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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.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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