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

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

Leave a comment

In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
Leave a comment

McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500