When the current NTT IndyCar Series shutdown began on Friday, March 13, NBCSports.com was talking to team owner Michael Shank in the lobby of a hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida.
That conversation was interrupted by a phone call.
In a matter of seconds, Shank’s face told the story. It was a look of disappointment, despair and concern.
Six weeks later, Shank remembers that call and his reaction as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“To be fair, sitting there in the hotel lobby, we didn’t take it as serious as I have with my guys today,” Shank told NBCSports.com. “I probably still thought it was overreaction on a lot of people’s parts, but we know now that is not the case.
“Thankfully, everybody on both of my teams is healthy right now. We haven’t done anything for six weeks other than to make sure the roof isn’t leaking at the shop, and the cars are up on jacks. We’re hoping to go back to work in a few weeks.
“We’re ready, man.”
There are signs that the curve is being flattened. Progress is being made in the ongoing battle against the potentially lethal virus that has shut down much of the world. But the progress may not be enough to allow large-scale returns to public life.
There remain far too many fatalities and new cases to say with any certainty when it is safe for large groups of people to gather.
Meantime, as the shutdown continues, jobs are lost, schools are closed, and families are struggling just to survive.
Shank understands both issues but believes at some point, the risk of returning to work has to be made.
“Absolutely, positively, we have got to get back to work,” Shank told NBCSports.com. “If there is some risk in that for all of us, then we have to take that risk. Our government cannot afford to keep us afloat like it is doing now.
“We are a small business. We applied for the PPP (Payroll Protection Program) loan, and we got it when we got in on the first batch. The team owners have talked about this. Some have gotten their money, and others haven’t.
“We can’t keep that up. We have got to get back to work. Whatever that looks like to stay healthy, then that is what we will have to do. Does that mean I’ll have to clean the shop three times a day and the trailers three times a day when we are on the road? Does that mean no fans for the first month of six weeks? That’s it.
“But if we don’t work, we’re going to lose a whole way of life for a lot of the industry.
“I get it. We’re being careful. Maybe it makes sense to wait a little bit. I’m on board with that. When do the cars need to be ready on the IndyCar side? Then we back it up two weeks to get back in the shop and get ready for that first race, that is what we will do.”
IndyCar is following all governmental procedures during this shutdown. Many of the teams are based in the Indianapolis area. Team Penske is located in Mooresville, North Carolina, and Dale Coyne Racing is in Plainfield, Illinois.
All three states have different “Stay at Home” orders.
Meyer Shank Racing took the leap of faith to run a full-time program in the NTT IndyCar Series this season with driver Jack Harvey. But like all teams in the series, it never got off pit road.
“Jim Meyer and I for the past three or four weeks have been looking at how to go forward and keep our partners in play and work with them,” Shank said. “They are hurting, badly. What do we have to do to make sure we keep that relationship? In our mind, what are we going to do to help them? They need help.
“We came up with a plan pretty quickly. I give credit to Jim Meyer on that one. He is built for this kind of stuff. Jim is a high-level CEO that thinks way outside and way forward. He helped us through it.
“We want to keep 2021 intact. For us, it’s 2021 we are talking about now. We want to get through 2020 and lose the least amount of money possible and move forward. Knock wood, we aren’t through this, but we’re in reasonable shape.”
Shank’s team planned on a full-time 2020 effort. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing were planning on increasing from an Indy 500 only effort to include races at St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.
St. Petersburg is expected to return in October, but the Detroit doubleheader has been canceled for 2020.
With Roger Penske as the new owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this was going to be a “Renaissance season” for the series.
Instead, it has been forced into the modern-day version of the “Dark Ages.”
“We’ve had that conversation,” Shank admits. “For three and a half years to put this program through a whole schedule. It’s unbelievable the odds that this happened this way. I try not to get wrapped around the axle on that one. We just need to keep everyone going forward. We’ve done everything we could do for our health and plan and have to get back at it. We are in reasonable shape. There are other teams that are worse off than we are, so we have to be thankful we’re in as good a shape as we are.
“I got a little bit lucky two or three years ago when my wife and I decided to sell a chunk of the business to Jim Meyer. He makes us better. I’ve been in this for 26 years. We’ve lasted through 9/11 and through 2008-2009 on our own. I’m glad I had Jim to prepare for this one. I think that our little business survives. We have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C and let’s get onto it.
“Jim does not pump money into this business every month. This business pumps money into this business every month.”
Shank is operating on wise business sense, a smart plan, faith in the almighty and faith in Penske’s leadership.
“Roger Penske has great vision,” Shank said. “I’ve had four team owner conference calls since this first started and I’m always feeling better when I get off the phone. Even if it is just ideas of what he wants, that gives me hope. When I get off the phone, I’m pumped up. I want to do what my share is. Roger is a great communicator and I’m learning that quickly.
“We’re in good shape. Now listen, I’ve had some bad days, but right now it feels like it is heading in the right direction. Hopefully, that puts us on the right track.”
Just six weeks after that meeting in a St. Petersburg hotel lobby, Shank’s daily routine has changed. Instead of heading to his office at the team’s race shop, he does his work like millions of others in his home.
“I get up and I work out,” Shank said. “I’ve never been stronger in my life. I have a home gym. Then, I get on the phone and start planning. The first two weeks was all economics. It was financial modeling that I came up with Jim and I looked at it and figured out how to get through this. The first two weeks was Plans A, B and C and 2021.
“Once that settled, it’s staying super organized with my guys. Weekly engineering. Management calls. Staff calls and working with the plans on how to safely work at the shop and then phase more people in.
“The cars have not been touched. They are on jack stands. The truck drivers come in and start up the rigs and generators and makes sure everything runs, then they leave.
All Shank can do in the meantime is plan and hope.
“If we can just hold on, we’ll be all right,” Shank said. “If we can just hold on.”