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SHANK: Journey to Le Mans, Pt. 1

Michael Shank files his first column on his team’s road to Le Mans…

Photo: IMSA

Photo: IMSA

I think our journey for the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans started two years ago.

We had been in and built our entire business in Daytona Prototypes in the U.S. The creation that Jim France came up with back in the early 2000s really changed my life in all categories.

We were a Toyota Atlantic team trying to climb our way to the top in that category and did pretty well for eight years.

Then the open wheel business really came apart here in the U.S. and we had to find another way to survive.

In 2004, GRAND-AM filled that space. The series allowed teams like ours to compete on the same level as major motorsports teams across the board. We grew this DP business model over the next 8-10 years and had very good success competing for overall wins.

I heard people all over the world and here in the U.S. complain about how ugly and slow our cars were, but I guarantee you there was no better wheel-to-wheel sports car racing in the world then during the peak DP years.

The racing was outstanding, and having the chance to fight and take overall wins in a major series was something that really motivated my team.

Like anything, as time progressed and the economy took its toll, our series gained and lost interest.

When Mr. France bought the ALMS series in 2014 and the merged IMSA series was formed, I could plainly see that we needed to be watching very closely in which direction we should take our business.

The question was where we could survive for the next 5-10 years and what would be the best cars to do that with given that they now allowed P2 cars in our series.

For me, the writing was on the wall after the 2014 season. If we wanted to get ready for the new era in 2017 we needed to react immediately and begin our process about learning to run a P2 car.

The DP cars were heavily modified at this point and very tough to drive compared to the P2 car. The P2 car allowed us to open up our range for potentially racing in Europe and at Le Mans.

And as a bonus we would be prepared much better for when IMSA goes to the new formula in 2017.

I was very fortunate that I was able to come to terms with Ligier to run one of their new JS P2 cars.

We knew the car was very good plus the owner of the company, Jacques Nicolet was just as passionate as I am. But really the best part of this new relationship was the bridge to running Le Mans got much easier as Onroak Automotive is based one mile from the front straight at Le Mans.

This is what started our journey to the 24 Hours of Le Mans!

I was told that the hardest part of running the LM24 was to get your entry accepted. We were very fortunate that IMSA created a new [incentive] for winning the Trueman Award in 2015 – an automatic invite for LM24 in 2016.

I happen to have one of the best semi-pro drivers in the USA in John Pew and he did another excellent job again for us in 2015, adapting very quickly to the new car and winning the award for the 2015 season.

Logistics are another huge challenge for a race that happens over 4,000 miles from the shop.

Because of our relationship with Onroak, we were able to negotiate renting our equipment in France so that we do not have to ship everything over there. This allows us to keep our U.S. car here and have it prepped for the Watkins Glen 6 hour without the drama of shipping and customs.

Our next step was to determine who was going to drive. We knew that John Pew and Oswaldo Negri would be the first two drivers but who could we find for the third?

The real No. 1 issue is that we needed someone who had done the race before and did it well. Many of the current P2 drivers in Europe that had the experience were already taken because of full year commitments.

Ultimately we chose Laurens Vanthoor. The Belgian driver impressed me big time at Le Mans in 2015. He had driven very well in a Ligier/HPD, he knew the track and had the right attitude to fit in with our team.

As we prepped our U.S. car for the Rolex 24 At Daytona we also made sure that we registered our LM24 entry and did everything we needed to do to get entered by the deadline in January.

So as of this writing we are officially entered in the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hour race and I couldn’t be more proud of our team and drivers.

This process has taken so much help from so many people from our teammates, drivers, partners and manufacturers in Onroak and HPD/Honda.

As many of you may know we had a very tough weekend at the Rolex 24. I felt we would have had a very, very strong result there. Our team performed so well in all departments that it was crushing when the motor had its issue.

This is our sport and it is cruel much of the time, but when it all comes together there is simply nothing like the feeling!

I will be chronicling our ‘Road To Le Mans’ over the next few months. It will be interesting to see what is ahead for us.

I can tell you that next up for the Le Mans effort will be a two-day test at Monza on May 24 & 25.

In the meantime check back here in a few weeks as we prepare for this great challenge.

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