Photo courtesy of IMSA

Shank signs off Prototype run for now with dream weekend

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The first race weekend that longtime Daytona Prototype stalwart Michael Shank fielded an LMP2-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda, his team led every pre-race session – practice and qualifying – for the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

But took until the last weekend, for now, that Shank will run a prototype to deliver on the undoubted pace and promise of a major endurance race victory with the car. Missteps, dollar signs and heartbreak added up in 2015 and in 2016 the goal was to finally bank a win at Daytona, Sebring or Petit Le Mans to go along with an overdue debut at Le Mans in June.

The team finally did so in authoritative fashion at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans, to cap off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

Shank’s longtime co-driver pairing of Ozz Negri and John Pew suited up together for the last time, as Pew is set to step back from full-time driving after a 10-year run driving either DPs or the P2 for Shank at the highest level of North American sports car racing.

In Olivier Pla, Shank has Onroak Automotive’s primary test and development driver of the Ligier JS P2, and one of sports car racing’s outright fastest drivers worldwide as the third driver.

The combination proved more potent than ever this weekend. Negri and Pla split the pre-qualifying practice sessions on top before Pla won the pole position, mirroring that first weekend at Daytona (Negri won pole there).

shanknosePew only drove a limited amount of time in the race owing to slight back pain, but wasn’t forced to run more than that within the confines of the Prototype class, and that left Negri and Pla to run the majority of the race. The race began with fans having signed the front of the car to wish the team “good luck.”

Outside of a left rear issue with the drive pins, the No. 60 car otherwise ran flawlessly, and the pit crew kept the car in win contention with largely good stops over the course of 10 hours.

It still took one final restart from Pla to hold off sports car racing’s early season star at Daytona and Sebring, Pipo Derani in the similar No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Honda, to ensure the victory was there. Once Pla pulled out a couple seconds in the first lap back to green inside the final 10 minutes, the win was assured.

The cleanliness and near perfect weekend this year could not have come as a more miraculous turn of fortune – and luck – after a simply nightmarish 2015 Petit Le Mans.

Rain wreaked havoc on the field all weekend and Pew crashed heavily during Thursday night practice last year. Thanks to some help from nearby Elan Motorsports, the hub for Dr. Don Panoz’s racing activities in Braselton, the team’s lone chassis was repaired. But then Negri had a spin in warmup that caused suspension damage, and Pew crashed again in the race.

The disaster of 2015 was quickly forgotten and erased with the dream 2016 weekend, and as Negri reflected, it was the perfect way for this era of Shank’s prototype participation to end.

“Starting from last year, we’ve been through everything,” Negri told NBC Sports. “One very key thing is me and Oli (Pla) like the same exact thing. We’ve worked together quite a lot. We put together a great package for this track. My engineer and the whole group from HPD worked really hard to get the setup where we wanted.

“It’s funny – I just had a good feeling. We were talking on the way here. We have nothing to lose… so let’s freaking go for it!

“It’s been one of those days when everything falls into place. We had problems in the car, in the left rear at the pit stop. So my crew worked through it, and a way of making of it not so painful. It’s just brilliant.”

Pla described the nerves on the last restart, knowing that the weekend’s worth of outright pace could have been undone with one bad launch.

“We were looking for this one for a long time,” he told NBC Sports. “Every race I had with these guys was in a position to win. As Ozz was saying, I was very determined to come here. I knew everything was fine, but for some reason I started to have a small misfire in the car. So you get a bit scared about these things! But it was OK when we got back going.”

The win for Pew sees him add this win to the team’s famous Rolex 24 at Daytona win in 2012. And coupled with his and the team’s 24 Hours of Le Mans debut – they finished 14th overall and ninth in LMP2 in a 23-car class, and a 60-car field – it’s finally been a good year in endurance races for him and the team after that roller coaster 2015 campaign last year.

Negri and Pew, as a tandem pairing, sign off their run as Shank prepares for the two-car Acura NSX GT3 program that will come online next year. Shank has expressed a desire to return to prototype racing but isn’t sure when that will be.

The three of them together – if you’ve followed sports car racing the last decade or so – could be the racing version equivalent of when Zach Galifianakis’ character in “The Hangover” once famously described him and his two buddies as “the three best friends that anybody could have.”

“You know how much John Pew has done for me and my team,” Shank told NBC Sports. “He’s a big part of the reason why we are where we are today as a team.”

