By: Kobe Lambeth
2015 has been a year full of ups and downs for race teams worldwide. Many found success and others are hoping for a “shiny new year.” After picking one representative from stock car, open wheel, and sportscar racing, I faced the task of picking someone as Team of the Year. Representing NASCAR, Joes Gibbs Racing dominated all season long in the Sprint Cup Series. Their success was led by the inspirational season of Kyle Busch.
Team RLL was easily the shock of the IndyCar world in 2015. I do not think that anyone expected Graham Rahal to have a breakout season. Considering that Honda had a disadvantage, it was amazing to see Team RLL take the fight to the Chevrolet-powered teams.
It was a tough decision, but I decided that IMSA’s Michael Shank Racing deserved the title: Team of the Year.
Deciding between amazing teams from stock cars, open wheel, and sportscar racing was an extremely difficult decision to make. Two honorable mentions are the Porsche LMP1 Team in the FIA World Endurance Championship and Porsche North America in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship. I must admit that Porsche had a “dream season,” but Michael Shank Racing best represents what racing is all about.
2015 was the start of many wonderful things for Michael Shank’s squad. The entire sportscar racing world was in shock when the team announced that it would switch from Daytona Prototype machinery to the Ligier JS P2. Moving to an LMP2 car proved to be a smart move as the team swept all Rolex 24 practice sessions, which followed by pole position with Ozz Negri Jr.
The team had a nice consistent race in the Rolex 24, but the Mobil1 12 Hours of Sebring was a different story. Ozz Negri Jr. had a huge accident which damaged the car’s tub. This was the second big hit for this chassis as it was previously crashed by Gustavo Yacaman who drove for OAK Racing in 2014. Michael Shank Racing fought back from this costly repair as they made the grid at Long Beach.
Many race fans believe that the Daytona Prototypes still hold a significant advantage over the LMP2 cars for various reasons. However, I believe that the cars are as close as they are ever going to get. The thing that people need to consider is that Michael Shank Racing has a Pro-am lineup instead of having two professionals. Go to IMSA’s web page and compare Ozz Negri Jr’s lap times to his teammate John Pew. I believe that John Pew is one of the best amateur drivers in the world, but he has not matched the lap times of professional Joao Barbosa. You cannot expect an amateur driver to match the pace of a driver like Barbosa or Negri Jr. However, John Pew did a fantastic job in 2015 and I expect him to only get faster in 2016. Balance of Performance IS NOT the problem ladies and gentlemen. Lady luck hurt the team in 2015, but Michael Shank is not giving up.
Michael Shank Racing fought through crashes and a tragedy, which led to them being my choice as Team of the Year.
The accident at the Mobil1 12 Hours of Sebring was nothing compared to the disaster weekend at the 2015 Petit Le Mans. At Road Atlanta, the Number 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2-Honda was involved in multiple incidents. This was a tough weekend for the team as they ordered a new tub for 2016.
Although the team suffered numerous setbacks, Michael Shank will NEVER give up. I have never read about him complaining about Balance of Performance as a reason why his team went winless again in 2015. We all know reasons why the team had a difficult but consistent transition to LMP2 machinery. I know many sportscar racing fans want to blame Balance of Performance, but that is definitely not the problem. Also, having a Pro-am lineup is not a good excuse. Look what Johannes van Overbeek and Ed Brown did at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2014.
Michael Shank Racing also faced tragedy in August. Long-time endurance driver Justin Wilson was killed in an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway when debris struck his helmet. Wilson’s death was a shock to the motorsports community worldwide. This led to a debate on whether or not open wheel racing should have closed cockpits. Good thing that the new LMP2 regulations enforce close cockpit prototypes. If we continued with open cockpit LMP2 cars, then we could potentially witness something awful.
The team’s response to Wilson’s death was absolutely heartwarming as they created a tribute livery for the “Gentle Giant.” Justin Wilson did an amazing job for Michael Shank Racing in the endurance races for the past few seasons. I cannot believe that he is no longer with us. The IndyCar and IMSA paddocks will look naked in 2016 without his amazing personality. Wilson was the epitome of the perfect franchise driver who never got the opportunity that he deserved. It was amazing how Wilson drove for smaller teams in IndyCar but performed well against the likes of Penske and Ganassi. Andretti Autosport gave Wilson the best chance to showcase his skills, but it is quite a shame that we did not see him race for them full-time. He was also able to enjoy an overall victory at the Rolex 24 with Ozz Negri Jr, John Pew, and AJ Allmendinger.
Michael Shank has a heart of gold for celebrating the life of Justin Wilson with the tribute livery. It represents who Shank is and explains why his team deserves the title: Team of the Year.
The team looks to improve in 2016 as they prepare for the new Daytona Prototype International (DPi) regulations in 2017. I wish the entire team a successful 2016 season. If the team goes to Le Mans in 2016, I would love to see Stefan Wilson (depends on foolish driver ratings) join Ozz Negri Jr. and John Pew with the tribute livery. Congrats to Michael Shank Racing as they have demonstrated what racing is all about: never let adversity slow your progress and reach out to the motorsports community. Michael Shank is a true inspiration as he symbolizes the message that sportscar racing sends to the world.