Michael Shank On Winning His First Indy 500 With Hélio Castroneves

Illustration for article titled Michael Shank On Winning His First Indy 500 With Hélio Castroneves
Photo: Matt Fraver / IndyCar Media

One week ago today, Meyer Shank Racing achieved an almost unthinkable goal for an IndyCar team in its second full season. The team’s No. 06 chassis powered by Hélio Castroneves took the checkered flag at the famed Indianapolis 500, making history to become the fourth driver in the race’s 105-year history to secure four wins at the Speedway—and he delivered MSR its first. And gearing the team toward this incredible milestone is Michael Shank.

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A former racer himself, Shank transitioned into team ownership before the turn of the century and has been building a name for himself ever since. He was twice named Team Owner of the Year in the Formula Atlantic series, and he’s found his stride leading sportscar teams to incredible finishing positions at iconic events like the Rolex 24. His transition into team ownership in IndyCar has been rocky, to say the least—but that only makes this victory all the sweeter.

We had a chance to chat with Shank just days after his victory, that crucial time when you’re still riding cloud nine and are ready to take on the world. And if you think the Indy 500 will be the last iconic race you’ll see MSR contesting, you’d be sorely mistaken.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Illustration for article titled Michael Shank On Winning His First Indy 500 With Hélio Castroneves
Photo: Joe Skibinski \ IndyCar Media

Elizabeth Blackstock: Thanks for taking the time to talk today—I can only imagine you’ve been keeping busy.

Michael Shank: Yeah, but it’s the good kind of busy.

EB: That’s good. Before anything else, I want to say congratulations at taking home a win at the biggest race in the world. How do you feel?

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MS: Honestly, it’s crazy. I’ve raced my entire life, literally, and it was always toward the goal of winning at Indy. I guess I never visualized myself winning it. I always thought we were good enough, but just winning has taken my breath away. I don’t know if it’s totally hit me yet, to be honest. It will, though.

So much goodwill out there. I think that’s the coolest part. I’ve never witnessed so much goodwill for any human that I did with Hélio, riding in the convertible Camaro with him after the race. It was just insane.

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EB: The fan response and the driver response was incredible.

MS: It really was. I don’t know if this will happen in our lifetime, or while I’m above ground. The crazy thing is, he has a true opportunity to do five.

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EB: He’s the one driver I’d peg who’d be able to do it.

MS: To help your bet there, we’re going to save this car just for him for the Speedway next year. And then retire it right after that.

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EB: That’s a good guarantee... when did you know you had a genuine shot to win?

MS: Great question. About a week ago. We qualified well. We outdrove our coverage on qualifying, to be honest with you, and we knew we had a good race car. However, that Sunday night practice after the Fast Nine, that two hour practice session. Hélio said, “Give me two 30-lap runs and leave me alone.”

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We did that. We tried two different downforce levels. I’m watching him, and I’m trying to figure out who looks good. You know, I talked to Jack Harvey at all the races, and Jack said he looks good, and I said, man, Hélio looks the best out there. He can pull up, he can pass, and he can retreat. Then he can pull up, pass—and that’s the trick, right? In this modern age of IndyCar.

So, I would say last week. And he had supreme confidence. Like, I know what I got. That’s the beauty of going with a true veteran. He knows what he needs, and if he’s got it, then it’s all going to be fine. If he doesn’t, then he doesn’t.

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EB: Can you walk me through those last few laps? I can only imagine it was stressful from your perspective as a team owner.

MS: It was a different kind of perspective because I was down on Jack’s stand. I was in Jack’s game all the way until about 10 to go, and my partner Jim Meyer was up with me on Jack’s stand. And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I shook my head and said, “I’m done here. I can’t talk anymore.” I had the engineer take over and tried to will him to time that last pass.

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But, you know, Alex Palou is going to have many, many more wins in his life. But I’ll tell you, the veteran had his way with him. Alex is an extremely good driver with an extremely good team, but the last 50 laps was a sheer stalking job, and it worked out for Hélio this time.

EB: When you realized you won, what went through your mind?

MS: I was confused. I didn’t know if we had one to go, or if it was checkers, but I had a little bit of a blackout, to be honest with you. And then just a moment of, I can’t effin’ believe it. I went down on my knees. Then there’s a picture out there, I don’t even remember I did it, I ran out to the wall when he was coming by on the cool-off lap. I was so excited for him and for our team and for our partners, Autonation and SiriusXM. These people have stuck with us. They were day one with Jack’s program and expanded it for Hélio and just got paid back times ten. It was awesome.

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EB: I was gonna say, this project has been years in the making, and I think I read somewhere that Hélio’s car was Ben Hanley’s from last year. Is that right?

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MS: That’s true. True story.

EB: I think it highlights the fact that you’re a smaller team that’s done something amazing. What helped you get to this moment?

