Determined Lewis Heads South With A Purpose October 22, 2001- Bothell, Wa 3-time NASCAR Champion Gary Lewis takes to the skies tonight to catch up with the ...
Determined Lewis Heads South With A Purpose
October 22, 2001- Bothell, Wa 3-time NASCAR Champion Gary Lewis takes to the skies tonight to catch up with the #73 and its crew that left Phoenix-bound immediately following the 2001 NASCAR Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series banquet on Saturday- in which the team took 4th place honors, as well as the Gatorade FrontRunner Championship. Competing in this NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series event since a 7th place finish his first time out in 1995, Lewis seems to only garner extreme finishes at Phoenix International Raceway. Amongst his favorite venues, Lewis can generally be found qualifying in the top 5, often besting NASCAR Winston Cup veterans running the event for track time and fun. Finishing for the #73 team can be a different story altogether. With some impressive past finishes such as the thrilling 2nd place showing in 1999 with NASCAR Craftsman Truck sponsor ASE adorning his hood- Lewis caught the valuable eyes of both Truck and Busch teams that ultimately led to successful testing for 2 top teams in the industry. In recent starts, however the much anticipated Southwest Series events at Phoenix have not been so kind to the Patrick’s Motorsports Race-Fans.net Sign Factory USA Sandblasters Whoop-Ass Pontiac. Although the track is dubbed“ tough to tame” by many, Lewis has consistently sported a great set up and shown driving finesse negotiating the 1-mile oval- when he gets past the first lap, that is. Ironically, in both of Lewis’ last two starts a lap 1 mishap has collected the #73. When Cup driver Ken Schrader hit the wall in turn one last fall, it appeared that with some quick thinking and a little luck, Lewis was able to maneuver through the chaos that ensued… until the #5 of Chris Hart, having been collected himself, tapped the #73 while skidding by. It was just enough to turn the #73 around and into the turn two wall, sustaining heavy damage. Though devastated, the crew thrashed to make the car drivable, bringing the car in repeatedly for repairs and sending her back out just in front of the pace car each time. With an aerodynamically challenged car, Lewis clawed his way from dead last to an impressive 7th place finish.
In February, fate struck once more, but this time there was no saving the car after another competitor lost control of his machine and took the #73 to the fence with him in turn 3. This proved to be more than a major disappointment when Gary was evaluated by the infield care center and directed to the hospital. Based on the unbelievable amount of damage to the #73 that was in turn plowed by other cars following the initial impact, doctors worried that Lewis may have fractured his neck in one or more places. After spending the night in the hospital, CatScans revealed no fractures and therefore no threat of further injury under airplane cabin pressure and doctors finally released Lewis to fly home. Because the direct hit to the rear of the car impacted the fuel cell to such a degree, Lewis’ car was inspected by officials and pictures taken. It was determined that a new safety measure instituted the week before in regards to cell reinforcement more than likely saved Lewis’ life. An extra steel support bar voluntarily placed by Lewis himself behind his seat rest more than likely saved his neck. Post-race inspection revealed it was bent more than 5 inches back from the impact of Lewis’ helmet. “ It’s really disappointing of course to get the car and the team all down there- so far from home and all excited and have things take a turn like they did. The fuel cell and everything was a pretty scary deal- it was shoved in well over a foot, wrapped around the rear-end and in places was just 4” wide. It just goes to show you that these safety measures that NASCAR institutes are well worth the time, money and effort. We are determined as a team to win this race- we’ve had the car to do it- we just need a little luck to go our way!” Lewis laughs.
