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The Way It Is/ Mike Shank arrives

by Gordon Kirby
Five days after his team's superb 1-3 result in Daytona's Rolex 24 Mike Shank was swimming in a sea of congratulations and trying to focus on pulling together his hoped-for IndyCar team with Paul Tracy. After a decade and a half of building his team through Formula Atlantic and the Grand-Am Shank suddenly has arrived. The sport needs motivated young team owners like Shank and I wish him the best of luck this year in his pursuit of the Grand-Am championship with Oswaldo Negri and John Pew and his parallel attempt to establish himself as an IndyCar owner with Paul Tracy his likely driver.

"It's kind of chaotic here to be honest," Shank said last Friday. "But we're managing it and trying to do everything to take advantage of it before our fifteen minutes of fame runs out."

Shank, 44, is a former driver who won the Formula Atlantic C2 Championship in 1996 before starting his team, first in Atlantic, then moving into the Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype category in 2004. Shank's cars, always powered by Ford engines, have been able to win three Grand-Am races over the last eight years and have challenged unsuccessfully to win at Daytona. In 2006 Shank's car driven by Allmendinger, Wilson, Negri and Mark Patterson finished second to Ganassi's lead car at Daytona but this year Shank was ready with two of the latest generation of Riley mk XXVI-Fords and scored an excellent victory with AJ Allmendinger/Justin Wilson/Oswaldo Negri/John Pew.

"I always feel like I have to prove myself every step because I came from nothing, more or less," Shank said after winning at Daytona. "I have had great relationships with people like Ozz and John Pew that have really taken our business to another level. Mark Patterson was also involved in that early on, so was Paul Mears. These guys came in and really trusted that we could do a job and I always felt like I tried to overdeliver for them in any way I could. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn't.

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"But I think for the most part I have a pretty good track record doing what I say I'm going to do. I'm grateful to John for sticking with me through some trying times and the world's economy in 2008. John said I'm committed to doing this and it kept me on the map. We paid our dues for sure, and I hope this win can take us to new, cool places in Daytona Prototypes in the coming years."

Shank's second car driven by Michael McDowell/Felipe Nasr/Jorge Goncalvez/Gustavo Yacaman made up two lost laps under the Grand-Am's generous yellow flag system to finish third on the lead lap. McDowell was the veteran on this driving team. The other three are eager young open-wheel drivers with no long-distance experience so it was quite an accomplishment for them to make the finish, let alone in a top position.

"The overlooked story for sure is what the second car did," Shank remarked. "I'm really proud of those guys. I really didn't think they would be able to finish because they were being too aggressive. They went through double the amount of brakes they should have, but they put themselves into position to get their lost laps back and at the end of the day they got it done."

For the rest of the Grand-Am season Shank will focus on running one car for Negri and Pew. Negri, 47, has been driving for Shank since Shank started his Grand-Am team in 2004. A Brazilian karting and Formula Three champion Oswaldo moved to Europe in 1990 and raced successfully for four years in the British and European F3 series. He won races but lacked the sponsorship to move up to F1 and came to America in 1997. Negri raced Indy Lights cars, worked as a Skip Barber instructor and development driver for the Barber Dodge Pro Series and Formula BMW before getting his chance with Shank.

"It's a cool way to start the year, man," Negri said at Daytona. "A very cool way to start the year. Being with Mike for such a long time what makes it special is that he wants to win as bad as I do. It's just so cool also to have a fiery A.J., a very calm and fast Wilson, and John Pew on the team. I think we had a dream team this year.

"It's everything I've been working for. My career began in Europe when I was trying to get into Formula One and it didn't happen there. Moving here to the States I was really at the right place at the right time meeting the right people because I didn't have any money. It's like a dream come true. It's everything I've worked for and I couldn't be happier.

"We've got to keep working hard throughout the whole year and take every race at a time. We did our homework for this race. We talked a lot about how we wanted the car for the race and we made it happen. We as a group will be working hard this year."

John Pew has provided the fuel to make Shank's team happen in recent years and Pew complimented Shank for his straightforward way of doing business.

"Mike is a great guy to deal with on a business or personal level and as a race team owner," Pew said. "He's a straight shooter. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, which I like. There's no second-guessing. He says what he says and he means what he says, and I really like that.

"He's taken this team a long way since I first started with them. He wants to do things right and he wants to win. He's very competitive and I really love that. He puts pressure on me too, which I really like. I've got to be fast or he's not going to let me stay in the car much. So I've got to really work on it and I like it that way. I don't want to just go out there and drive laps for the hell of it."

Pew said he's learned a tremendous amount from Negri, Allmendinger and Wilson.

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"I feel really lucky to drive with AJ, Justin and Ozz, who I've known for a while. These guys are great people and they're fantastic drivers, some of the best in the world, and I learn a lot from them. I get to look at their data and see what their speed secrets are and they're free to share it. It's been a really great experience.

