Indy 500 car owner Mike Shank hopes to defend with Helio Castroneves
Mike Shank is that guy you could listen to all day. You know this one. Has meaning with words. Entertaining stories. Just incredibly engaging.
The Buckeye Lake race car owner lights up every room he walks into. And with that light comes warmth. He cares about people.
Strange then, that too few people cared enough about him. Not that Shank is an outcast. He has always been respected in racing circles, but respect has limits when “honors and achievements” are relegated to the second page of the resume.
Indy 500 starting lineup:Print or save this guide to follow the action at IMS
Legendary Connections, Random:Find out how Indy 500 drivers got their car numbers
Why the Indianapolis 500 winner drinks milk:Whole, 2% or skim — but no buttermilk!
Paying dues was not enough. Charisma was not enough. For the 1985 Gahanna graduate and his Pataskala-based Meyer Shank Racing team to go from underdog to top dog status, the likeable 54-year-old needed the biggest win. Last May, veteran driver Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indy 500 in a car owned by Meyer Shank Racing.
And everything changed.
“In almost every way possible,” Shank said this week between Brickyard practice sessions for Sunday’s Indy 500. “From personal to professional. When you earn that spot, it changes the way people look at you and the level of respect goes up.
The activity increased by 50%. The sponsors came calling. Donors have increased. Other drivers became more interested in racing for the Meyer Shank team, which eventually replaced Jack Harvey with Simon Pagenaud, who won the 2019 Indy 500.
“We have more confidence for sure,” Shank said. “Turns out we actually know what we’re doing.”
It’s good to be king.
“Winning the 500 is the gift that keeps on giving, and we’re forever grateful,” Shank said.
Now comes the next part, if not necessarily the hardest part. The standard line thrown out is “It’s harder to stay on top than to get to the top.” Not really. Getting out of the gutter is more difficult for a poor person than staying rich for a rich person. Shank worked for years before winning at Indy. It will happily replace its current situation with what preceded it.
But the so-called instant success, which really took years to prepare, comes with challenges. Win Indy once and some would say it was a fluke. Can Shank do it again? He said he felt no more pressure to win than before taking the checkered flag last spring.
“(The pressure) is more of a media-created thing,” he said. “We push all the time whether we’re failing at something or not.”
Okay, but failure takes on a new face after winning Indy. That top 10 finish that once felt pretty good now feels like a bad loss, which is why Shank seemed a bit disappointed with how the IndyCar season went.
“This year has been a bit difficult. We didn’t have the pace we had last year, for various reasons that would take an hour to explain,” he said. “What we have to focus on is giving (our drivers) a car they like to drive, which means very balanced.
This is where Shank draws you in with his ability to make something as mundane as a tire change exciting.
“Everything matters,” he said. “The difference between P1 and P10 (first and 10th place) is half a tenth of a second on a 2 1/2 mile track. It’s brutal. If you get it wrong, you go backwards. Comparing it to sports of stick and ball we look at game day tapes to find out where we are strong and weak we edit the video and break it down like they do in football if a guy is kneeling in front of a car and the weather it takes to move on a wheel nut is four tenths of a second, we measure that.
Racing is all about controlling variables. Meyer Shank gives Castroneves the same crew, the same car and the same configuration as last May 30.
“But people are moving forward,” he said. “Here in America, we push all winter to build a better mousetrap. This year, especially Chevrolet, has made big gains.
Just not as big as what Shank has been through for the past 12 months.
“We won the 24 Rolex (Daytona Hours) in January, and we’re back in Indy with an opportunity to win,” he said. “We have achieved a lot, but I still consider myself a bit of a latecomer.”
Translated: Shank and his wife, Marybeth, postponed their retirement on their boat in Florida for at least a few years. It’s too hot here to want to relax there.
“Especially in Indiana, people live and die with this stuff,” he said of the Midwest’s passion for open-wheel racing. “They appreciate all facets of it.”
The Hoosiers especially like it when the little guys win big. There’s even a basketball movie about it. But this is no longer the case for Shank.
“We used to be Captain Underdog, and now we’re not,” he said.
That’s not to say Shank isn’t as easy to root as he was before. Such a nice guy deserves acclaim. He is the gift that keeps on giving.
When: 12:45 p.m. Sunday