It’s hard to imagine a segment of the NHRA family that Mike Lewis hasn’t touched in more than 40 years in the sport. People today know him as the high-profile face of the Don Schumacher Racing empire, where he serves as senior vice president, and he previously was the executive director of the Professional Racers Owners Organization (PRO). Before that, he was NHRA's vice president-field administration, responsible for the entire network of field operations and member tracks, and vice president-general manager of the NHRA flagship racing complex now known as Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
During his long tenure with NHRA, fans knew him as a knowledgeable part of the NHRA national event announcing team. He’s also well-known in the Sportsman ranks after becoming a licensed driver and scoring a pair of national event runner-ups in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2009 and as a solid handler in the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks, where he scored an impressive win at last year’s California Hot Rod Reunion.
But if you go way back, and perhaps more memorably, especially on this weekend when the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is in Pennsylvania, Mike Lewis’ name will forever be entwined with Maple Grove Raceway, where he literally grew up. Ninety years ago, Lewis’ grandfather Alfred Stauffer bought the land on which the track resides and on which Maple Grove Drag-O-Way opened in August 1962. Lewis would become the track’s manager while still in his early 20s and later general manager and track president, but, more important to the concerns of this column, he competed there in Top Fuel with his brother, Kent, on a memorable dragster known as Sparkling Burgundy.
The Lewis brothers, Mike, center, and Kent, with father Joe and their front-engine Top Fueler, circa 1971.
The original Sparkling Burgundy car did a lot of winning for the brothers. With drivers like Fred Forkner (below) at the wheel, it often was first to the finish line.
|(Above) Dale Thierer took over the reins of the Sparkling Burgundy car in 1973 and continued the winning ways but fell agonizingly short of winning the Division 1 title.|
(Left and below) The Sparkling Burgundy car was featured on the popular Noonday on 8 TV show on channel 8, WGAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Lancaster, Pa. Lewis showed the controls to an audience member while Kent Lewis, left, and Lex Dudas, right, who joined the Maple Grove staff in 1972 before his long haul as NHRA Division 2 director, looked on. Dudas returned to the track in 2008 as vice president and general manager.
I’ve known Mike for decades – before, during, and after the time we shared office space here in Glendora – and even mentioned his fuel-racing career in this column four years ago during the long-running Misc. Files thread, so when I was putting together this week’s edition of My Favorite Fuelers for NationalDragster.net focusing on some of Pennsylvania’s famous nitro wranglers, I thought I’d include them in that column. I dropped an email to Mike to confirm the basic info I had about the numerous drivers who had sat in the cockpit of their Top Fuel cars and was delighted (but not surprised) that he replied in very thorough fashion with a complete history of their team, which we rounded out in subsequent conversations and a chat last weekend in St. Louis and which I’ll share here in honor of this weekend’s race.
Being around drag racing almost their entire life, it’s not surprising that the Lewis brothers had to try it firsthand, which they did starting in 1970, when they began fielding a front-engine Top Fueler. Mike made license runs in the car but deferred the seat to Ed Crafton to focus on managing the track with (and at the insistence of) their father, Joe.
“He lobbied the family on my behalf when I was 20 and wanted to drive Top Fuel more than put on races,” Mike remembered. “I thank God for his direction every day.”
The partnership with Crafton lasted until the summer of 1971 – on the Fourth of July weekend at one of Pennsylvania’s other famous tracks, Numidia Dragway – when they lost an engine and then the car in the nasty accident that followed. “Ed recovered, but we all ‘grew up’ that day,” he said. “It was a very sobering experience.”
With the rear-engine revolution under way, the brothers called on another Pennsylvania racing institution, S&W Race Cars, to build them a rear-engine car for the1972 season. They called the car Sparkling Burgundy, named after their burgundy and gold school colors (they also briefly considered -- and rejected -- Green-Eyed Lady, after the then-popular song by Sugarloaf).
Sarge Arciero was their first driver when the car debuted at the Gatornationals. They failed to qualify there but won divisional races in Englishtown and Montreal before Arciero left the team in midsummer to campaign the ex-Eddie Careccia front-engine car. His replacement was Delaware-based Top Fuel veteran Fred Forkner, who not only brought more than a decade of driving experience, but also his potent 426 powerplant, and the winning resumed.
“We won another race or two and would have won the Division 1 title if we could have combined points [of Arciero and Forkner],” said Lewis. “We also wore ourselves out commuting to Wilmington, Del., to Fred's shop. He wanted to run the PRO race in Tulsa [Okla.], and then we split.
Walter “Satch” Nottle made a one-race appearance in the car, and Larry Bucher drove for them at the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas (“We were first-round fodder for [eventual champ] Jim Walther, as he reminds me every time I see him,” remarked Lewis), but the brothers found their ultimate partner later that year in Dale Thierer, who had become a well-respected driver in the region at the wheel of the Chevy-powered Hemi Hunter dragster that won the 1971 Division 1 crown.