“It has been just fantastic,” Pew said. “I’m just so grateful and lucky I ran into Shank. Ozz was here, and my friend Mark Patterson was too at the time. Another driver had to leave, so he needed a replacement. They said, ‘Call John Pew,’ and I’ve been here ever since. It’s the same core of guys. They’re great guys.”

Negri added, “This being John’s last race was really emotional. It’s almost a fairytale.

“It’s tough to say everything he means in just a few words. I will miss him at the track but I won’t elsewhere – because I’ll bug him everyday just like I do! Through those years, I gained not only a teammate, but I got one of my best friends.”

Timekeepers: What winning a watch at Daytona means to a driver

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some gift them to family and friends. Some keep them for their children. Some put them in safekeeping.

Others wear them as a daily reminder of perhaps their greatest accomplishment in auto racing.

It’s the steel and yellow gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona (with a white dial) that has become synonymous with victory in the 24-hour race that opens the IMSA season.

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“Daytona is about one thing and one thing only: It’s just the watch,” said Bryan Sellers, the 2018 GTD Series champion who still is seeking his first Rolex 24 at Daytona victory after 13 starts. “You grow up in sports car racing knowing that is the one trophy you have to win before you walk away. You want to wear that watch to Daytona the next year, so that everyone knows you won it, or you want to wear it to the year-end banquet so people know you have won one.

Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon with their watches after their 2015 Rolex 24 win (Jerry Markland/Getty Images).

“That is a race that when you win it, your name is forever etched in history. There is something special about it. Everybody wants the watch. That’s all that matters.”

Since 1992, every driver on a class-winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and the race’s grand marshal) has received the watch, whose retail price starts at more than $10,000. Last year, there were 16 watches awarded to the winners at Daytona International Speedway.

Every winner has a story of what the watch means, and every driver still trying to win their first has a story of what they’d do with it.

Here’s a sampling of what the watch means to those racing in the 58th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

A.J. Allmendinger (2012 Daytona Prototype overall winner): “Yeah, I always bring it with me to the Rolex as a good luck charm to show me like, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten one before, we can still go do this again.’ For the most part, I don’t wear it, I keep it in a drawer that I know where it is at all times. If I’m feeling a little down on myself about my driving at times, I may have put it back on just to show like ‘Hey, you can get it one when it’s time,’ but I don’t wear it a lot, I wear it on special occasions and always bring it out just to show that you know it’s inspiration. I’d like another one for my other arm. Technically, I have to get another one for my dad because I promised him the first one and once I won it I was like, ‘No, sorry Dad, this one’s mine,’ but it’s there. It’ll always be in a drawer for sure.”

Townsend Bell (2014 GTD): “We lost the race in 2014 on a penalty, and the penalty was reversed two hours after the race. So we won the race and I won a watch. And then four years later, my watch was stolen when my house was burglarized. So just for one watch and one win, I’ve had a roller coaster ride of emotions just to this point, and I really look at it like I’m level set back to nothing, and I’ve got to go earn and win one again and having lost one through theft it makes me just as hungry as ever to go make it happen. … When I first won the watch, I brought it home to California, and I remember showing it to my oldest son Jackson at the time, and it’s one of the few things I’ve done in racing where he’s looked at something or held something, and I can tell he was proud and thought it was pretty cool. As a dad, that’s a great feeling.”

Andy Lally (2001Rolex SRPII, 2009-2011-2012 Rolex GT, 2016 GTD): “I actually have eight because I got three championships and back then they used to give you one for the championship. The first one is here and the other seven are gifted to people that have helped me out through the years. I gave my mom, my dad, my stepdad, my little sister, Mike Johnson, who was the car owner and the guy that put me in my first Daytona that helped me win the first one. My old soccer coach and the first guy to sponsor me in a car. He pulled me out of go karts and put me in my first race car. Those people have my other seven watches. I want to win more to give back. I love that moment because I give it to people who appreciate what this race is about and appreciate the Rolex brand and appreciate what that means, what that signifies, what that Rolex Daytona is and it’s special to me and I know it’s special to them.”

Joao Barbosa (2010 Daytona Prototype overall, 2014 Prototype overall, 2018 Prototype overall): “I’m planning to donate a couple of them when my kids grow up and probably when they have their own kids so it goes by generations. I have two kids so someday they will have their own kids, and it might be a good gift to give them when they get to that point.”

