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July 19, 2013  |   By Bruce Martin

Owner Shank To Rekindle Long Connection WIth IMS At Brickyard Grand Prix

Michael Shank already left his mark on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even before last year’s Brickyard Grand Prix – the first Rolex GRAND-AM race held at “The Greatest Race Course in the World.”

He was the man who put Sam Hornish Jr. into a brighter light after signing aspiring U.S. F2000 Series driver Hornish to his Toyota Atlantic series team in 1999. During that season, Hornish laid a number on the competition at the old Chicago Motor Speedway in Cicero, Ill., and Shank realized this driver had talent and helped move him up to the IndyCar Series.

Hornish would win three IndyCar championships – two with Panther Racing, in 2001 and 2002, and one with Team Penske in 2006. During his championship season with Penske, Hornish achieved his lifelong dream of the winning the Indianapolis 500.

Hornish drove for team owner Roger Penske in NASCAR Sprint Cup from 2008-10 and the final half of the 2012 season. Since 2012, Hornish has been a full-time competitor in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and will be a prime contender to win the Indiana 250 on Saturday, July 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Shank also played a major role in developing AJ Allmendinger, who has driven Shank’s Daytona Prototypes in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Allmendinger and Shank won the famed sports car endurance race at Daytona in 2012. Allmendinger competed in his first Indianapolis 500 this year for Team Penske.

And Shank’s outfit was among the select group of GRAND-AM teams that participated in a compatibility test in 2009 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to determine if the sports car series could compete on the IMS road course. With positive results from that test, GRAND-AM joined the schedule at the Speedway with the Brickyard Grand Prix in 2012 as part of the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard.

Michael Shank Racing is back this year featuring a potent two-car lineup with Oswaldo Negri and John Pew in the No. 60 car while Allmendinger and former Firestone Indy Lights driver Gustavo Yacaman will be in the No. 6.

Allmendinger will become the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard Grand Prix and the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com NASCAR Sprint Cup race in the same season when he drives James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet in the NASCAR classic on Sunday, July 28.

Indianapolis is a big deal to Shank, 46.

“It always is,” Shank said. “I live in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up three hours from the Speedway, and it’s always been about the Indy 500 and that Speedway. I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1986, and an Ohio guy named Bobby Rahal won the race.”

Shank competed in the 1997 Indianapolis 500 as an owner, with Claude Bourbonnais as the driver. The next time Shank’s cars got to compete at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway was in last year’s Brickyard Grand Prix.

“I was personally involved in helping with this for years,” Shank said. “First of all, in 2009 there were five of us that got to go over there and do a compatibility test, and I was one of the five teams that got to do that. For me, it was about taking our series to the most historically significant place in our country and creating a home for it along with a NASCAR show. What I always push for is putting our product in front of people that have a passion for racing. It was always about getting our product in front of more people.

“During that first test in 2009, there was some trepidation about our cars looking physically slow on the big track, which wasn’t the case at all. Actually, the top speed is about 190 miles an hour there. It’s a low-downforce track for us. The infield track is very hard on tires, so there was a challenge to make the tires work, which they ended up doing. Once we were clear of that, we weren’t exactly clear how it would race, though. That was answered last year, and I thought it was a great race.”

The inaugural Brickyard Grand Prix was an extremely intriguing contest that started in the rain. Then the sun came out to create a different racing condition for the GRAND-AM cars. Another rain shower introduced another element to the race that eventually finished with sunshine basking the track, creating long shadows on the frontstretch.

“That is always challenging,” Shank said. “In the Midwest you build heat all day and then it dumps at the end of the day. I would anticipate that. That was the biggest thing that happened last year. You are always second-guessing yourself about position. We came out of the pits after that cycle of on-and-off rain in P1, but Oswaldo and a GT car came together in Turn 2, and that ended our run right there. We are happy with the balance of our car, and the second thing I think we will have a balance of power change that will take some of the advantage away that the Corvettes seem to have right now. We hope for the best.”

Shank believes the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – which includes the South Short Chute, Turn 1 of the oval and the long frontstretch before a hard right-hand turn into the infield road course portion just across from Grandstand C, is very challenging.

“First of all, I think it produces very good racing for our Daytona Prototypes, so from a quality of racing standpoint it’s really good, actually,” Shank said. “Maybe it’s not quite as challenging – I don’t know that for a fact – but I can tell you it will provide really good, side-by-side, hard racing action. You can argue it all over the place, but with our cars, specifically, you will see a duel for the finish.”

