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Shank: Indy appeals, but ‘cannot dilute sports car program’

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Whatever the next step for Mike Shank and his eponymous Pataskala, Ohio-based Michael Shank Racing operation is after this year’s factory-supported Acura NSX GT3 program, will see the focus on his sports car program supersede any potential full-time entry into the Verizon IndyCar Series.

INDYCAR needs new blood in team owners and Shank, passed over somewhat unceremoniously for the factory Acura prototype program announced by Team Penske on Tuesday, has expressed his interest in joining the championship.

But what Shank has built in sports cars over the last 15 years, first in GRAND-AM with a Daytona Prototype through to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with a Ligier JS P2 Honda, then this year’s Acura effort, will come before any full-time IndyCar bow.

“I just got a text today from INDYCAR asking how I’m doing,” Shank told NBC Sports.

“Every six weeks, INDYCAR will check in with me, and ask if there’s anything they can do to help. They want teams, and they want to help make a lot of difference, and I appreciate that.

“But what I cannot do is dilute my sports car program, especially the factory relationships we’ve worked so hard to build.

“You see what happens when you take an almost billionaire in (Kevin) Kalkhoven and now he can’t do it anymore. There’s a lot of empty space on IndyCars. I have to be very careful to do more. But if I can do the Indianapolis 500 every year without sacrificing my program, I want to keep doing that.”

Shank’s efforts to build the team beyond a sports car only program have been amplified in the last two years. The team’s debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year was an unquestioned success – ninth in LMP2 and 14th overall in a 60-car field for the small crew and a lineup of Shank lifers Ozz Negri and John Pew plus eventual Porsche factory ace Laurens Vanthoor was nothing to sneeze at. This year’s Indianapolis 500 debut has showcased Shank in an IndyCar paddock, albeit not without its challenges, but the team fought through in tandem with technical partner Andretti Autosport and rookie driver Jack Harvey.

This year, what Shank has shown is an ability to launch a new car from the ground up. In tandem with Honda Performance Development, HART and RealTime Racing, the Shank Acura NSX GT3s have developed over the course of the season into a race winner – arguably sooner than anticipated – with Andy Lally and Katherine Legge breaking through both in Detroit and Watkins Glen, and then coming second at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Negri and Jeff Segal have endured nearly all the team’s bad luck and don’t have a result of note to show for their own performance.

No. 93 Acura and No. 63 Ferrari have been on a roll in GTD. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s been a huge amount of work, no question, more than anything I ever did in prototypes because this is bringing a car to life from its infancy,” Shank explained. “Ligier had done a lot of the work with the P2 car.

“In this case we started with a new piece, and early on, we were definitely challenged. That’s not to say we’re not now. Consider this car is only six or seven races old, period. To be honest, we have more things to explore with the car chassis-wise. We haven’t hit the sweet spot on the chassis fully, but we’re getting there.”

Shank explained what the whirlwind of the last three months has been this year. Harvey’s program was announced in mid-April at Long Beach, with the Shank component announced a few days later – unfortunately overshadowed by Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Indianapolis announcement the same day – but he described what was all entailed into making the Indy 500 program work.

“I never sit and reflect, but it’s fairly rare that teams get the opportunity to do what we have,” Shank said. “The experience with me and Tim Keene and others that have worked in IndyCar allowed it to happen. It all happened fairly seamlessly.

“It was such a last-minute deal at Indy. But through the first week it simmered down and ran like a normal MSR operation. Andretti are the dominant force at the Indianapolis 500 right now – that cannot be denied.

“With that, we jumped over a lot of obstacles teams face. We had our obstacles in the first week, but with having them as a partner it made it easier to get through.

“The people… that was all my guys. It wasn’t from Indianapolis or from another team. And so that was kinda my point, is that now we’re capable of doing anything.

“Le Mans? Prototypes? Win Petit? We’ve done that. Now Indy, we did. We can do GT and win races.

“We want to show the depth of what this team is capable of. I think that’s the biggest thing we took out of it.”

Provisional Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew ready for IndyCar ride

Road to Indy
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Provisional Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew has done nothing but dominate the 2019 season, winning seven of the 16 races run so far and finishing on the podium in all but two of those events.

Now all the 22-year-old Floridian needs to do to formally clinch the 2019 title is simply start the final two races of the season, both of which will be held this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

For Askew, his maiden Indy Lights season will likely be one he’ll never forget. 

“It’s been a dream come true,” Askew told NBC Sports. “Being with the championship-winning team from last year, we had a really good shot at winning it again for Andretti Autosport. It’s very rare that we show up to a track and struggle to find speed. 

“That’s a fantastic feeling, especially as a driver. That gave me a lot of confidence and hopes of holding the million dollar check at the end of the year. That was the goal going into it.”

This weekend, Askew will accomplish said goal. The championship will not only bring him a sense of pride, but also the opportunity of a lifetime. 

As an award for being crowned the Indy Lights champion, Askew will be awarded a scholarship that guarantees him entry into a minimum of three NTT IndyCar Series events next year – including the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500. 

Time will only tell which team Askew will race for in IndyCar next season, and whether or not Askew’s rookie campaign will be a full-time or part-time affair, but Askew’s performance during the last few seasons in the Road to Indy system has certainly drawn attention of IndyCar’s top team owners.

In August, Askew had the chance to drive an Indy car for the first time in his career during a test session at Portland International Raceway, driving the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda usually piloted by Scott Dixon.

“It was an opportunity with Chip Ganassi Racing that I was very fortunate to have,” Askew said. “I think with my experience in the past couple of years with Cape Motorsports and this year with Andretti Autosport, going into that test was very helpful.

“Going into the test, it was more of trying to treat it as just another day at the racetrack, when it really wasn’t. It was a fantastic opportunity for me – a great experience – and I hope I can take that into my rookie season next year in IndyCar.” 

The final two races of the 2019 Indy Lights season will take place this weekend on Saturday, September 21 at 6 p.m. ET and Sunday, September 22 at 12:05 p.m. ET. Both races will air live on NBC Sports Gold.

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