In the last dozen years, the IZOD IndyCar Series has occasionally stood on the precipice of not filling the traditional field of 33 cars for the Indianapolis 500. Usually, it's because drivers haven't been named to fill the available seats; far less frequently, there's an available car without an engine.
The latter place is where Michael Shank stands on this last day of April. Realistically, it never should have come to this.
Shank's a “lifer” who's made his entire business and living off of racing. He drove for years dating to the late 1980s, winning races in junior formulas and making a single IndyCar start in 1997 at Las Vegas, but has since made the primary focus his Michael Shank Racing team. The team launched Sam Hornish Jr.'s career, among others, while in Formula Atlantic, and has been one of the most successful Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype teams since entering that series in the mid-2000s.
A sports car guy when it comes to where his cars have been racing, Shank still has maintained a dedicated interest and passion for entering the IndyCar ranks. Given a new car and a theoretically level playing field, the time should have been right for Shank's intentions – announced last October at the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas – to turn into reality.
When no other team had officially declared an intention to align with Lotus, Shank's car drawing was unveiled with Lotus signage, signaling his intent to partner with the manufacturer for his slated debut.
The months that followed provided a harsh reality into the business side, with Lotus' ongoing issues dealing with ownership changes and limited engine supply, and for the guy who's made a career out of making lemonade just with lemons in trying to allow this Lotus to blossom.
It's not as if Shank – along with business partners in the MSR Indy project Brian Bailey and his longtime Rolex 24 at Daytona driver and friend AJ Allmendinger, of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – weren't putting in boatloads of money to make it happen. Between purchasing a DW12 chassis, a transporter and hiring new crew, Shank was making it clear this was a serious effort and not vaporware as some “new team” announcements are. This was the epitome of dedication.
“I've put a lot of my own money into this deal trying to make it happen,” he told me over the winter. “It's not for a lack of effort.”
The ball-busting phase wasn't limited to just the new IndyCar project. At the same time, Shank had also purchased a new third-generation Riley Ford DP for his Rolex Series team. For good measure, to prove the quality and effort the team assembled, it only went out and won this year's Rolex 24 – the 50th anniversary edition, no less.
Allmendinger, who admitted he'd driven “the race of his life” to win the race along with his former Champ Car teammate Justin Wilson and Shank's normal drivers Ozz Negri and John Pew, made it clear who the drive was for.
“This is for Shank. Period,” Allmendinger said in victory lane.
The same weekend, Paul Tracy let slip that he had had discussions with Shank regarding the IndyCar seat for a full-time deal. Should be a perfect scenario, right? Two lifers – the legendary Canadian who's made a plethora of both fans and foes over his 20 years in IndyCar, and one guy who's been primed but waiting for the right opportunity to enter the series – partner up for PT to ride off into the sunset and Shank to establish himself as a foothold within the paddock.
Unfortunately, this deal also got hit from behind by a “Chrome Horn” – in this case, a partner that pulled out. The obvious issue here is that MSR might have preferred a Honda engine, PT has a personal services contract with Honda of Canada, and a Lotus engine would have done no favors to that deal.
Another driver was rumored to be in the frame, but that deal never materialized either. The odds of making it to St. Petersburg grew slimmer and slimmer until they vanished completely.