“Dale was perfect chemistry for Kent and me,” Mike marveled. “Smooth and consistent. Easy on parts. We won a lot of races over the next two years at Englishtown, Epping, Montreal, etc.”
The team came agonizingly close to winning the Division 1 championship in 1973.
“We needed only a first-round win at Atco for Dale to clinch the NED title but lost the engine in qualifying,” he remembered. “With three hours until eliminations and a spare short block two hours away, we found a friend to drive the short block to Atco. With help from a dozen friends, we installed a short block and bolted on heads, clutch, supercharger, pump, etc. in 24 minutes but ran out of time to adjust the valves on a replacement head. It started just fine but broke an exhaust valve on the burnout. It was still an amazing night in New Jersey. The funniest thing then happened; our blown engine didn't catch fire on the track, but our friend flipped a butt out of the window of his pickup, and our oily, blown-up 392 lit up on the New Jersey Turnpike.
"Our biggest win came at the Maple Grove [divisional] race in 1974 over an 18-car field including Gary Beck, Flip Schofield, and all the Eastern stars. ‘Satch’ Nottle broke in Fred Forkner's car, so we took a solo win in the final.”
(Above) With Kerry Sweigert, near lane, at the wheel, the Lewis Bros. scored a popular win at their home track's Spring All-Pro Series event. (Below) Mike, left, meanwhile was continuing his duties at the racetrack, including congratulating one of his former drivers, Sarge Arciero, who won in the Jade Grenade.
(One thing that I found interesting in researching Pennsylvania nitro pilots for the article on the ND site was that everyone seemed to have driven for everyone at one point. The common rides between drivers like Nottle, Arciero, Forkner, Ted Thomas, and others reads like a family tree.)
The brothers and Thierer also scored a big win at Capitol Raceway's Mr. USA Fuel Eliminator race, a wild affair at which they reached the winner’s circle only after being reinstated on the break rule after losses to the cars of Jim and Alison Lee and Tommy Ivo. Thierer then beat the Lees’ car in the final.
As Lewis’ duties at the track grew, brother Kent, Thierer, and friends raced the car while Mike pitched in by doing most of the engine and clutch service while the others caught up on sleep.
“By late 1973, I had family and mortgage responsibilities, and Kent paid most of the bills,” he added. “We sat out 1975, and then Kent teamed with Ron Mumma on a new S&W car in 1976. Kerry Sweigert upgraded his license to Top Fuel and won spring races at Epping and Maple Grove with our old parts before a new engine arrived from Bill Leavitt. Ron owned the engine, and we couldn't find the combination to make it work. Mumma withdrew and later built his own car, which ran quite well in 1977 with Sweigert at the wheel.
“To help us finish the 1976 season, Gary Peters and Jim Johnson loaned Kent a 454 Chevy engine, which lasted the remainder of the season. The end of the story came in late 1976 when George Tolon and Marc White bought the '76 car and converted it to an A/ED. New Yorker Tony Ceraolo came with them, hoping they would buy his Traveler Woody car so he could buy Kent's still-pristine Sparkling Burgundy."
It’s probably just as well that the racing came to an end there as bigger things awaited Lewis. In 1979, he was named Maple Grove’s general manager, and the following year, when Maple Grove Dragway Inc. became a separate operating corporation, he was named president. Improvements were poured into the track, and they were rewarded in 1982 with a regional event and in 1985 with the current national event. Lewis left the track in 1989 to work for NHRA.
Lewis won the Nostalgia Funny Car class at the 2012 California Hot Rod Reunion.
Thirty-six years after he started them, he finally finished the licensing runs by earning Super Comp and Advanced E.T. licenses at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in early 2007 and drove Joel Gruzen's blown alcohol Fiat a month later in Bakersfield. He earned his Top Alcohol Dragster ticket in May 2008 and scored back-to-back national event runner-ups at – where else? – Maple Grove Raceway in 2008 and 2009. He then progressed into the Nostalgia Funny Car class, driving (interestingly) the Schumacher-tribute Wonder Wagon and Stardust cars of Justin Grant and Bob Godfrey's Burn'n Money flopper and the Brand X Mustang of Henry Gutierrez at recent California Hot Rod Reunions.
Even with all of the high-pressure responsibilities of his current position at Don Schumacher Racing, it’s nice for Lewis to look back at his beginnings and at the magical time in the 1970s when a pair of brothers could field a competitive Top Fuel car without a mega-dollar sponsor and before real-world responsibilities came calling.
“I was 26 and Kent 24 when we both dedicated ourselves to our families and Maple Grove, but we lived out the unforgettable thrill of racing Top Fuel dragsters and winning in the prime of our youth,” he remembered fondly. “We won several Pro Fuel points titles, and we made friendships that last to this day.”