Meet Mike Shank, the realest team owner in motorsports
Spend a few minutes following the never-ending volley of insults, accusations and conspiracy theories leveled between Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and Mercedes-AMG boss Toto Wolff, and you could get the impression that folks in charge of major open-wheel racing teams are smug, self-righteous clowns.
As the recent Formula One season reached its crescendo, incessant squabbling between the two zillionaires during and following each weekend became exhausting. In the midst of their toxic jousting — verbal pillow fights — I found myself thanking IndyCar team owner Michael Shank, someone who has never been involved in F1, for being everything they aren’t.
Say hello to the realest team owner in motor racing.
Shank’s arms are filled with tattoos. His ears were made for listening to Van Halen — he’s actually more of a Van Hagar guy — and is prone to emptying bottles with the man himself, Sammy Hagar. Sipping wine and picking at charcuterie plates doesn’t jibe with his Midwestern sensibilities; knocking back shots of tequila with the Red Rocker in Cabo San Lucas is more of Shank’s style.
Along with his status as a party legend, Shank’s racing bona fides are equally impressive. Splitting his efforts between IndyCar and IMSA’s SportsCar Championship, the Meyer Shank Racing team he co-owns with former SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer has been on an epic run in recent years.
Signed as a factory team by the American division of Honda and its luxury/performance brand Acura, MSR promptly won the 2019 IMSA GTD class championship wielding a racing version of the Acura NSX supercar. Going back-to-back as GTD title winners with Acura in 2020 was a precursor to MSR’s launch into the stratosphere. Making his debut with the team, living legend Helio Castroneves went on to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 with MSR in 2021. What a way and what a place to deliver Meyer and Shank’s first triumph as IndyCar team owners.
Crowned as winners of IndyCar’s biggest race, MSR matched the achievement eight months later in IMSA by scoring the overall victory in January at the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Their success in Daytona was capped in October as MSR secured its third IMSA title in four years, this time in the top-tier DPi category. Yes, nice guys do finish first sometimes.
“I’m fully biased on Mike Shank,” NASCAR star A.J. Allmendinger, who was part of MSR’s first statement-making win at the 2012 edition of the Rolex 24, told ESPN. “You want to run through a wall for him, and that’s because he puts his heart and soul into everything he does and because he also truly cares about you, too. He’s gotten everything now that he deserves, and he deserved it way before he got it.”
Shank’s story is among the best in the sport. Born in the small Ohio town of Gahanna, he grew up within the rich amateur racing culture fostered by the Sports Car Club of America. Dreams of driving in the Indy 500 steered his direction in life. Figuring out how to pay for such lofty exploits was the first problem to solve, and that’s where a local heating and ventilation business owner inspired the creation of Michael Shank Racing in 1989.
Shank would use his gifted hands to prepare the race car owned by the HVAC businessman and pour those profits into getting out on track in whatever club racing car he could find to explore his inner Mario Andretti. As his reputation as a mechanic grew, more amateur racers dropped their cars off at MSR. As his race preparation and trackside support business began to grow, he ran himself in bigger and faster cars, bringing MSR to the same open-wheel training series that produced IndyCar champions and Indy 500 winners alike.
The quality of Shank’s team attracted major talent and significant sponsors; future Indy Racing League triple champion and 2007 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish was MSR’s most famous graduate in the late 1990s. And in that same period of time, Shank came close to realizing the dream that launched MSR. The car was slow and the Nienhouse Motorsports team he drove for was a mess, but the record books do confirm that Michael Shank competed in one IndyCar race.
The 1997 Las Vegas 500K, site of the IRL’s season finale, saw Shank drive under the checkered flag in a respectable 16th place within a field of 31 starters. It wasn’t taking part in his beloved Indy 500, but it was enough for Shank to make peace with ending that chapter of his life. Although he wasn’t destined to drive at the Speedway, bringing MSR to the Brickyard as an IndyCar team would become the new goal to set in motion. Two massive leaps of faith would follow.
Looking back to 2021, Shank and his wife Mary Beth were able to stand on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s start/finish line, kneel down and kiss the bricks, and pose with Castroneves and the Borg-Warner trophy because of a gamble the husband-and-wife tandem made 17 years prior to their greatest day in the sport. With MSR’s junior open-wheel team losing momentum in the early 2000s, any thoughts of graduating to IndyCar were abandoned.
