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.
Fast forward to this month, where within the last 10 days, Shank now has a driver who's been equally star-crossed in his attempt to make it into IndyCar full time – former Firestone Indy Lights champion Jay Howard – and an entry filed for the Indianapolis 500.
Again, intentions made clear. Again, investment made in the product. And again, no engine, yet.
With several entries teetering on withdrawing (Ed Carpenter's second car and the Newman/Haas Lotus intended for Jean Alesi), an engine in Howard's Shank car would bring the number of engines up to the magic 33. I highly doubt any of the engine manufacturers would want the bad PR associated with a field shy of 33 for the first time since 1947 if one of the cars didn't have a lump in the back.
Ironically, Lotus has now parted ways with two of its original factory teams – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport – which, conceivably, should free up more Lotus engines up even if it's just for the month of May.
If you want to say there's been one misstep in the process, it's Shank's telling the Associated Press Monday that the team would want only a Chevrolet or a Honda. It's a delicate balance in wanting to be competitive and also not throwing Lotus under the bus, but at this stage, a Lotus would still be better than nothing.
“I've got nothing against the people at Lotus, but this is a huge risk for me and my life and my team, and I am not willing to do it with zero hope,” Shank told the AP. “And there's no hope of getting a top 10 with a Lotus.”
Even a social media campaign hasn't produced the necessary results. Reportedly, the #engineforshank hashtag on Twitter generated more than 40,000 impressions to more than 24,000 followers within a 24-hour period.
Now, you'll notice that to this point I haven't mentioned the fact Shank runs Ford engines in Grand-Am, and there's the potentially thorny issue of contracts and conflicting manufacturer interests. I get that.
But, already in 2012, we have had the announcement of Roger Penske switching to Fords for his NASCAR program while running – and dominating – with Ilmor-prepared Chevrolets in IndyCar. His leading owner counterpart, Chip Ganassi, has Hondas in IndyCar, Chevrolets in NASCAR and BMWs in Grand-Am.
We also have Ryan Hunter-Reay (trailing Will Power, RIGHT), as a driver, racing Chevys for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar, a one-off with a Honda (HPD) at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and later this year, a Dodge Viper in the American Le Mans Series.
The bottom line is that it can be done to have multiple manufacturers within the same roof, provided the details can be worked out.
This offseason has seen several last-minute deals come together, or potentially out of nowhere. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was fortunate to accrue a Honda lease to run its talented rookie Josef Newgarden, although it was late, and the Dragon Racing two-car Lotus effort caught everyone off guard when it was announced.
Shank's intentions to enter IndyCar were made official in October, a full two months before either of the SFHR or Dragon deals, and despite making investments, saying largely the right things, and remaining consistent in saying, “I want to be there!” he still isn't, yet. It's been more than six months and he's still basically a Fred Flintstone body-double in trying to pedal his chassis around the track.
The sad saga that has been Shank's attempt to get on the grid is a cautionary tale for prospective team owners who want to make it to IndyCar. You may have enthusiasm, passion, dedication and investment, but if you don't have an engine lease, you don't have a spot. To be honest, it's ridiculous – and far from welcoming. Besides the Lotus comments, Shank also told the AP Monday he had asked IndyCar to guarantee the team an engine, regardless of which one, and “they never responded.”
The thing is, IndyCar shouldn't want to back itself into a corner either in saying it could help some teams acquire engine leases, but not others. Considering SFHR, Carpenter and Dragon all got leases rather late in the game, to leave a team out in the cold sets a dangerous precedent. Not to be forgotten, but Conquest Racing also has been left sidelined for 2012 per a lack of one.
Honestly, I don't care what engine Shank gets if he gets one. I'm guessing the team doesn't either. Like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, I would just like to wake up one morning and hear Shank say, “So you're telling me there's a chance…”