All Americans with ambition eventually find their way to France. Eighty-nine years after a relatively unknown American aviator landed in Le Bourget Field after crossing the Atlantic in just more than 33 hours, other Americans (and a Belgian) are determined to accomplish their goals on a racing circuit directly across from an air field in Le Mans, France.
Michael Shank, team owner of Michael Shank Racing, has brought his IMSA WeatherTech Series LMP2 team (a crew of 20), his drivers John Pew and Ozz Negri, and the young Belgian sensation Laurens Vanthoor to Le Mans to race for the first time.
Shank grew up in Columbus, Ohio, three hours from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Le Mans really wasn’t on his radar during his early years as a team owner.
“As I went through the open-wheel ranks, Indy was the big thing,” he says. After switching to the sports-car racing scene, and competing in Grand-Am for over a decade, Le Mans finally became a potential destination. “When the [Grand-Am/IMSA merger happened] in 2014, we saw some opportunity.” He and Pew went to Le Mans in 2015 as spectators and came away from the event feeling like, “Yes we can do this.”
Pew won the 2015 Jim Truman Championship, the award for the best gentleman prototype-driver in the WeatherTech series, and with those honors came an automatic invite to race in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Call it a nice benefit resulting in the relationship between IMSA and the French endurance classic’s organizer.
Pew, 60, started his racing career after taking a Skip Barber course with his son. “I started racing in 2000 and I never thought from there I would ever be here,” he says. “All the preparation in the world doesn’t prepare you for what you experience here. It’s very emotional.”
Pew met his long time co-driver Oswaldo Negri Jr. at Skip Barber, where “Ozz” did test driver and development work for the Skip Barber Pro Series. The Brazilian who is an American citizen began his career in Brazil beginning with go-karts, then went off to England for Formula 3, with his ultimate goal being Formula 1. His first exposure to Le Mans came as a child. “Funny enough” he says, “when I was nine or 10 living in Brazil, the movie we would watch every Christmas was Le Mans.”
Like his co-driver, Negri was impressed once he arrived in Le Mans. “I was prepared for something big,” he says, “but when we sent through tech [on Sunday in downtown Le Mans], I realized, wow, this is BIG!”
Negri joined Michael Shank Racing in 2004, Pew in 2007. They became co-drivers in 2010, won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in 2012, and most recently won the Laguna Seca round of the WeatherTech Series in May.
The “veteran” of the Le Mans trio is 25-year-old Laurens Vanthoor from Belgium. He is the only driver in the Honda powered Ligier LMP2 car who has raced previously at Le Mans, having driven for Oak Racing here in 2015. Vanthoor is laid back and blistering quick; in 2009 he was German F3 Champion. His resume also includes winning the 2013 FIA GT Series championship, the 2014 Blancpain Endurance Series title, and the 2014 24 Hours of Spa. And in 2015 he won the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring. He’s an Audi factory driver on loan to Shank for this year’s race.
Michael Shank Racing is the only LMP2 team in the world running the Honda engine at every round in 2016. The majority of the LMP2 field at Le Mans is powered by Nissan. Vanthoor is very complimentary of the Honda engine, built and prepped by Honda Performance Development for this year’s 24 Hours, even though it is smaller and makes 100 fewer horsepower than what is raced in the WeatherTech series.
“Drivability has improved a lot with this engine in the past year,” Vanthoor says. “It is really nice to drive and you hardly notice it is a turbo. Plus, they have improved fuel economy so I think we can do an extra lap compared to last year. It makes me proud to be part of this story, to be part of this American story.”
The first year of racing at Le Mans is a learning experience. Shank puts it best. “The mentality is to minimize mistakes on their side (the drivers) and on our side (the crew) to minimize the amount of time the car stays in pit lane. And to remember, tires, fuel, drivers,” he says.
Negri adds, “It is a race. And a dream. In that order. The goal is to be as far forward as possible when the race is over on Sunday.”
The Le Mans racing fans are some of the world’s best. During the last hour of the race on Sunday, each time every car drives past the packed front-straight grandstands, the crowd will erupt with cheers. And this potentially includes the team from Columbus, Ohio and its bright orange, Honda powered, LMP2 prototype, with the large American flag painted on the bodywork. If indeed it makes it to the finish, Michael Shank Racing will have completed a journey nine hours shorter than Charles Lindbergh’s in 1927, but equally as rewarding to those who prefer to fly in a race car through the French countryside every June.
About the author: Rick Dole is an award winning sports photographer, and part time blogger, who specializes in motorsports. For the past three decades he has photographed virtually every form of auto racing including Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, Pike Peak, and IMSA and World Endurance Championship sports-car racing the United States and Europe. In addition, he has photographed major sporting events around the globe including the Olympic Games, the French and U.S Open tennis tournaments, the PGA Tour, NFL football, and a variety of NCAA sports. His 30 years of experience on the ground at such events gives his writing a unique perspective. This is his 20th time covering the 24 Hours of Le Mans.