"Ozz has been a great co-driver for the last few years and a great coach. When we're not at the racetrack we're at the go-kart track and he's showing me things there. We work really hard at it and we take it really seriously and I appreciate the seriousness that he takes in it."

Allmendinger paid tribute to Pew's commitment to Shank and keen effort to improve his driving.

"As Mike said, John's been a big part of this team the last few years," AJ remarked. "He's worked so hard to not be your typical 'gentleman driver', or however you want to put it, but to be a pure race car driver. He's stepped up his game in the three or four years that I've seen more than anybody."

Allmendinger and Shank go back a long way. Allmendinger has always driven one of Shank's cars at Daytona and is a partner in Shank's new IndyCar team. AJ may join Negri and Pew at the Brickyard Grand-Am round.

Without doubt Allmendinger is an extremely fast driver and a true racer as Alan McNish learned at Daytona. Many people believe AJ's win in this year's Rolex 24 is a harbinger of things to come for the 30-year old Californian as he goes into his sixth year in NASCAR as a Penske driver, replacing the miscreant Kurt Busch. With Brad Keselowski and Allmendinger, Penske has a pair of young tigers on his hands and everyone expects AJ to win races this year and qualify for the Chase.

"I think Sprint Cup racing is the toughest in the world right now," Allmendinger said at Daytona. "It's so hard to win and I look at this year as my best opportunity to win a Cup race. But that's easier said than done."

Allmendinger met Negri ten years ago as he rose quickly through the ladder system, winning the Barber Dodge Pro Series championship in 2002 and Toyota Atlantic title the following year. Negri served as a driver coach and mentor for Allmendinger during that critical stage of his career.

"Oswaldo was such a big part of developing me in my open-wheel racing through Barber Dodge," AJ said. "He did so much for me there."

Wilson was Allmendinger's teammate at RuSports in 2005 and AJ and the tall Englishman quickly became close friends as well as teammates with Shank. Wilson is one of the world's most underrated drivers and Allmendinger emphasized the point at Daytona.

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"Justin as my teammate in Champ Car just made me so much better than I could have ever expected to be because he pushed me every day to limits that I didn't think I could reach," AJ observed. "I put Justin up against anybody when it comes to pure road course and street course driving and when it comes to any car. He was somebody that for a couple of years just made my life hell, honestly, because he was so good."

Wilson was making a return to action at Daytona after breaking his back in an Indy car at Mid-Ohio last August. Justin rejoins Dale Coyne's team in this year's IndyCar series after driving for Dreyer & Reinbold the last two years. Wilson scored Coyne's only win at Watkins Glen in 2009 and also won for Newman/Haas at Belle Isle in 2008. Back in 2005-'07 he won four Champ Car races driving for RuSport. Justin's victory for Cyone at the Glen was particularly impressive as he used every inch and more of the track and curbs to outpace the favored Ganassi and Penske cars. Thoughts of that fine win give Justin plenty of hope for the coming season.

"I think we've got a good opportunity this year with Dale Coyne Racing and the Honda engine," Justin said at Daytona. "I think we did our homework and if we do some good testing we'll be in with a shout. We just have to work it out. I think it's going to be an exciting year. I'm really looking forward to it. It's a great opportunity and a chance to really build something and hopefully win a few more races."

Meanwhile Shank hopes to pull his IndyCar team together in the next few weeks with Paul Tracy behind the wheel.

"I didn't play around," Shank said at the end of last week. "I bought the car--chassis number fifteen. We've done some work on it and we're going to start to work again on Monday on making some progress.

"It's ebbing and flowing," he went on. "We're really pushed right now to say we can make it to St. Pete. That's our goal, but I'm not sure. We'll see. Certainly that is my intention but we've got to get everyone on the same page. We're waiting to hear about the details of the Leader's Circle program.

"With the new car and engine it was worth it to me to risk the dough. I knew what the downside was, but I was willing to risk it. We just need a couple of things to happen and we're going. We are trying very hard with one of Paul's sponsors to get them on board. We think we'll have some backing but we're not sure what that will look like. It looks like we're going to have to puzzle the pieces together to make it work.

"I've got three or four guys who will go onto the IndyCar program immediately and I know a handful of other guys who I want and know are available. I think we can make that happen pretty quick. We've bought a lot of the equipment already and we'll pull the trigger on the rest without an issue once we know the money is there. I need to make some sizeable contracts with the tires and the motor, so I want to make damn sure before we make the move."

As Shank says, he's paid his dues. After years of hard work and delivering the goods for his clients he's emerged in the limelight as one of America's most promising young team owners. We will all be watching with great interest to see what Shank can achieve in the coming years.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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