PRUETT: Shank, Swans and a soldier

PRUETT: Shank, Swans and a soldier

Meyer Shank Racing was abuzz last week when a delivery arrived in the lobby of its shop in Pataskala, Ohio. Inside the box were the rings ordered by team owners Mike Shank and Jim Meyer for the crew of the Indy 500-winning No. 06 Honda driven by Helio Castroneves. The box also contained a surprise.

In May, I told you about my old pal Matt Swan, who left Chip Ganassi Racing one month shy of reaching his 20th anniversary with the team, to move to central Ohio when his wife Liz took a new job. Swan, figuring it was his turn to sacrifice, headed east and ended up somewhat close to MSR’s base. It wasn’t long before he was hired as shop manager for the IndyCar and IMSA operation, with plans to stay local and enjoy life with Liz as the team’s traveling crews traversed North America.

We grew up together working as racecar mechanics at Sears Point – known as Sonoma Raceway, these days – and got to reconnect in 1999 while working for the Hogan Racing CART IndyCar Series team. A few years earlier, Swanny was ready to pack his toolbox away and find something else to do for a living; he was burned out on club racing. Through a friend, I got Swanny connected with someone at Hogan, and off he went to embark on an IndyCar career that included working with a young sophomore driver by the name of Helio Castroneves.

Coming full circle, when MSR hired the three-time Indy 500 winner for a six-race NTT IndyCar Series campaign starting in May at the Speedway, Shank needed a veteran crew chief to look after the No. 06 Honda, and with their experience together at Hogan, Swan and Castroneves were reunited.

The story had the greatest fairytale ending of the season as Castroneves became a member of the four-timer winner’s club and MSR scored its first victory at the biggest race of the year. And then that box of rings arrived and added another chapter to the story.

The decision to move from Indiana to Ohio was made easier when Matt and Liz’s eldest child Jocelyn headed off to college, followed by their son Conor, who was accepted to George Mason University and enrolled in its Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program.

The junior Swan is set to graduate in May with a major in Government and International Politics and a minor in International Security, and at that point, the ROTC battalion commander will be deployed to the Army as either an infantry officer or within an artillery division.

The younger Swan wasn’t technically on the MSR payroll – but you wouldn’t have known it based on his work ethic.

During breaks from George Mason University and ROTC training, Swan joined his father at MSR, and more recently, volunteered his time to help prepare the No. 06 Honda for that Indy 500 reunion between his father and Castroneves.

“What I didn’t you know when I hired Matt is that I’d be getting two Swans in the deal!” Shank told RACER. “We talked a little bit about his son and what his son was doing, that he would help Matt in the past at Ganassi and stuff like that, and how when Conor was on summer break or during the holidays when he was home, he’d work in the shop or wherever. So when he was home from the military stuff and school, I told Matt there a place for him here, if he wants it. And sure enough, Conor just started coming in right away and didn’t ask to be paid.”

Swan’s son dove into the dirty work on the No. 06 Honda, grinding and sanding away for hours to give Castroneves smooth bodywork to pierce through the Speedway air at 230mph. Covered in dust and embracing the least enjoyable tasks, Conor was accepted by MSR as more than the crew chief’s kid.

“He volunteered early on, and then I see he’s actually working right along with regular crew guys, he’s fitting in with all of them, and they think he’s probably a paid volunteer for the kind of work he’s doing, so we ended up paying him a little bit,” Shank says.

“But to be honest, what stuck out was right in the thick of prepping everything for the year, and also the 500, Conor was right in the middle of it. When he was here, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t one of my full-time guys.”

And that’s why there was something special in the box, as Shank and Meyer ordered an extra Indy 500 winner’s ring as a surprise for both father and son.

“I didn’t do it for Matt,” Shank says. “Matt was always going to get one because he’s the car chief, but I did it for his son because I thought Conor deserved it as much as anybody who contributed to that car and getting the win at Indy. And I love it that Matt loves it, of course, but Conor’s cut from very similar cloth as Matt, and Conor has a great future ahead of him, in the Army as a soldier, or whatever else he does. And he’s always got an open door here. We like quality people, and he is absolute quality.”