Luck certainly does seem to be shining on this motivated team now. After running the 2001 Northwest Series with zero financial support, the Lewis Racing Enterprises team made do with what they had and stretched even that to the limit. Despite their financial status, September 11th impacted the team as much as everyone else. Reaching deep into their coffers, Gary Lewis Racing Enterprises car owners Ralph and Leslie Lewis made the decision to find a way to contribute. With Gary looking to memorialize victims and their families, The Sign Factory USA designed a fantastic vinyl tribute for the roof of the #73 while Ralph and Leslie mandated that until further notice a portion of race winnings would be earmarked for the September 11th Fund. “ It was important to us to find a way to make going on with the task at hand [the championship points battle] respectful of the magnitude of this tragedy and its impact on our country” says Ralph Lewis, Car Owner and Crew Chief. “ We collectively, as a team, were comforted that as we turned out attention in other directions and began the process of healing, we could keep the victims memory in our minds and their welfare in our hearts” added Leslie Lewis, Car Owner and Lead Scorer.
After the meager season and struggling with more bad luck, the team did not have the resources to make the annual trip to Phoenix, clearly a priority due to the high-profile nature of the race. Just when the crew resigned itself to missing the event, help arrived. The first to step forward was the Sign Factory USA with partial tire support. “ A great team, a great cause” says Sign Factory USA owner and #73 Team Member Jim Risher. “ My design team here at the Sign Factory was elated to put together the very unique, patriotic design for the car’s roof. I applaud their effort.” Next came Sandblasters with fuel support. “ Gary Lewis Racing Enterprises kept supporting me with having the Sandblasters name riding along on the #73’s rocker panels- long after I was in no position to contribute” says Sandblaster owner, Warren Kindle. “ Now that business has picked up, Gary was one of the first teams I wanted to lend some support to. They really stood behind me, and now I am proud to stand behind them and this selfless effort.” Still desperate, the phone call came from Race-Fans.net that changed everything. “ George [Stefanini, RFN editor] has long been pivotal in the support of our Northwest Series. He has been diligently working at validating racing in the Northwest, and has brought considerable new focus to our sport. He has worked so closely with many of the Northwest teams all along, that it seemed like the perfect marriage for us to team up for this event. George had caught sight of our‘ Infinite Justice’ tribute to September 11th on our roof and wanted to get involved. With Race-Fans.net helping us get to Phoenix we can add to those contributions” says an ecstatic Lewis. Race-Fans.net will ride along on the hood and the rear bumper of the #73 for the Phoenix event. “ This was an incredible opportunity for Race-Fans.net to support the #73 teams’ efforts towards September 11th” says Stefanini. “ We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to contribute to such a worthwhile cause- just because we are busy racing around in circles doesn’t mean that the tragedy of September 11th isn’t foremost in our minds. That having been said, I’ve long wanted to utilize the audience of a high profile event such as this- it could be key to Race-Fans.net’s growth, based on the exposure an event like this provides” notes Stefanini. “ I am impressed that Gary and his team are focused on benefiting the September 11th Fund when they have been in such need of financial help themselves. It really motivated me to want to pitch in and get them to Phoenix so they could continue to contribute. I don’t know of a team that deserves the help more.” With all of the pieces falling into place, the trip to Phoenix was looking more promising than ever when Patrick’s Motorsports stepped up and sealed the deal.
Patrick’s Motorsports has run several teams on the Southwest Series and has relied on driving tips from Gary as well as technical know-how from Ralph- often flying the two down to Southwest races and test sessions to coach. Fast becoming friends, the relationship between Patrick’s Motorsports and Gary Lewis Racing Enterprises has become greatly beneficial to both teams over the years, and 2001 is no exception. With Patrick’s financial and crew support cemented for the Phoenix race, there is no stopping the #73 team now. “ We have made a lot of improvements on the car and cosmetically spiffed her up too.” says an excited Gary Lewis “ Our set up is strong for Phoenix, I am confident of that and I love this race- it’s fast and a lot of fun. We put so much effort into this-we have a good car and I am planning on a good payoff this time. The September 11th Fund deserves it, the team has earned it and the fans have been patiently waiting for it. We plan to deliver!”
The race takes place at Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona on Thursday, October 25th 2001 and will be tape delayed- check your local listings and/or SpeedVision.