IndyCar practice speeds dominated by silly season heading into Belle Isle’s final race


DETROIT — The milk has barely been washed out of Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson’s firesuit, and the NTT IndyCar Series silly season has gone wild.

The Swede is the new points leader, free agency has picked up at a dizzying pace, and the reigning IndyCar champion said his name wrongly was placed into the rumor mill.

And it’s the last race on Belle Isle, to boot — and the opening practice to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix fittingly was dominated by drivers who have been in the headlines the past couple of weeks.

Rookie Kyle Kirkwood, who recently was announced as heading to Andretti Autosport next season, paced Friday’s session in Detroit with a 1-minute, 16.1345-second lap around the 14-turn, 2.35-mile street course.

FRIDAY SESSION: Speeds from afternoon practice

CHEVROLET GRAND PRIX OF DETROIT: Schedules, entry list, how to watch

Though the 2021 Indy Lights champion wants to finish well in his lone season for AJ. Foyt Racing’s No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet, Kirkwood said his impending move had been known for a while.

“For me it’s really just not a focal point at all,” said Kirkwood, who won the Indy Lights title with Andretti and also won a GTD pole Friday as a late substitute driver in IMSA. “To me it hasn’t changed anything. It’s been, yeah, some time now that we’ve actually did it.

“For me it’s been the same thing. It’s the same goal always. We’ve got 11 races left. Right now we’re doing solid. Obviously the focus is still with A.J. Foyt Racing because all I want to do is win for the team because they worked really hard for it.”

After finishing runner-up in the Indy 500, Pato O’Ward was second fastest in practice for Arrow McLaren SP, which formally introduced new driver Alexander Rossi (whom Kirkwood will replace at Andretti) in a Friday news conference.

Though Rossi (who was third fastest Friday) and O’Ward will be teammates, it still is uncertain whether Felix Rosenqivst will stay as the third driver with McLaren adding a car next year

“So Felix is staying?” Helio Castroneves, who also is in a contract year, asked O’Ward in an interview after practice.

“I really hope he stays,” O’Ward said.

“OK,” said Castroneves, who was eighth fastest in practice. “No hint in who’s going to be the third car?

“No idea. I have no say.”

O’Ward is focused on winning his first championship, trying to pass new points leader Ericsson in the standings. Each won a Belle Isle race last season in the track’s final doubleheader weekend (after a nine-year run).

Sunday’s race will be the last at Belle Isle after three decades for IndyCar, which will move to a new downtown layout in 2023.

Rossi said he decided last summer that this seventh season with Andretti would be his last. Andretti held an exclusive negotiating window with Rossi but let him sign with McLaren early to facilitate its Kirkwood move. Rossi is approaching the three-year mark of his last victory.

“It was clear that I was going to look at different options and explore what was out there,” said Rossi. “I’ve driven for Andretti Autosport for a long time. Sometimes you need to change things, whether that’s on a personal side, a professional side or the both combined. I think it was time for a change.”

But what about that third McLaren seat next year?

O’Ward made a strong case to keep his current teammate Rosenqvist, who is in a contract year and still being evaluated by the team. He finished fourth in the Indy 500 but was involved in an incident Friday in practice (video above).

Rosenqvist, who missed two races after a crash at Detroit last year, was unhurt after sliding into a Turn 1 tire barrier

The name most associated with the open Arrow McLaren SP ride, though, has been defending series champion Alex Palou. The Spaniard won the IndyCar title in his first season driving for Ganassi – second in IndyCar – and has become a hot commodity in the paddock.

Palou was thrilled Friday to be part of the rumor mill but sdoesn’t know why his fellow competitors think he’s leaving Ganassi for McLaren.

“I’m good. I’m not talking to other teams,” Palou said. “I mean, my name is all around, but because somebody is interested doesn’t mean I am interested.”

NO REGRETS: The ink has only just dried on O’Ward’s contract extension with Arrow McLaren SP and he’s thinking big picture all the way. He lifted off the gas on the last lap at Indy as he challenged Ericsson for the win, and on Friday still thought it was the right decision.

O’Ward believes he couldn’t complete the winning pass and would have crashed – an inexcusable result in a race worth double points. Ericsson shot from eighth to first in the standings with the victory, while O’Ward moved from seventh to second and sits 13 points back from he lead.

“I 100% made the right call,” O’Ward said Friday. “I just don’t think trying to be a hero there was going to payoff in helping us win a championship. I think that was going to be a huge blow to the championship and just not worth it.”

Other drivers disagreed, with reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou insisting he’d have gone for the Indy 500 victory no matter what.

O’Ward had the backing of his team, though, as Arrow McLaren makes huge steps toward becoming one of IndyCar’s top organizations with the addition of Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner. O’Ward already had signed an extension last week and is the centerpiece of the organization, and McLaren has plans to build a state-of-the-art Indianapolis shop as it prepares to expand to three cars next year.

“What I’m proud of is Pato’s maturity to understand us as an organization,” said team president Taylor Kiel. “He made a move that was wise beyond his years with the bigger picture in mind. I know in his heart he wanted to keep it flat, see what happened. But something in the back of his mind said, `Let’s focus on the championship.’ That to me is a huge thing.”

DIXON’S MOOD: The Indy 500 was Scott Dixon’s to lose, and he did.

A speeding penalty on pit road decimated Dixon’s shot at a second Indy 500 victory after he’d dominated nearly the entire build-up to the race. He went over 234 mph in a record-setting pole-winning run and then led 95 of the 200 laps.

Dixon has made winning another Indy 500 the highest priority and the six-time IndyCar champion was “for sure devastated after the race,” said Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou.

The New Zealander insisted Friday he’s fine.

“We’re in Detroit now. I feel amazing,” said Dixon, who added he doesn’t often carry disappointments for long. “I’m pretty quick with that stuff. For me, it’s more about how everybody else feels. I think the saving grace was one of the Ganassi cars (Ericsson) still won the race.”

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.”