Pair of Acura NSX GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Shank’s Acura program hitting stride in IMSA’s summer stretch

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The blend of new elements at Michael Shank Racing – new Acura NSX GT3 race cars, three new drivers to the team and a new class – have all melded together nicely as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is past its halfway point in 2017 and prepare for the stretch run to the finish of the year.

Up against considerably more experienced teams and cars within the GT Daytona category, the brand-new Acura has won twice in the hands of Andy Lally and Katherine Legge at such disparate races as Detroit (one hour, 40-minute street race) and Watkins Glen (six-hour road course race) and come second at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the last three races. This has slotted the No. 93 pairing into third in points, 24 back of defending champions and points leaders Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan.

Acura is closer in the manufacturer’s championship courtesy of this pair and the No. 86 entry of Ozz Negri and Jeff Segal, which hasn’t had a podium yet by way of bad luck. Acura sits third on 204 points, just eight behind leaders Ferrari and seven behind second-placed Mercedes-AMG.

Quite how this has happened considering the respective GT3 pedigrees of the other two manufacturers – and considering the Acura is a new car out of the box – has come down almost entirely to preparation and the core bond among the Shank crew, in tandem with Honda Performance Development (HPD), Honda of America Race Team (HART) and RealTime Racing, its fellow NSX GT3 runners in the Pirelli World Challenge.

A tough first few races tested the resolve of the team, as rain at Daytona was all that allowed major results to shine through. But as Shank explained, a post-Circuit of The Americas pair of tests in the month break between Austin and the next race in Detroit appear to have made all the difference.

“We had a seven-post rig test post-COTA,” Shank told NBC Sports. “It didn’t get us all the way there, but it got us better. Then at VIR we did our flat-track, good surface test. So the seven-post and VIR led us to Watkins Glen and Mosport. Our car wasn’t quite as good at Mosport as it was Watkins, but we need more time to get the changes done. So far I’m really pleased with what our guys have done with the car, and beyond that, we’ve had some great strategy calls that have also helped get us to the front.”

Lots of smiles on the Detroit podium after Acura first win. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Detroit showcased the strategy and the pit work. Legge qualified second, the car’s best qualifying effort at the time, but she was held up by a slower Prototype Challenge class car during the majority of her stint. Shank’s team then opted to take only two left-side Continental tires on the pit stop, which leapfrogged the No. 93 car to the lead and where Lally kept it the rest of the race. This marked the car’s first ever win and Legge’s first both as a GT driver and overall since her Formula Atlantic wins in 2005.

“It’s big when you can win with a team for the first time.. it’s huge when you can win with a manufacturer for the first time,” Lally told NBC Sports. “That was just amazing especially because we’d had such a run of bad luck leading up to it. For it to come together what seems suddenly, was just awesome.”

Legge added, “It’s been a big relief more than anything. Not only for me in the GT class, but the team for what they’ve deserved. Both the team and HPD have worked their tails off. That it’s come as early as it has came from so much effort and execution. We probably thought, by the end of the year, we’d get it.”

Legge’s transformation to a top-flight GT driver in her own right has been one of the more impressive things to witness this year, and the pairing with Lally was a natural one. The longtime friends have had chemistry from the off sharing the No. 93 car and as Shank explained, Lally’s natural closing tenacity paired with Legge’s early race speed and qualifying prowess would come on strong quickly.

“I’d admit it’s been a process; you’re learning something every weekend,” Legge said. “I’m lucky I have Andy and Jeff because they’re so experienced. For both Ozz and I, the ABS is new, the weight is different and the lack of downforce is there compared to prototypes.”

Legge, Lally and Shank. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Said Shank: “That’s exactly the reason I did it was that they’re very close and good friends. I knew Andy would make sure she gets all the info she wants and needs to get up to speed quickly in GT cars. And it’s working that way. We have so much experience in our engineering rooms – we have data from cars, we have driver information, this pool to draw from, and Andy is one of the biggest wells of knowledge we have, and doesn’t have to worry about getting to know his co-driver. It’s one of the reasons we did it.”

