SONOMA, Calif. – Michael Lewis first shied away from midget racing at 10 years-old, but even with his apprehension he climbed into the 160-pound steel cage on wheels. The driver’s seat – nearly resting on the ground because of the car’s low center of gravity – called to him despite his reservations. Racing midgets was customary in the Lewis household and while he was a fan of them, the bare-boned car was a level of risk that made his hands tremble when wrapped around a steering wheel.
“When I first tried a quarter-midget, I was mostly afraid of it,” said Lewis, laughing about the whole experience. “It was the worst thing ever, and I think I cried a little bit. I didn’t even turn on the engine.”
Quarter midget racing later segued into a successful young career in sports cars for the 26-year-old. Lewis entered his second year in the Pirelli World Challenge with the K-PAX Racing team. Lewis, who formerly competed in a Porsche 911 GT3 R, is piloting the No. 98 K-PAX Racing Smile Generation McLaren 650S GT3 in the series’ second season of the SprintX class.
He tried quarter midgets again two years later. His father owns and operates Nine Racing, Inc. – a USAC midget team he founded in 1979. Since then, the team has claimed nine USAC National Midget Series Championships; the number serves as a badge of honor. Lewis first buckled into the car in front of the entire team. This brought upon a collection of not mixed feelings, but interchangeable ones – intimidation, doubt and fear among others. This time however, his dad did his best to relieve all the pressure behind him racing. The two of them instead shared a father-son moment, which was the precursor to Lewis’s successful career – not just in midgets. He fired up the engine.
Unbeknownst to Lewis at the time, his path as a driver was predetermined in just how he spent his time around the team. He and his friend hung around the shop frequently; his friend was more in-tune to the mechanical aspect of racing while Lewis usually talked to drivers about setups. His friend ended up becoming a tuner for cars, and Lewis decided to work in racing from under a helmet.
“I liked racing, and in the other sports I just kept getting hurt,” said Lewis, who played baseball and soccer before exploring racing. “The [quarter midget] was like my armor. I could compete on the same field and in the same way as some guy or girl who’s bigger or tougher than me.”
Lewis’s opportunity to revisit racing’s grassroots played to his advantage. Quarter midgets, equipped with a four-stroke powerplant, are intended to have a high power-to-weight ratio like a regular midget. While his father’s team competed on both dirt and pavement, Lewis focused on competing in concrete bullrings locally. Racing on paved ovals put an emphasis on precisely aiming toward the apex of the corners – a key similarity to sports car racing. Midget racing has tested young drivers through generations by emphasizing total car control.
Lewis, who competed in the developmental classes, raced in quarter midgets for two seasons. In that stretch, the Laguna Beach, Calif. native took home two Ponoma Valley Quarter Midget Association Honda Championships while amassing many wins, poles and fast laps in the process. Lewis also added to the family’s success, competing in the No. 9 car. Lewis used what he learned in his next step in racing. Despite his father’s extensive background in dirt racing, the two agreed that Lewis would rise the ranks on pavement.
“He told me, ‘Look, we already know [the dirt] world very well. Let’s try something different…’” Lewis said. “’…you’ve always been about learning more than what you already know. It doesn’t stop at our world.’ There’s never been a point in my racing [career] when it was ‘too easy,’ but that’s what makes it fulfilling.”
For the next four years, Lewis broadened his horizons into kart racing. He still competed locally, eventually winning the IKF TAG Pro $2,000-to-win event at CalSpeed Karting Center in 2008. But his opportunities blurred the international borders, where he participated in such events like the Italian Open Masters and French Open. While Lewis was honing-in on his pavement racing skills internationally, he still made appearances in midgets. Lewis put closure to his midget career by competing in six USAC Midget Races under his father’s Nine Racing, Inc. banner through 2009.
“I learned about the Formula car racing [overseas],” Lewis said. “It’s very popular over there, and you have to go to Europe for their road courses. Alvaro [Parente] was over there and Ben [Barnicoat] did it too. All those guys were over there to learn what’s next after go-karts. I’m just very appreciative of my family for supporting me from go-karts to Formula cars.”
Through the next five seasons, Lewis predominantly competed in single-seaters in the Formula BMW Americas Championship, Formula 3 Italia Championship, Formula 3 Euro Series and the FIA European Formula 3 Championship. Notably, his final year in single-seaters was in 2013 when he was one of four drivers invited to the Porsche Young Driver Academy. He participated in a two-day test session at Barber Motorsports Park (Ala.), and afterward felt encouraged enough to make the switch to sports cars.
His success at the academy resulted in a scholarship to compete under Porsche Motorsport North America. Lewis not only raced in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Championship, but also in the Pirelli World Challenge (PWC). Lewis officially turned “Pro” in 2015, and returned to PWC in the GT class the following year. Additionally, he competed in the Series’ inaugural year of the SprintX class. He swept the weekend at Utah Motorsports Campus in the No.98 Calvert Dynamics Porsche 911 GT3 car, ultimately finishing third in the pro drivers points championship – just 23 points separating him from the runner-up spot.
Prior to the 2017 PWC SprintX opener at VIRginia International Raceway in late-April, Lewis was the only driver on the K-PAX Racing team who had experience with the new format. Even so, he said it is like a lot of the other endurance series.
“I was just really grateful for the opportunity and all the success we had,” said Lewis about the 2016 season. “The SprintX format is like a lot of the racing in Europe and throughout the world, so [my teammates] are already pretty familiar with it and can bring their knowledge here. But like every race you’re going to have the same discussions like the ones you would have for a non-pitstop race. Racing within the rules of PWC though, hopefully my experiences from last year have helped them in answering any questions.
I’m just appreciative [of this year]. Thank you K-PAX Racing for allowing me to be on such a great team and Mike Hedlund for allowing me to put my sponsors on the car. That’s the only way I’m able to do this, and they are the only reason why I can do this.”
The Pirelli World Challenge SprintX season will resume May 19-21 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. For more information, visit world-challenge.com.
About K-PAX Racing
Since joining the Pirelli World Challenge in 2007, K-PAX Racing has celebrated a total of 98 podiums, 39 wins and four driver championships, solidifying the team as a continuous championship contender. In 2014, K-PAX Racing expanded its relationship with McLaren GT, bringing two new 2015 McLaren 650S GT3 race cars into competition. The renewed effort kept K-PAX Racing at the forefront of competition, becoming a serious championship contender in the seasons to follow. In 2016, the team expanded to three full season McLaren 650S GT3 race cars, and clinched the Pirelli World Challenge Team, Driver, and Manufacturer Championships.
About McLaren GT
McLaren has been a pioneer and setting benchmarks on the tracks around the world for 50 years, and the latest range of GT racing models based on the road-going McLaren Automotive range is no different. McLaren GT was established in 2011 to develop, build and support all GT race activities. Based in Woking, Surrey at the former home of McLaren Racing, the company is responsible for the design, development and production of the 650S GT3, 570S GT4, and 650S and 570S Sprint models.