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MS: There’s a couple things. First of all, it was always people. No question. In that regard, we have a technical alliance with Michael Andretti and Andretti Autosport, so that means we build our cars like they build their cars so that we can compare them, whether it’s a road course or an Indy 500. So we have their data, their setup information. Of course, we pay a fee for this—this is a business for them, by the way. It’s just been awesome. It’s been a great experience. Everything you see, we own, from the wheel guns to the people that work for. They all work for MSR, but on the technical side, we have a boost through Andretti, and it’s just paid off massively for us.

EB: You pinned a lot of your program’s hopes on Jack Harvey, and he’s been with you guys since the start. What makes him such a good fit for MSR?

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MS: Honestly, there’s a similar core value that he and I were raised with. It’s similar work ethics, similar ways that we attack life, we do what we say we’re going to do, we’re loyal, we hang through the tough times. There are times when he makes mistakes; we’re going through an unfortunate period of time where the team has let him down, and he’s been very fast. You have to stick with the ebb and flow, but the basis of it is loyalty.

And on top of that, he deserves it. He’s a very, very good racing driver that’s getting stronger every weekend. We’ll go to Detroit with him next week, and he’ll be ready for that. We just keep steaming through here. He’s just developing into a hell of a racing driver and a great teammate with Hélio. He respects Hélio, Hélio respects him, and they work well together.

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And that was the question. We wanted someone that could help Jack’s program, like a veteran. We were looking at young guys, but we decided to go with Hélio because of his experience, and we look like rockstars right now.

EB: I’d say you made a damn good choice. How has Jack handled this? Obviously, his teammate just won the 500 with a team he helped develop, which is something to be both happy about, but also, he lost out on that win himself. How has he been coping with it?

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MS: That’s a good way to put it. It’s been tough, to be honest. He doesn’t lie to anybody, ever, and here’s what the toughest part is. We’ve been together so long now, and we’ve put so much effort into his program and all of us developing together—it crushes him that he’s not the first guy to get us our first win. Take the mistakes out from our side, take out the mechanical issues—Hélio’s win is all over social media right now. You won’t be able to escape it for a few days. He means the world to me, and it crushes me that he feels bad right now, but we have to get back up on that horse real quick. We don’t have the time to feel bad.

I appreciate that he came to the team dinner after and talked to everybody. He’ll be fine. We just have to get through a couple days here.

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EB: That’s good. And with Hélio, did you approach him or did he approach you—how did this partnership come about when he was a free agent after Team Penske let him go? 

MS: I think I reached out to say, hey, let’s get together. We’re at some track together, let’s see what you’re going to do. He said absolutely. We talked. I told him what we had a budget for. Back then we didn’t know we were going to win the Indy 500, so it would have been easier if I knew.

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It’s kind of interesting. He drove for me in the late 2000s in IMSA prototypes, he did the Rolex 24 with me, and we got along great. Since then, we’ve always stayed friends through all his Dancing with the Stars and all that stuff that he’s done. And I think he understands what I’m trying to do. It’s not perfect, but he gets that we’re trying to build a team based on respect for everybody, whether you wipe the bodywork down or you engineer the car, you’re willing to do anything on the team. That basis, I think he kind of buys into that.

EB: You’ve been in this effort to get an IndyCar up off the ground for the past few years, and it’s an interesting time to create a full-season effort. What has it been like to put this together, push through from the very beginning where you’re just running a race to now, where you’re running a full-time effort?

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MS: It’s been a huge challenge, but here’s how we did it. Besides Jack Harvey and me, there’s my wife. She controls the office and does the business and everything. Extremely financially conservative person who made sure we stayed tight to the budget.

Then Jim Meyer, my partner, that’s probably one of the greatest CEOs I’ve ever met. To be able to rely on him, his experience, his connections, his willingness to make sure this team succeeds is another thing.

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SiriusXM and AutoNation, both of their CEOs are bought in 100 percent for this. Marc Cannon is our guy at AutoNation, and he’s nothing but wholly supportive, always pushing us to be better, and they are a tremendous automobile business. The largest dealership distributor in the United States that really use IndyCar as a platform for their marketing. We’re happy about that.

Now, on the SiriusXM side, Jim, my partner, retired in December, so we have a new CEO there, Jennifer Witz, and she was with us all weekend. She’s hooked now that she got a ride. We’ve got this next event with Hélio, Nashville, we’ve got this great event that SiriusXM—Highway is their number one station on the whole entire network. So we’ll be doing lots of great things with Sirius at Nashville.

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There’s just these big puzzle pieces that hit at the right time to build this success.

EB: I was going to ask—there were some folks who were kind of surprised when Liberty Media made the equity investment in the team, but with its ties to SiriusXM, it makes sense. What role does Liberty Media play overall, since they are associated, predominately, with Formula One?

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MS: All you have to do is look at their website to know how deep they are into Formula One. They invest in what they think is potentially a good investment for them. They don’t do it because they think someone is pretty or cute. It’s all about potential and ideas about where they think they can take it for reasons that you’ll never know. Why did they buy F1? Why did they buy the Atlanta Braves? I can’t answer these questions.

