He’s reveled in seeing one of his endurance sports cars win the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona and another lead the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year.
But Michael Shank has always had his heart set on racing in the Indianapolis 500.
Five years removed from nearly entering the race with Paul Tracy, Michael Shank Racing will team with Andretti Autosport on a Honda-powered No. 50 Honda driven by rookie Jack Harvey in May’s 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Shank, 50, from Columbus, Ohio, has dreamed of making it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway since childhood. He attended his first Indy 500 as a spectator in 1987 and made one Indy car start as a driver, finishing 16th at Las Vegas in 1997. Even after transitioning to ownership, which saw him excel in Formula Atlantics and most recently flourish in sports cars, he’s never lost sight of his ultimate ambition.
“It’s always been my No. 1 goal in my life in racing, while I was in the Toyota Atlantic Series and when I was growing up, to get to the Indy 500,” Shank said. “It’s one of those things that I grew up with, with my dad (Al) and my family, it was ingrained in my life from 4 years old on. It’s just something my dad was really into, so I was really into.
“I respect this place immensely, but I’m not afraid of it. We’re going to attack it like we attack any race. We’re going to try to do the best we can. But I want to be able to stop and look up and take it all in and appreciate being there. Sometimes in our sport, and me specifically, you work so hard to do something that when you do it, it just kind of comes and goes and you don’t get to breathe it in. I’m going to make damn sure I breathe it in.”
Shank thought he had positioned his team to make that Indy 500 debut in 2012. He owned a car but required a reliable engine. Shank had a Lotus, a motor that didn’t measure up. He couldn’t commit to an entry that was a longshot to finish the race. The two Lotus-powered entries that did qualify were black-flagged within the first 10 laps for not maintaining a proper speed.
“We knew that was going to happen and I didn’t want to be any part of it. None,” he said. “I had paid my dues up to that point. I didn’t want to have to explain to my sponsors that we couldn’t run the whole race. After the 2012 race, that really knocked the wind out of our sails. Me, my wife (Marybeth) and (partner) Brian Bailey all took a pretty substantial hard hit financially. Sam Schmidt bought the car ultimately and I went back the world in which I knew I could make a living (sports cars).”
Shank’s ownership path eventually cultivated a relationship with Honda in 2015.
“I transferred to a Honda-based program for my prototype program and began a relationship with Honda Performance Development,” he said. “That’s what really made the difference here. Now I have a full factory team in IMSA with Acura NSX and a very large relationship with HPD. It was ultimately up to them if they would lease me a motor. They didn’t want to do 18 (cars), but since it was me and they knew I really, really wanted to do the Indy 500, they agreed to do it and I’m grateful.”
The trip back to Indianapolis encountered one more speed bump. Two weeks ago, Shank had a deal finalized with driver Stefan Wilson, younger brother of the late Justin Wilson, an Indy car regular and fan favorite who once drove a sports car for Shank. Stefan Wilson graciously agreed to give up his ride this year with Shank in exchange for future assistance and the assurance his sponsors would benefit from being associated with two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso making his Indy 500 debut and McLaren returning to the race for the first time in 38 years.
So Harvey, a 24-year-old member of McLaren’s Young Driver Program and two-time Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires runner-up, became Shank’s driver. Two of the Englishman’s six Indy Lights victories for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2015 in the Firestone Freedom 100 and Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
“We know Jack Harvey is an aggressive, young guy, who won the Freedom 100 there a couple of years ago,” Shank said. “We’ve got a pilot who is capable.”
As an owner focused on the business at hand, Shank reiterates the importance of learning from each day and having modest but realistic goals for Harvey’s Verizon IndyCar Series debut.
“Listen, at the end of all of this, if we could be around the top 12 and on the lead lap (at the end), we’ll put that thing away happy and have a big party on Sunday night,” Shank said. “We understand and know the efforts it takes to do well there. I’m humbled by it. I’m realistic about what our odds are of doing well.”
As a race fan, Shank can’t contain his excitement about earning the opportunity to be part of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He recalls watching his first Indy 500 in 1987 from an infield grandstand seat behind pit lane. The sound was so mesmerizing, the activity so fast and furious, it was impossible for his senses to focus on everything. Just seeing the legendary drivers, most notably the previous year’s winner Bobby Rahal, a neighbor from nearby Dublin, Ohio, as well as four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt, was a thrill.
Shank looks forward to joining those legends, both now team owners, on pit lane.
“Imagine any person that’s doing anything in their life and they want to be the best at it and they hardly ever get a chance to do that. I get that chance,” he said. “I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to do that.”
Shank couldn’t be more candid about the arduous road taken to reach the Indy 500.
“I busted my ass my entire life,” he said. “I didn’t come from money; I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t have another business. Everything my wife and I do, we hunt, we kill and we eat. That’s how we survive.
“I can’t take it lightly. I’m putting everything I own on the line in racing almost every week. My wife understands this is on my list, it’s a huge desire of mine, so she supports it. We take unhealthy risks financially all the time. Some day, I would like that to not be the case for her sake because I feel like I put her in peril sometimes. That’s our life, and it’s been so good to us.”
For more information about Honda Racing, visit http://hpd.honda.com/.