Pair of Acura NSX GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

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

Leave a comment

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

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

Leave a comment

MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.