10 Questions with Mike Lewis

 

Sitting here thinking back, it was about 45 years ago that you and I first met when you were running Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania and I was a crew member on Chet Rickard’s and Bull Rutherford’s Rear Engine Blown Alcohol Dragster. A long time ago! Tell us about those early days, Mike. You and your family’s involvement in drag racing and the beginning of your climb to your legendary status?

I was hooked on drag racing from the day Maple Grove opened in 1962 but had no idea I would be managing the track nine years later at age 21. My dad worked alongside me the first year but stepped aside to make room for Lex Dudas. We were just “kids” who loved drag racing and had a clean sheet of paper to book match races, develop an amazing sportsman series and create major events like the Pennsylvania Dutch Classic. My family supported us with added seating, scoreboards, new signage structures and track improvements and we were blessed with support from fans, racers, sponsors, the Media, and the community. I had every opportunity to be creative and was surrounded by an excellent staff who delivered a great experience for all Maple Grove guests.

You owned a consulting company after leaving Maple Grove. What did that company do and for who?

I actually worked as a Vice President for NHRA for nine years after leaving Maple Grove, six in California and then three in Indy. I then started Ace Ventures, a motorsports consulting company, in 1998. My first client was Don Schumacher Racing, but I took on a number of track and team projects before making PRO, the NHRA Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock team owners’ organization, my exclusive client as their Executive Director. I folded Ace Ventures in 2002 to take a full-time position with DSR.

You and your brother, Kent, owned the Sparkling Burgundy Top Fueler back in the 70’s. How successful were you with that car?

We learned to race in Top Fuel with a front engine dragster but crashed in 1971. We put a lot more effort into our rear engine “Sparkling Burgundy” cars from 1972 to 1976 and won lots of NHRA WCS and Pro Fuel races at Englishtown, Epping, Sanair, Capital, Maple Grove, etc. Sarge Arciero, Fred Forkner, Satch Nottle, Larry Bucher, Dale Thierer and Kerry Sweigart drove for us, and most were winners in our cars.

What were some other cars you owned or drove?

My only ownership roles were with Dave Robinson in 1968/1969 and my brother. My first licensing runs were in Dave’s “Fanatic” in 1969 before we built our first family car. I gave up driving to manage Maple Grove in 1971 but spoke to a Roy Hill corporate group at Norwalk in 1998 and earned an IHRA Super Comp license. Nine years later my daughters and I went to Frank Hawley’s school in Pomona where I made NHRA license runs. I drove Joel Gruzen’s blown alky Fiat a few weeks later and then earned a TAD license in Frank Hawley’s class in Gainesville. I drove Tom Conway’s A/FD in my first NHRA event and lost in the final to Marty Thacker at Maple Grove in 2008. I drove for Tom at Maple Grove in 2009 and again finished runner up to Duane Shields. Two weeks later I set Low ET and Top Speed (5.21/272) at Indy but red-lighted against Shields. Justin Grant gave me the chance to drive his Wonder Wagon and then Stardust Nostalgia Funny Cars and we ran as quick as 5.95 in 2009. Henry Gutierrez offered me a ride in his “Brand X” Mustang, and we beat 36 cars to win the California Hot Rod Reunion in 2012. In 2014 I drove Anthony Dicero’s A/FD at several NHRA races and then drove the “Nitro Nick” Funny Car twice at Bakersfield. I also filled in at Martin, Michigan in Tom Motry’s AA/Fuel Altered and ran 278.86. My last Funny Car ride was in Henry’s “Jungle Jim” car, and I hung up my fire suit after qualifying #1 in Dicero’s A/FD at Maple Grove in 2016. My cardiologist discovered an aortic aneurism and suggested I take a break from driving until it was time to repair the aneurism. I’m still waiting.

Tell the readers about your time working for NHRA and managing Indianapolis Raceway Park.

