WeatherTech Sprint Cup Season Begins; Acura TLX Type S to Serve as Safety Car
By Mark Robinson
LEXINGTON, Ohio – Mike Shank would like nothing more than to focus fully this weekend on his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team’s effort to earn its first win at his home track. Problem is, he’ll be shuttling between Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian outfit is also racing on the IMS road course in the IndyCar Series.
But the co-owner of the team based about an hour south of Mid-Ohio, in Pataskala, Ohio, wouldn’t have it any other way. His dream to orchestrate successful operations in both disciplines is coming to fruition.
“It’s tricky,” Shank said of the balance between the two programs, “because they’re both my babies, they both mean the same to me. There’s no favorite child. They both have been part of my life for a while now.
“Sports car came along in 2004 and actually made my IndyCar dream happen. I place the level of importance at the same for both of them. … The sports car program is getting stronger every time it goes out. It’s in positions to win, which you expect it to be at Mid-Ohio this weekend.”
Shank’s team, along with Wayne Taylor Racing, took over the Acura Daytona Prototype international (DPi) program following the departure of Team Penske after 2020. Penske set quite the bar at Mid-Ohio in particular, winning each of the past three years in the aptly named Acura Sports Car Challenge Presented by the TLX Type S.
The No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura ARX-05 DPi has been competitive thus far in 2021, finishing fourth in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and third at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts. Full-season drivers Dane Cameron – who brought his extensive Acura knowledge from the Penske program – and Olivier Pla sit fourth in the hotly contested class point standings.
Shank sees the team about to turn that corner into victory lane – and he’d LOVE nothing better than for it to be at Mid-Ohio, where his entries have tried unsuccessfully to win for nearly two decades.
“The sports car stuff, I’m telling you, is just starting to turn on now,” Shank said, while also admitting that it was a steeper learning curve than he expected in returning to the prototype class for the first time since 2016.
“It was probably a bigger back step than I thought it would be,” he added. “The cars have changed so much; it has taken us a little bit of time. We’re working hard to figure that gap out and we’re making progress on it big time.”
Shank and Pla place much of the credit with Cameron, whose familiarity with the Acura’s nuances have aided the car’s development. Cameron said, “It’s literally tidying up a few loose ends” to get that elusive victory. The 32-year-old Californian was unaware until this week that Shank has never won at Mid-Ohio and is aiming to change that come Sunday.
“That’s pretty high on the list now,” Cameron said. “To be able to deliver that for him would be fantastic.”
This weekend will mark Pla’s first race at Mid-Ohio, though the Frenchman learned the track at a recent test.
“Every time I drive this car, I get better, I understand the car more,” said Pla, who joined Meyer Shank this year after driving the Mazda DPi the past two years. “It’s always fine-tuning again, the little details. We have Dane with us, which he’s been so helpful. He knows this car so well, so we rely a lot on him, on his experience. He’s a huge help for me.
“The test went really well,” Pla added. “We were able to improve the car throughout the day, so it’s looking good. I’m really passionate to drive here. It’s Mike’s home race so a little bit more pressure, but we get used to it.”
And Shank will definitely be on hand Sunday as his team takes another crack at it. Shank cars have come close at Mid-Ohio, finishing second on three occasions.
“The trip from Indy, it’s three hours, so it’s great,” he said. “There will be a big stream of people going back and forth. (Team co-owner) Jim Meyer and I will make the trip so that we’re there for warmup on Sunday morning.”
Three New GTD Entries as Sprint Cup Season Opens
The Acura Sports Car Challenge also marks the beginning of the IMSA WeatherTech Sprint Cup season in the GT Daytona (GTD) class. As such, the GTD field sees three new entries this weekend. The No. 39 CarBahn with Peregrine Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3, the No. 66 Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3 and the No. 76 Compass Racing Acura NSX GT3 all will be making their season debut.
The CarBahn team has 2019 Mid-Ohio GTD winner Richard Heistand in its driver lineup, sharing the Audi with Jeff Westphal.
“We have a very talented group of people, and long term I’m really excited about what we can achieve together,” Heistand said. “Having said that, we need to have realistic expectations going into Mid-Ohio. … While I still expect a solid result due to the quality of the people on this team, make no mistake, this is an abnormal and massive challenge to start the year off with.
“I’ve been to Mid-Ohio once in 2019 and was on pole and won with my teammate Jack Hawksworth in GTD. Also, my mom’s family is from Ohio and everyone came to the race, so I only have one memory from the track – but it’s a special one.”
Acura TLX Type S to Debut as Safety Car This Weekend
Acura’s all-new and highly anticipated 2021 TLX Type S will make its public debut as the official safety car for the Acura Sports Car Challenge. Sporting a Type S-exclusive color of Tiger Eye Pearl, the turbocharged TLX Type S will lead the field to the green flag for Sunday’s WeatherTech Championship race. It will kick off the 60th season of racing at Mid-Ohio.
Helio Castroneves, the 2020 DPi champion along with Ricky Taylor, will serve as grand marshal for the race and give the start engines command. Castroneves and Taylor won at Mid-Ohio two of the past three years, and they teamed with Filipe Albuquerque and Alexander Rossi to win this year’s Rolex 24 At Daytona in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05 DPi.
“Having Helio as an integral part of our season-opening event during this historic season is very fitting with his many past accomplishments at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and his great connection with our fans,” said Craig Rust, president of Mid-Ohio. “We are looking forward to an exciting Acura Sports Car Challenge Presented by TLX Type S weekend and showcasing all the outstanding racing that IMSA brings to the track.”