Jim France, part of NASCAR‘s founding family, was starting a new sports car endurance racing championship, the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, and with its creation, a new style of low-tech cars dubbed Daytona Prototypes would lead the way. Hurting for cash, Mike and Mary Beth were left with one drastic move to make: they mortgaged their house to raise the funds and buy a Daytona Prototype.
The little junior open-wheel team that participated in races that lasted 45 minutes or less knew nothing about sports cars or racing for 24 straight hours without sleep. Joining GRAND-AM as an entrant in 2004, visions of joining the IndyCar paddock were tabled as MSR made its first foray into high-level professional racing with its Daytona Prototype. It was a gutsy move that came with no guarantees MSR would survive its sports car racing experiment, much less get back on track and find a way to IndyCar.
The first few years in GRAND-AM were rough for the Shanks; with stiff mortgage payments due each month, miserly living was required as any leftover income was put back into the team. It’s here where we learn why Allmendinger is Shank’s No. 1 fan.
“I love him because what’s always stood out the most, especially when he was struggling just to keep the team going, was all the MSR crew guys were always there,” he said. “The same guys. I’d show up to race for Mike at the Rolex  every year, and I knew all the crew by name because it was always the same guys, because even when him and Mary Beth were struggling to even pay for electricity in their house, he didn’t want those families that he employed to struggle.
“So he always kept them, whether he actually could afford them or not when times were hardest for the team’s finances. He made sure they were there. Whatever it took, whatever sacrifice he and Mary Beth had to make, they made it and put his people first, put in the little money they were making, so his crew weren’t going without a job. That’s the type of person that he is. I’m a grown-ass man, and I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.”
The rerouting to GRAND-AM would pay off as MSR continued to grow and became a factory Daytona Prototype team for Ford before receiving a transformational recruitment call from Honda. MSR would represent the American arm of the Japanese manufacturer in IMSA, first under the Honda banner, and later, for Acura. Thanks to Honda’s heavy involvement in IndyCar, Shank also found his way into the Indy 500, where MSR made its debut in 2017 using Honda engines.
In the process, the Shanks met Jim Meyer, and by 2018, Michael Shank Racing had become Meyer Shank Racing. Same initials, thankfully. And through Meyer’s network of relationships, Liberty Media, which owns F1, was introduced to the Shanks.
Soon after, Liberty was sufficiently impressed by what it found within MSR to buy 30% of the Pataskala, Ohio-based team. Not bad for an old club racing mechanic.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Shank’s personality is his unpretentious approach to life. He’s the only IndyCar or IMSA team owner I know of whose fans devise plans to drink beer with the man. A very specific beer. Busch Light.
There he was, fresh from climbing the fence with Castroneves at the Indy 500, and in his back pocket, Shank’s favorite beer was poking out, waiting to be consumed. With cameras capturing the moment for millions of viewers, Shank cracked it open and crushed it. Our guy. Man of the people. But the story didn’t end there.
Renowned for his devotion to Busch’s low-calorie swill, the local distributor in Ohio made sure the Indy 500 festivities would continue once he and Mary Beth returned home. Neighbors began sending Shank photos as the cases of Busch Light began to stack up on his front step. And then those neighbors and family friends got in on the routine and kept adding and adding to the wall of beer. Shank stopped counting when the can count approached 500.
“He finally got that big break with [Meyer] and Liberty and Honda, and he and Mary Beth put so much effort into it and had so many hard knocks along the way,” Allmendinger said. “So then he wins the Indy 500, wins the biggest race of his life, and should be out partying for the rest of the year. And most people don’t know this, but he decides to show up at Mid-Ohio for a [NASCAR] Xfinity race just to come hang out and watch me. That was unbelievable.
“I even just half-heartedly threw it out there like, ‘Yeah, you should come over to Mid-Ohio,’ but I never thought I would see him. I actually forgot about inviting him. He should be out there, freaking on top of the world, celebrating the greatest win he’s ever had. But nope. There he was, just hanging out with me at an Xfinity race. I will always love that guy.”
In a world of petty Horners and Wolffs, be a Mike Shank. Find him at the next IMSA or IndyCar race and ask if he has any cold Busch Lights to share. Trust me, he will — and you’ll have one heck of a story to tell about the realest team owner in racing.