I know where I’m at with them, and there’s a reason to all of it. I’m very lucky—the CEO Greg Maffei was with us, and he got to ride the elevator up and be a part of the ceremony, which was awesome. It’s hard to say where I’m at with them, and even if I knew, I couldn’t really tell you completely right now. But I can tell you that we have an incredibly solid foundation at MSR.

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EB: What was it like proving that the little guys have what it takes to compete after all the time you’ve spent building the team up?

MS: The little guys! Some angel dies in heaven every time someone says that! The little team that could has always been our mantra, which I’m not afraid of that, but to be honest with that, we’re not a little team anymore. We’re mid-sized on pure people and probably upper two-thirds in revenue. It’s grown a lot. We run it like a small team, though, and that’s okay. That’s how I want it to be. I’m in the business every day. I want to know when my guys have problems, or when they’re hurt, or whatever. We will continue to run it that way.

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But of course, we’re a two-car team up against four- and six-car teams. It feels pretty damn good to beat them. This is what we do this for! I’m a competitive guy still. When I don’t win, it’s pretty bad.

EB: That competitive nature, I’m assuming, is what made you as a driver a fairly successful person. How has that transition gone from being a driver to a successful team owner?

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MS: Here’s the truth: I was a slightly-above-average racing driver. I wasn’t horrible, but when I was practicing a lot, I was okay. I’ve now seen greatness. Not just Hélio, but the other drivers that I have every day. A. J. Allmendinger has been going with me for years, but there’s more and more. I’ve got some of the greatest sportscar drivers in the world driving for us right now. Once I saw that level of talent, and once I saw that I was taking every dime my wife made outside of racing and whatever I had—at some point you have to say, what’s really fair here for everybody? We don’t have kids or anything, but still. What’s fair to what we’re trying to do as a family? It leaned the other way.

Fortunately for me, I get what I need out of racing by being an owner, kind of. We live on a nice lake on the east side of Columbus, Ohio. We love to go out on the boat, we have tons of friends here that enjoy following the racing. It’s just a great life. And we work hard. We take chances, and sometimes it pays off.

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EB: What skills did you take from being the driver into being the team owner, since you have the perspective of being on the opposite side?

MS: That is true. When they’re talking to the engineers and downloading and debriefing and all that, I know exactly what they’re talking about. I can relate immediately. So that will never, ever go away. But also, the competitive side. The pressure to be great. That’s what defines the truly great ones like the Scott Dixons and the Hélios. It’s just this mental capacity that sometimes you don’t have—and by the way, it’s fine if you don’t. But to be a great one that’s going to have longevity at the highest level and make a good living, you’ve gotta have this extra brainpower gear. That’s how I picture it in my head.

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It’s like an overdrive. Meaning, maybe it takes 10 inputs to keep the car fast on the track and out of the wall, and one more input comes in, and my brain goes into this control-alt-delete thing. Scott Dixon’s brain or Hélio’s brain computes it, figures out what to do, and goes on. That’s how I picture it. And that’s what the greats do.

EB: In terms of sportscar racing, you’ve always kept your team on the cutting edge, whether it was setting the fastest lap ever recorded at Daytona, or being the first team to use the Ecoboost V6, or hitting the DPi train—that stuff can be seen as a risk. What drives you to push the envelope?

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MS: At the end of the day, I grew up on the east side of Columbus, Ohio—not poor, but couldn’t ever think about affording karting or racing. So we started in the dirt, and worked it out of the dirt since 1994 or ‘95. That’s something that I guess was bred in me. If we can’t afford to have someone else do it, you’ve gotta do it yourself. That mentality has served us very well.

And then I made a very conservative financial person in my wife, and it was a great complement to my desire to be great in racing. I want to leave a mark on this before I done. I want to show the world that we demand respect, we’re good at what we do, we return value for our partners, we’ve provided a great place for people to work where you’re respected. That’s not bullshit. That’s how I feel.

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EB: Now that you have the 500 win, where does Meyer Shank Racing go from here?

MS: Good question. There’s a couple things. Ultimately, we want to run two full-time cars in the IndyCar series, so we need to get to that. Secondly, we run a factory Acura prototype program for years to come. We want that program to be great, and we want to go to Le Mans with that program, so you can count on us being there at some point when the time is right. We won the Rolex 24, won the Indy 500, we need to win the Le Mans 24 Hour race overall. We’re going to have that opportunity.

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EB: With the Indy 500 win, does that make that more achievable since people know you can do it? 

MS: It’s the trifecta. Who gets to win the Rolex, the Indy 500, and the Le Mans 24 Hours? There’s not many people. There’s a couple. Chip Ganassi has done it, and he did the Daytona 500, too. The only thing neither he nor I have been able to do yet is the overall win at Le Mans. We want to go for the big one. And we’re going to have that opportunity.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

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