Harvey and Shank. Photo: IndyCar

Perseverance, patience pays off for Shank, Harvey partnership

Leave a comment

Dogged determination is a phrase that can be used to describe Mike Shank, a racing lifer whose eponymous team based just outside Columbus, Ohio has survived and thrived for north of 20 years.

Patient persistence is one that can be used to describe Jack Harvey, the Englishman whose American dream has taken a few years to properly realize.

Their mutual dedication combined with Shank’s Honda relationship and Harvey’s relationship with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports helped produce a likable new entry for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, with a six-race program in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda to start off in the first year of a multi-year program.

You should know Shank’s story if you’ve followed him in the past, but the cliff notes version is this. A driver turned team owner who has both high reputation and integrity from various paddocks tried to become an IndyCar team owner for 2012 in addition to his sports car program. He bought a car, but couldn’t get an engine lease.

This soured him at the time but he continued winning in sports car racing. A popular overall triumph at the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the 50th anniversary edition, was the team’s biggest win with the quartet of Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger and the late, great, Justin Wilson.

Although the initial hurt of not getting into IndyCar stung, Shank wouldn’t give up on the dream. Circumstances brought Harvey to Shank’s Indianapolis 500 entry last year in tandem with Andretti Autosport, and so both of their IndyCar careers were finally able to take hold.

It was the adversity the unit fought through all month and the relationship established that has led to now, as both Shank and Harvey explained during the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

“At any point, there were a lot of times when he could have just flat given up, and he just didn’t,” Shank told NBC Sports. “I just kept talking to him ‘Jack, we’re on this.’ When things went wrong, we knew why they went wrong, which is always actually good to know. It was not our fault, but it didn’t matter, it happened anyway. We got through it, and once we got through those first three or four days, we were fine. And in fact, a historical note, if you go back and look at the practice before qualifying, at Indy, we were eighth quickest, with a 231.8 (mph). I was really happy with where we were.”

Schmidt, Steve Eriksen (HPD), Harvey and Shank. Photo: IndyCar

Shank explored a partnership continuation with Andretti Autosport for 2018, but it didn’t make sense for either party. With SPM available to run a third car in a technical partnership and with Harvey already having the established relationship there, that made more sense for all parties.

“I’ll say one thing that I haven’t mentioned to anybody here today (at PRI), we had a great relationship with Andretti,” Shank explained. “We talked to them about this program a little bit, because we had that program with them before, and it just didn’t work for both parties. I have a lot of respect for what Michael’s done over there and J.F. Thormann. It just didn’t line up.

“With Sam and I: we’ve trying to do it for a while and it lined up. It made sense.”

Harvey recapped the unlikely union between he and Shank, but noted how much support and dedication Shank gave to him despite the two not knowing each other before May.

“How we even met was kind of random,” Harvey told NBC Sports. “It wasn’t what either of us thought we were going to do at the (Indy 500). And that relationship grew very quickly. I think it grew quickly because of the difficulties we went though, which I don’t think are a bad thing.

“Detroit immediately followed Indy and we sat down at a meeting at whatever hotel he was staying in and we said ‘This is what we’re looking to do in the future. Is there any interest to do it with us?’ He then expressed an interest to do it with us, and then we went back to SiriusXM and AutoNation and said ‘Look, this is what we’re trying to do. This is how we want to finish off ’17 and this is what we want to move to in the future.’”

Harvey gathered enough from those two supporters to run the final two races of 2017 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in its No. 7 Honda, which had seen a revolving door of drivers after Mikhail Aleshin and the team mutually parted ways. Having two races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, two more traditional race weekends instead of the month-long slog that is Indianapolis, allowed Harvey to get his feet wet in a more normal manner.

“The ‘500 itself is a unique beast. There’s nothing quite like the month of May. I’ll be the first to say it’s a slog, it’s a grind, and it’s a grind for everybody. Every single person who goes, goes to work,” Harvey said.

“Throughout the 500, there was nothing that happened that didn’t think I could, you know. Maybe I needed a bit more time and a bit more experience, but I believed I could do it.

“We went to the road courses and I feel like I backed it up, I was certainly comparable to (James Hinchcliffe), who was my teammate those weekends. I felt good. Again, I felt that, given a bit of time, I know I could do this.

“We sat down with Michael and had about as frank of a conversation as you could expect, one that when the phone rang I probably wasn’t expecting it. And it was along the lines of ‘Can you do this?’ I was like ‘I can do this. I absolutely can do it.’ I believe in myself. We have modest expectations for next year that are realistic, and honestly if we’re right in that window, maybe we will surprise a few people on some weekends.”

Shank’s often been known as doing a lot with a little; that being said, he has a solid core of local companies who are longtime supporters. Thanks to long-running partnerships with Curb Records, CAP and Associates, Rocky Fork Company, and Roberts Service Group, all have helped allow Shank’s dual programs next year both in IndyCar and his Acura NSX GT3 program in IMSA.

“There are so many positives that are going on right now. It’s been really difficult to get this together. A lot of credit on the IndyCar side goes to Jack (Harvey) and his guy Bob Perona,” said Shank (editor’s note: Harvey now has new representation from MBK Sports Management, a full-service sports agency founded by long-time NFL agent and attorney Eugene T. Lee).

“For us it’s just keep pushing, don’t give up, we’ll find another way to do it, and we just kept on it. Truly, the AutoNation/Sirius XM (partnership) is what pushed it over. These people really believe in us and we want to over-deliver for them and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

The team will run a loaned SPM chassis for its initial testing in January before moving to Shank’s newly purchased chassis in February. Will Anderson, a longtime junior engineer with SPM, will be Harvey’s race engineer. The program will run St. Petersburg, Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500 for sure, with Shank still finalizing which other three races they’ll do – but he expects they’ll be road or street course races.

Harvey, meanwhile, now has a multi-year plan to build upon with Shank and Schmidt Peterson. This comes as a welcome relief after not having any racing in 2016 and just keeping his face present as SPM’s Indy Lights driver coach, then doing a mix of coaching and driving last year.

“It’s a huge relief. I’ve gone from having nothing in ’16, like no racing at all, to trying to put together something for ’17,” he said. “There was a late ‘500” deal, there was a late last two races deal.

“To know what we have for next year is going to be ironed out, there’s going to be some testing before it – dude, I’m a lucky person, there’s no doubting that. That being said, we’ve worked incredibly hard to get back to this point. So we’ll take a little bit of the good fortune that comes with that.

“It’s nice to have it wrapped away for Christmas. I’m going to go back to the U.K. on the 22nd of December, shut the phone down for probably three or four days, and enjoy Christmas with my family, because without them, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve got a great management team, a lot of people who I need to thank for making it happen. Honestly, the multi-year agreement part of it is hopefully my opportunity to say thank you.”

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.