Lally got to fend off Balzan at Watkins Glen in the final stages of that race, putting the period on a star-spangled weekend of brilliance where in a special patriotic livery and in Lally’s home state, a magical second win was achieved to prove the first wasn’t a one-time occasion.

“To follow up the Detroit win at my home track, the very next race, at an event that means so much to me personally was just icing the cake, the way we did it with the pole, leading most laps and winning the race,” Lally said. “It was my fourth six hours of the Glen win, my first one in seven years, so it was really special. I’d gone 3-3-2-2 from ’13, ’14, ’15 and ’16. So we’d tasted it and been so close so many times, so it was extra epic.

“I have a ton of respect for (Balzan); I hope the respect is mutual. We’ve had great battles over the years. A lot of guys in this series; as rough as I’m willing to get it hasn’t stepped over any bounds.”

“One of the reasons I brought Andy in was to be a closer,” Shank added. “He knows the tracks, cars and the competition. If we get him to the front, you’ll have to move him to pass him. Some guys are more willing to face that challenge than others. He’s so good under pressure and closing.”

For Lally, the opportunity to work with Shank for the first time comes after 20-plus years of knowing each other but never syncing up on timing.

“Yeah I’ve known Mike Shank for 22 years now. We met back in ’95 in SCCA national racing when I was driving Formula 500 and he was driving in Atlantic,” he reflected. “We’ve known each other since then, and there were lots of years where if I hadn’t had a drive, or hadn’t secured anything yet we’d speak a bunch about putting something together. Now we can team up together and be successful so soon.

“There’s a special feeling to work for Mike Shank. This is a program that I have immensely enjoyed the progression of our race car; when you get to help develop something from its first green flag race, you feel a real part of the deal, and it’s special with the results.”

“They’re awesome. I can’t say enough great things about the team,” Legge added. “I tried to do an IndyCar deal with them in 2013 and it didn’t work out. But I got to drive with them and Ozz in Detroit last year. There’s no one better in the pits; there’s Andy’s in and out laps, and then lightning fast pit stops.”

Shank pit stops have been solid all year. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Shank’s team has also thanked RealTime for its data gathering from the NSX GT3, which has already raced at three upcoming tracks on the IMSA calendar: Lime Rock, Road America and VIR.

“We have their Mosport, Lime Rock and Road America data. So we can see where they were good versus struggling,” Shank said. “We have a premise and a baseline, so that helps us prepare.”

The future, understandably, will be interesting for the rest of the way. Announcements are anticipated about the future of the NSX program later this month.

Continuing to showcase the competitiveness of the NSX platform as the team’s 2018 plans get sorted – Shank’s team was unceremoniously passed over as Team Penske won the factory Daytona Prototype international (DPi) bid – is key for all components here, including both pairs of lineups. The No. 86 lineup, not to be overlooked, is due its own set of results given how well Negri and Segal have driven but been woefully unlucky so far. Potential top-fives or podiums went begging at Daytona, Long Beach and Watkins Glen through no fault of their own.

“It’s heartbreaking for them honestly,” Legge said of the No. 86 team’s bad luck. “They want to be up there with us. They’ve had rough luck. They’re professional though, and they keep pushing and do what they need to do to keep their morale up. They know it’s coming.

“Overall we want the best opportunities to showcase what we can do,” she added. “I want to drive something I can go win races, and to get the opportunities to do so are few and far between.”

Shank added, “I couldn’t agree more. What we need to do as a team is try to do more races, I’m not getting spooled up about the championship. It’d take a lot to grab the top spot.

“But we’re pushing so hard to fight. I’m working so hard as a unit, and we’ve made it a point to say we’re racing for Acura; we have to be united as a team. We’re at that point now.”

The No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 at CTMP. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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