Renger van der Zande (2019 DPI overall): “I have a son, he’s 1 year and 2 months. So, if he behaves for 18 years and he’s responsible, he might get a Rolex from me. So I’ll keep it safe for then.”

Jeff Gordon, Ricky Taylor, Max Angelelli, and Jordan Taylor, show off their Rolex watches in victory lane after winning the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2017 (Brian Cleary/Getty Images).

Ricky Taylor (2017 Prototype overall): “So when I won the Rolex in 2017, I never took it out of the box. I would leave it in the box and I would eat breakfast with it every day, I’d look at it, and it didn’t seem real. So I’d look at it and it would be there, we’d eat breakfast together, and then I’d put it away. That went on for about two, three weeks, and then my dad told me that we had a sponsor dinner, and everyone was wearing their watches, so I had to wear it. So, besides that one time that I wore it to the sponsor dinner, it’s never come out of the box. It hides in my office, and I want it just to stay exactly how it was the day that we won.”

Oliver Gavin (2016 GTLM): “My Rolex is now at home in a safe. I’ve gotten it out of the box once and showed my family. It was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m going to put this away for safekeeping. It’s now still there, in the safe. I’ve got relics from the Sebring 12 Hours in 2013. I want one more, then I’ve got one for all my children. That’s my goal.”

Ryan Briscoe (2015 GTLM, 2018 GTLM): “The first one was absolutely mine and I don’t wear a watch much, I’ve got a beautiful watch box at home. My dad gave me this rotating watch box so it keeps it going and so forth. My second one, I wanted to give to my wife. I had it sized for her. It’s a gold one with a white face and really looks good. So on special occasions, we will put our Daytonas on and go out.”

Sebastien Bourdais, Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa celebrate with their watches after the 2014 Rolex 24 (courtesy of IMSA).

Patrick Pilet (2014 GTLM): “My wife she told me if I win a second one, she wants to get it so now I have a lot of pressure. I’m always proud to wear the watch and to show what is on the back of the watch with the Rolex winner is something really unique.”

Nick Tandy (2014 GTLM): “The watch is a trophy you can’t buy. You have to win it. It’s obviously symbolic of the race. A bit like the trophies at Le Mans. You can only get these particular trophies at Le Mans. So, if in years to come in time you can look back and show your grandchildren this particular trophy that happens to be a Rolex, and you can say you had to win this, no one can go out there and buy these sort of things- it’s something you have to work for.”

Kamui Kobayashi (2019 DPI overall): “I would not mind having a second one (laughs). This is why you always want to win these big races. The challenge of this big race, everyone wants this big watch. The watch is a special present. Everyone says it looks cool, but when you turn it around and it says Daytona winner, that is something even more special. To look at that, it is just crazy.”

Colin Braun (2014 Prototype challenge winner): “I have two of them. They’re both in my safe at home. I won them, and I just felt like, ‘Man, these are so special to me.’ I want to be able to take them out, look at them and put them back in my safe. I feel like if I wore them, I’d worry about scratching them, losing them. They’re just so special. When I won a second one, I would wear that watch because it would kind of be an everyday watch. I sort of fell back on that and said, ‘Man, this is special, too. I’m putting this in the safe.’ I don’t want anything to happen to it so if we can win a third here I’ll say that I’ll wear it, and hopefully, I really do.”

Simon Pagenaud (2019 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in five Rolex 24 starts): “Racing is also about the trophies and the jewelry that you get. I think it’s ends up being what you’ve done in your career and when you look at your rings and your watches and your trophies that you’ve won throughout the years, you remember racing moments, passing, actions at the race track, drama and you’ve got all these memories going through your mind. To me, it’s everything. It’s what my life is — its racing–  so obviously if I could get the watch that would be a very special gift.”

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in two Rolex 24 starts): “I have (an Indy 500 ring), a watch would be great. I don’t know if there’s a race that gives out a necklace if you win but if there is, that would probably be the next on my list.”

Helio Castroneves (three-time Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in four Rolex 24 starts): “I think the jewelry combination would be perfect. Ring (from the Indy 500) and watch together. It would just complete one of the goals that I want. You’re talking about Daytona 24 Hours, and the Rolex would be an incredible asset to have right here (points at wrist).”

Courtesy of IMSA