual real thing comes on Saturday, we know we have a responsibility to put on a show for NBC, our sponsors and our team, so everyone bows back a little bit. I’m not too worried about it. The driver commentary is certainly very entertaining.”

It’s been a tough transition to iRacing for championship-contending veterans such as Kanaan and Rossi. Neither was into iRacing much before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, and though they both invested money and time in sim rigs, both still are seeking their first podium finishes in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

Meanwhile, the real-life calendar provides a sobering reminder of what they rather would be doing in May. Kanaan lamented that he should be running the Indy half-marathon this Saturday.

“It’s kind of a mixed feeling of happy and sad,” Kanaan said. “Happy because we’ll get to experience the Indy 500 virtually this week, and in a way, sad that the month of May (Indy 500 celebration) is not happening this month. To be honest, nothing against virtual racing, but I think we had enough. I had enough of them. I think it’s great to end this.

“Alex and I are sharing the same feeling on this one: try to relax. Actually now we see some of the series coming back, that means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m ready to go do the real thing.”

Though Rossi has gotten more active on iRacing despite some initial hesitation – entering a rally race through his connection to Travis Pastrana and finishing on the podium at Bathurst in a Supercars race – he also is ready to return to the cockpit of his Andretti Autosport Honda to contend for his first NTT Series championship.

“What I’ve learned is, I don’t know if there’s a lot of technique I’m going to develop by doing this, but it’s so hard to just do a lap without crashing that when you get put into a qualifying session and you have like one shot to kind of do your ultimate lap, it’s really difficult,” Rossi said. “The cool thing about iRacing is you have this live reference bar which is your delta to your best lap, your previous lap, whatever. You know exactly if you’re executing each corner well in a qualifying lap. I think the kind of mental just rigidity and ability to go out there and do it over one lap is something I’ve improved on since starting this process.

“Hopefully that translates to the real car, finding ways to not overthink it, just go out and let the lap time flow. We’ll see if it’s translates. I think it’s definitely one positive I’ve taken from this.”

Kanaan, who will be running ovals this season in an A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet, knows there is one thing he hopes doesn’t translate from iRacing to the real world – drivers being able to snipe at each other during a race.

“I’ve learned that we should not be talking to ourselves during the race,” the Brazilian said with a laugh. “That is actually the worst idea somebody ever made. That you can press a button on the radio and you can talk with the other driver. It’s a problem. We were talking about that yesterday.

“I want to see at the first real race we have how many guys are not going to be talking to each other because you have a beef about what happened in the first five virtual races that we did.”

Joking that he has yet to finish a sim race, Kanaan says he does find some solace in a silver keepsake after every disappointing iRacing result.

I leave my sim, look at my BorgWarner (Trophy) and say, ‘Who cares?’” Kanaan said with a laugh.

“It’s OK,” Rossi, who has the same replica trophy, replied knowingly. “Doesn’t matter.”

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.”