My NHRA responsibilities as VP of Field Operations included development of the YES Program and the Youth and Education Department. I oversaw all NHRA licensing, the seven Division Offices and the NHRA tracks in Pomona, Bakersfield, Atlanta, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge. I also coordinated schedules for the NHRA announcing teams. I really enjoyed announcing NHRA races and, later, USAC races and the Indy 500. The GM opportunity at IRP suited my skills and experience and gave me the chance to work with a great staff on NHRA, NASCAR, USAC, Goodguys, Super Chevy and Mopar events.

You’re one of Don Schumacher’s key executives. Tell us about that position and your responsibilities.

I work on almost everything we do at DSR except the racing itself. Funny to think I used to build Top Fuel engines and they won’t let me wash parts these days. DSR has many departments, all capably managed. I work with all our partners and managers to set and achieve goals. Every day is unique and my background in general management has been helpful. I may spend an hour importing a container of fuel from overseas and then move to a branding project with our graphics department or a logistics discussion with our Factory Stock teams. I enjoy hosting events in our hospitality tents and in the DSR building. I enjoyed working out the land purchase from Bill Simpson and working with Don to design the DSR building in Brownsburg.

Of all your accomplishments in the sport, what are you proudest of?

1.) In 1985 we hosted the first NHRA Keystone Nationals but also created the Ford Motorsport Nationals on our own. It was a very busy but successful year. 2.) In 1989 I wrote a plan for the first NHRA Career Fair which evolved into the YES Program which continues today. Some of the NHRA Education Committee members remain close friends. 3.) At IRP we boosted the Kroger 200 NASCAR race to a three-day Kroger Speedfest in 1996 with support from Dupont and Cummins. We tripled marketing revenues but enabled Kroger to profit from vendor participation, all while achieving sellout crowds. We also repaved an old slippery track that sees three-wide racing in every corner 24 years later. 4.) The most unexpected day of my career came with our Funny Car victory at the 2012 California Hot Rod Reunion. Henry Gutierrez hired Paul Smith and an all-star team, and we raced our way past 36 cars to the winners circle. 5.) I can’t claim credit for the 19 DSR championships but take pride in our recruiting success for the US Army that made the Army’s NHRA program it’s most successful and longest standing sports marketing partnership. That and our relationship with Riley Hospital for Children which has raised over $800,000 thanks to our DSR partners and friends. Oh, and introducing Top Fuel to the country of Abu Dhabi at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Managing the track and racing didn’t leave much personal time. But you made time to get married and start a family. Fill us in on that part of your life.

I remarried in Indy in time to share a great life with Vicki and my daughters Jen, who lives in Carlsbad, California, and Aly, who lives in Indy. I’m proud of both my daughters and consider them best friends. Same with Jen’s husband, Jeff, and Aly’s fiancée, Mike. Vicki’s family includes four grandkids, all teenagers, and they provide a bond that cements our family. I could elaborate but my pride would fill an encyclopedia. My brother and his family along with all my Pennsylvania cousins have been positive influences in my life as were my parents and grandparents who opened the doors to my racing interests.

Born and raised in Amish Country you enjoyed loads of great food. What’s your favorite meal from back home?

There’s nothing like a real Philly Cheese Steak (although our DSR chef fixes a mouthwatering Wagyu Filet Mignon).

What’s next for you, Mike? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

My retirement days are coming but I’ll never be far from the starting line or the start/finish line.

2012 CHRR Semi-final wheelie. Stayed up past 330’ and got lucky win over Chad Head (Rodger Gorridge photo)

I spoke to half a million students as host of NHRA’s YES Program with Tony, Antron, Leah, Angelle and some of the greatest American heroes in uniform.

Qualifying #1 at my last race, the 2016 NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove – 5.26 at 276.

CHRR Win – Henry, Paul, and Vicki Photo – Credit Rodger Gorridge WC2

My family at the 2019 International Drag Racing Hall of Fame induction.

It was an honor to join the IMS Radio team for several Indy 500s

My first Funny Car ride – Justin Grant’s Wonder Wagon at Joliet in 2009.

Just won semi-finals at Maple Grove, 2009 by .005 over John Finke. Was fogged in and blind from start to finish.