Michael Shank Racing is a prime contender for victory in the Brickyard Grand Prix, but the contributions he has made to the sport are already quite impressive, starting with his role in bringing Hornish onto the scene in 1999.

“On the ovals, I remember thinking this beforehand we ran him in the Toyota Atlantic series, which was a ladder series for CART,” Shank said. “We took him testing at Phoenix on the oval at PIR. I remember doing that test, and he was so fast, and it was effortless for him. There was no drama. He just sat in the car and literally fell asleep. He kept asking us to free the car up, which can be a scary proposition, especially on an oval. That was the first hint of it.

“He won a race for us at Chicago Motor Speedway in 1999, and he killed them – he destroyed them. It was a technical chess match. Once I saw that, I realized there may be no better oval racer in that series and he had a future in motorsports for a while. He started out with PDM that first year and struggled. Then he got on the Panther deal.

“I would venture to say after everything I’ve been through with him in that year or two I was working with him and then watch him go through the Panther and Penske era, he is to me probably the best IndyCar oval racer that has ever been, to be honest. He is that good on an oval in an IndyCar. I know there are a lot of big names I’m stepping over here, but to me he has the perfect brain for oval racing in IndyCars.”

When Hornish left IndyCar to go to NASCAR after the 2007 season, he was the greatest driver ever produced during the Indy Racing League era of IndyCar. Although Toyota Atlantic was part of the CART ladder system, it was obvious that Hornish’s ability to race an open-wheel car on the ovals made him better suited for IndyCar and its all-oval racing schedule at that time.”

The relationship Shank has with Allmendinger is a solid one that is as much a personal friendship as it is professional. But Allmendinger is one of the rare talents that can be competitive in almost any race car.

“There are very few people in this world of racing that can do the drive in the sports car series, the stock car series and the IndyCar Series and be very successful, and he is one of them,” Shank said. “That is one thing I think Roger Penske loves about him. Look at Dario Franchitti, as much as I love the guy he came over to NASCAR, and it didn’t work. There are so many stories about them trying to come over a few years ago and not many worked it out. Sam even struggled.

“AJ can be competitive in both. But he had a horrible Detroit weekend in IndyCar this year and came back and won at Road America for Roger Penske in Nationwide. He also qualified the JTG Daugherty car 17th at Kentucky, which is crazy good for where that team is with the power they have now.

“He can get in my car and immediately be fast within three laps. More than that, that is not the reason I appreciate him. I appreciate him because of his loyalty when he didn’t have to be to me, and the things he said to the media. If he drives for me at Daytona, it will be his ninth season. Over the years, there have been at least two or three times where he could have said, ‘I’m done, and I’m going to do something else,’ but he stuck with us, and we finally were able to get the Daytona win with him.

“I have a real soft spot for people who go beyond what they say they are going to do. It has nothing to do with money. It’s never about money. In fact, I have to remind him I may pay him this time. That developed a friendship. He knows he can count on me, and I’m the same.

“We should have won at Watkins Glen. It was clearly our race to win, and he was the first guy to text me after the race. He said, ‘Hold on, people see it, don’t get on yourself.’ It was the same thing I did after his Detroit race because I know he struggled there. It is a mutual thing between us that is hard to describe.”

When Allmendinger competed in five races for Team Penske in IndyCar this year, he showed flashes of brilliance, such as leading the 97th Indianapolis 500. That has led some to believe the IZOD IndyCar Series may ultimately be Allmendinger’s permanent home.

“It really fits him,” Shank said. “He could win races. That series is so difficul,t and the new Dallaras are so hard to drive and get it right because they are very pointy on the setup deal. You can hit it once, and one shock click can put you out of the ball park. He needs more time in the car.

“I like him in stock cars, though. I like him in stock cars long term and hope he can get a solid ride in that again. We’ll see.

“But we put him in our car for the Brickyard Grand Prix. It’s a logical thought.”

While Allmendinger plays a part-time role with Michael Shank Racing, the core group that competes in every race will get a chance to shine at the famed Brickyard.

“We’re bringing back John Pew and Oswaldo Negri in the 60 car, which is the exact combo we had last year and should have won, but we had a problem in pit out,” Shank said. “They should have won at Watkins Glen. We had a dramatic month of June because the 60 car was destroyed at Detroit, and we had to fix it in a week to get it to Mid-Ohio and it finished fourth. But in that same race, my 6 car caught on fire and burned to the ground. We fixed two races cars in four weeks and did about $230,000 in damage between the two of them. We are just now coming out of that hole.”

It’s already been quite a ride for Michael Shank Racing. With an impressive driver lineup in the Brickyard Grand Prix, that ride will continue July 26 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.