An interview with American Spirit Racing's Jon Lewis
Q. Jon, you've been involved in motorsports for nearly a quarter of a century now. What are some of your most memorable experiences?
A. That's a difficult question to answer because there have been so many. I guess a couple that stick out in my mind are racing with my good friend Bob Gurnsey in Firestone Firehawk, finishing 5th at the 24 hours of Daytona with my friend Raan Rodriguez and partnering with PDM Racing to field a car in the 2001 Indianapolis 500. But, it's been really tremendous working with all the great drivers we have had come through our doors.
Q. When did your interest in auto racing start?
A. I've been a car nut for as long as I can remember. One of my fondest memories of my youth was our family opening up our summer cottage in New Hampshire on Memorial Day weekend and sitting around the radio listening to the Indy 500. You couldn't get it on TV back then. Boy, I guess that kind of dates me.
Q. How did you get started in motorsports?
A. I was working at a car dealership in New Hampshire when I met a driver who was buying a car from me and we got talking about the Firestone Firehawk Series. He invited me to test his car at Bryar Motorsports Park (now New Hampshire Speedway). So, I took him up on his offer and was bit by the bug. I took out a loan and bought a new stripped down Toyota MR2, talked the dealership's owner in letting me use the service personnel to help prepare the car, slapped a dealer plate on it and drove to Sebring. I didn't have much money and I camped out next to my car in the paddock with a pup tent. One of the other Toyota teams let me share their refueling rig, as I didn't have one. My co-driver was my instructor from Skip Barber and he brought along a few crew personnel. That was 1987 and the rest is history.
Q. You made it all the way up to driving in the premier GTP class of the IMSA Camel GT Series in 1989. How did you get there so fast and with little money?
A. Little money isn't the word for it. More like no money! It came clear to me right away that if I was going to be able to be in this sport, I needed to raise money from outside sources. I used my salesmanship to obtain support from local businesses. Nothing big, but enough to get me to the races. I caught the eye of Toyota and they began to support me. Later I put a deal together with Honda to run a couple cars. I started renting out the second car to increase the budget and formed American Spirit Racing. The business grew from there. I met Bob Gurnsey who started the sport of Paintball and he sponsored me to drive in the Camel GTP at the Miami Grand Prix. It was the start of a great relationship and friendship that grew the business significantly.
Q. You stated that you drove with Mr. Gurnsey, was that in GTP?
A. No, Bob was a race fan and a great businessman. He liked how I marketed his sport with our race operation and he then hired me as marketing director for his company. We became very good friends and started our own three car Firehawk Team "Team Paintball". Bob and I drove together from 1990 to 1992. The cars had neon paintball splats all over them and we had a really great time.
Q. You don't drive anymore, why's that?
A. Well, for a couple reasons. One was that in 1994, my youngest daughter Amanda was born and my wife had other things to worry about than me driving around at 200 mph. The other was that the business was growing and it was impossible to drive, manage the team and marketing all at the same time. So, I decided to hang up the helmet and concentrate on the marketing and management side of the business.
Q. Do you miss driving?
A. Of course, but I still get behind the wheel in testing from time to time.
Q. You've been known to get some impressive results with limited budgets. How are you able to do that?
A. You have to remember where I came from. I didn't start with a boat load of money and many good drivers today don't either. I've always kept my eye on getting the most out of what we have, being innovative and not spending money on areas that don't help us get results.
Q. You entered the Indy Lights series with Robbie Pecorari in 2007 and won the Nashville event. Was that a big deal for you?
A. Hell yes! It was our's and Robbie's rookie season in Indy Lights. We had a very limited budget and we showed up to the events with a tag trailer when most of the other had these big rigs. But we had a great crew and Robbie is an extremely talented young driver. I think we impressed the other teams with our ability and we were able to capture some very strong results.
Q. You said that you also concentrated on the marketing side of the business. How difficult was that?
A. Getting sponsorships is the hardest part of the sport. You have to do your research and be able to present benefits to the sponsor that fit their goals and objectives. Securing a sponsorship is hard enough, but keeping them is as equally important. You have to keep performing and providing them with clear results that generate value for their brand. We had AmeriSuites Hotels as a Primary sponsor of our Trans-Am and American Le Mans LMP1 team for five years, until they were bought out. We continually gave them more for their money each year. It was a great relationship.
Q. You've ran team's in just about every form of professional road racing in America. Which series did you run in and what was your favorite?
A. All of them were my favorites. Each one had its own character. Firehawk was an absolute blast. So many stories and memories there. GTP was scary and so thrilling to drive. Trans-Am had such a great comradery between the teams, having a car in the Indy 500 (with PDM Racing) was a true highlight in my career, American Le Mans was to technically advanced and having our entry win the 12 hours of Sebring was unbelievable, winning the Nashville event with Robbie in Indy Lights took my breath away, as I had to run all the way from the spotters stand to Victory Circle for the ceremony. But there are more memories to come.
Q. You're now running a Formula 1000 program. After running at the top levels of auto racing, why have you decided on this class?
A. Let's face it, in today's economy, there are a lot of drivers who don't have the million dollars it takes to run at the front of Indy Lights. I've always been involved with giving young drivers a platform to excel in their career, as we did in Formula BMW. F1000 is a very cost effective class, yet one that enables us to use our innovative abilities to succeed. The cars are the most technically advanced in junior motorsport with paddle shifters, 14,000 rpm engines, you name it. It's an exciting class and one of the most rapidly growing classes in auto racing. I'm really excited about it.
Jon, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to give our readers a glimpse into the history of American Spirit Racing and how you were able to succeed in this sport for over 23 years.
Thank you. I could share hours of stories, but then you'd probably run out of ink.