INDIANAPOLIS – Many drivers who have made their name in sprint car and midget racing are known for making the move from the west to the east as they advance up the ladder.
For Noblesville, Ind., native Michael Lewis, it was the opposite road that led to the most successful years of his career, and even a shot in a NASCAR Xfinity Series ride.
At the conclusion of a highly successful two-year run behind the wheel of Phil Reed’s No. 11 in the USAC National Midget Series, which included a Copper World Classic victory at Phoenix Int’l Raceway in 2001 – plus wins at Nazareth, Pa.; Sparta, Ky. and the prestigious Turkey Night Grand Prix at Irwindale, Calif. – Reed went out on a high note.
He sold the car, but unfortunately, that left Lewis without a ride entering the 2003 season.
“I found out about a month before Phoenix (in 2003) that I didn’t have a ride,” Lewis recalled. “I found out Western Speed Racing bought it, so I begged them, ‘Hey, let’s put this car together and go run Phoenix.’ (They said) ‘No, we don’t have time, we don’t have time. So, it’s like, look, bring me out there; I know the car; I built it; we can make it there. I couldn’t talk them into it, so I got a ride with Gary Hansen for Phoenix. We didn’t qualify well, I think we started eighth or ninth, but I think in 10 laps we were leading and ended up crashing out of the lead.
“Rick Gerhardt and Larry Trigueiro (owners of Western Speed Racing) met me at the infield care center and offered me a ride moving forward with Western Speed,” Lewis continued. “That’s how that deal all started.”
Lewis, a five-time USAC National Midget winner at this point entering 2003 with triumphs in some of the biggest races on the schedule on his burgeoning resume, decided to split his time between California and Indiana.
The decision ultimately earned him the 2003 USAC National Sprint Car Rookie of the Year Award and three wins with the series and car owner Jeff Walker at Winchester, Hawkeye Downs and Salem.
Meanwhile, at the same time, he was tearing it up in USAC’s Western Sprint Car series in the Western Speed cars, winning six feature races, capturing Rookie of the Year, and ultimately, the season championship in his first try.
Lewis also won another USAC Western States Midget race for good measure with Hansen.
Based on his performance, and a connection through his car owners, Lewis earned a shot at what was then NASCAR’s Busch Series in 2003 with owner Richard Childress.
In 2004, it was more of the same story with Lewis adding two Western States Midget wins for Western Speedway, then seven more in the Western Sprint Car en route to a finish of second in the standings behind teammate Tony Hunt.
For the second consecutive year, Lewis won the Turkey Night sprint car race, after he had previously captured a Turkey Night midget win in 2002.
Now synonymous with the “orange cars” of Western Speed, Lewis and the team competed on the national trail with the Silver Crown car, the sprint car and the midget in 2005.
He added another biggie to his midget resume by winning the Night Before the 500 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, then added another on Independence Day Weekend at Pikes Peak Int’l Raceway.
Lewis’ final USAC victory was a sprint car win at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway a week later.