Insider: In a way only he can, Michael Shank helped deliver Helio Castroneves his 4th Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS – There is no other IndyCar team owner like Michael Shank.
No one whose even minor successes in the sport automatically prompt the simple question: ‘Is Mike celebrating with a Busch Light yet?’ Yes, while some of his paddock colleagues might celebrate with a decades’ aged glass of Pinot or a couple of fingers of top-shelf bourbon, Shank’s choice will always be the everyman’s beer of everyman’s beers.
No one who is so supremely, unabashedly unafraid to ruffle feathers in defense of his team. Shank will be politically correct when he has to be, but he’s not one to back away from a microphone or a war of words, if it means standing up for those in the corner of IndyCar’s smallest full-time team.
No one else who would have straddled The Ditch at IMS – the gulley in between the front stretch’s inside wall and the outer one on pitlane – with his bright-pink shoes, reflective aviator shades and form-fitting white shirt, arms out-stretched as he hollered at his driver, only eight years his junior, who had just won the Indianapolis 500.
And no one – not even the racing mogul whom Helio Castroneves won three previous 500s for – might have climbed the catch fence right alongside Spiderman himself.
Michael Shank is a one-of-a-kind combination of brash, outspoken confidence and an outside-the-box eye for talent who’s conservative when he has to be and supremely unafraid to push his chips to the center of the table when the time is right.
It’s precisely why Shank and Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Jim Meyer, who until this spring had run only a single full-season in IndyCar, were the ones to land three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves and helped turn him into a four-time champion with a name now beside the likes of American open-wheel racing greats.
They believed – rightfully so, as it turns out – that they were signing a diamond-in-the-rough type of talent that the rest of the series at least believed to be past his prime beyond the confines of IMS, if not the full 17-race IndyCar schedule altogether.
“Jim and I looked at the numbers, the performance numbers from Helio in 2017 (his last full-time IndyCar season, where Castroneves took 4th in the championship and 2nd in the 500), and I didn’t quite get him not running anymore,” Shank said Sunday afternoon, not long after stepping off the fence from his team’s bonanza of a celebration. “I thought he had something left in him.
“We felt like we needed a veteran to come in and help our program overall, but also help Jack (Harvey, the team’s full-time, cornerstone driver).”
This whole program, in fact, was built upon belief. Shank’s own racing career was powered by it, at a time in the 90s when the American open-wheel racing circuit was flooded with wannabes and potential talent chasing an ever-growing number of shots in the sport, brought on by the CART-IRL Split in 1996.
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For one day, Shank made it. For the finale of the IRL’s 2nd season, the 31-year-old landed a one-off run with Nienhouse Motorsports at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He started 28th and finished 16th – one of so many blips of the late-‘90s IRL that, like a shooting star, flashed and the sputtered into the dark in an instant. It didn’t take long for the Columbus Ohio native to realize his childhood dreams would have to come about another way.
“(My dad and I), we used to get the Indianapolis Star, and we would listen about the Unsers, Andrettis and Rahals,” Shank said. “Just dream.
“The minute I got out of high school, I started driving race cars, trying to find a way to get to this place, one, and then how to win it.”
But that’s not where he started building. Not long after that one-off IRL run, Shank built a team in Formula Atlantic, a series previously utilized as a minor league of sorts to groom talent into IndyCar-caliber race car drivers. In 1999, Sam Hornish Jr. won the series Rookie of the Year title while driving for Shank.
Building off successes there, Shank began to dabble in sportscar racing, eventually building the type of upper-echelon program that came away with the 2012 24 Hours of Daytona victory that, until Sunday, had been his own conquered Mt. Everest.
This 500 with Castroneves? Four or five times sweeter, he said.
Because Shank managed to take that same methodical, measured mindset into the series he’d eyed as a kid and knitted it all together into the race of his dreams. All along, Shank said he knew he could never do it on his own, so he first brought in Andretti Technologies to provide the engineering know-how that first got Harvey, an IndyCar rookie in 2017, into that year’s Indy 500.
A year later, Shank convinced Meyer to bring on some financial firepower – could you get any more ‘Speedway, Ind.’ than a business meeting at Big Woods? – and together, they mapped out a plan. They’d move slowly, but at a pre-planned pace. Not one of these straight-to-full-time moves that the series has so often seen crash-and-burn the past couple of decades, and not one that would toil in the 1-4 race range for what soon could turn into a decade.
They were going to be an IndyCar team, and they were going to do it right: do what they knew and pay for what they didn't. And so after an Indy 500 one-off with Harvey in 2017, the team jumped to six races with a technical partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2018, and despite just one top-15 on-track result, they bumped it up yet again to 10 races in 2019. It was then the success started to trickle in, in the form of four top-10s and one podium on the IMS road course.
Their first full-season amidst a pandemic that left practice time nearly non-existent, while racing on several brand-new tracks, wouldn’t have been part of the drawn-up plan, and the financial realities made it tough to keep everyone on the books.
But it was because of Shank’s patience in recent years after being given a hefty wad of cash to help fund his dream that Meyer Shank Racing managed to plod on.
“I’d gotten a little bit tired of reading about how we’re ‘the little team that could’ because we’ve never believed that,” Meyer said Sunday. “We’ve always had a plan. We knew we were going to start very slowly, and Mike was incredibly disciplined. I wanted to go faster earlier, but he explained to me how fast we could waste our money if we weren’t careful.”
And so last fall, when Liberty Media, the owners of Formula 1 who, for quite a while had been looking to gain a foothold into IndyCar, decided to invest in MSR, having seen a level of promise and untapped potential that piqued their interest, it was time to grow.
It just so happens that a veteran driver was roaming the proverbial waiver wire waiting for a team to see the same in him. In Castroneves, Shank and Meyer did.
“(Mike) and I have sat up so many late nights, talking about what we were going to do, and all I’ve said to Mike is, ‘I want to win (the Indy 500)’,” Meyer said.
The now-46-year-old Brazilian driver, fresh off his release after more than two decades at Team Penske, was precisely the wild card to roll their dice on.
“I was saying, ‘Can you imagine if (Helio) could win No. 4 with us? What that would mean to us? Commercially? Respect?’” Shank remembers telling Meyer. “He agreed. ‘Let’s get Helio.’ That’s what we did. It just was perfect.”
And now, all those calls for respect and to cease the notion about the “the little team that could’ have been supremely backed up. The team that had just two full-time crew members on an Indy 500-winning car, driven by a partial-season driver in his first race with a brand-new team called their shot.
What’s next is unknown. Neither owner would commit to what, to some, seemed like the obvious next move: put Castroneves in the car for the remaining 11 races of the year. Complications “that aren’t 100% in our hands” stand against that for now, according to Meyer – likely a reference to Castroneves’ commitment to the Superstar Racing Experience summer six-race stock car series that starts in June.
Instead, this year’s Indy 500 winner, the first partial-season winner in a decade, will likely run just five more IndyCar races in the rest of 2021. Beyond that? Well, neither Shank nor Meyer were willing to commit to that either. But it stands to reason that this is where that belief and faith and “go-get-it” attitude that helped them sign Castroneves in the first place comes right in.
“I believe Helio deserves to go for a 5th Indianapolis win,” Shank said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make that happen for him.”