RACING SCENE Column – (Birth of Nine Racing) By Tim Kennedy
LOS ANGELES – BIRTH OF NINE RACING: - Steve Lewis, from nearby Laguna Beach, recently realized a long-standing dream. He is a ten-time USAC National Midget Series car owner champion (1993, 95, 96, 98, 99, 2000, 01, 02, 03, and 04). His championship drivers included Stevie Reeves, Kenny Irwin, Jr.,Tony Stewart, J. J. Yeley, Dave Darland, Jason Leffler, and Bobby East. His midget team drivers also include: Kasey Kahne, Mike Bliss, Jay Drake, and Dave Steele.
Lewis brought his newly restored first midget to a weekly Irwindale Speedway open-practice night. It was the first time he had it on a race track. Driver Jerome Rodela and Steve himself took laps at speed in it on the Irwindale third-mile oval. It was the culmination of more than a decade of effort by Steve to locate and restore the first midget he owned.
The midget was the first entry Steve fielded in 1979 for Stan Fox, of Janesville, Wisc., who became Steve's long-time driver. Steve, in his initial season, had Howard Linne, from Mendota, Illinois as his co-owner/chief mechanic. Linne owned a fleet of midgets numbered 93, 96, 97, 98 and 99. The new No. 97 Don Edmunds Autoresearch chassis (No. 348 on a dash plaque) was powered by an Autocraft Volkswagen engine built by La Habra's (Orange County) Autocraft Machine, run by partners Ray Fitzpatrick and Bill Steiner. In that era, Rich Vogler, Mel Kenyon, Sleepy Tripp and Steve Lotshaw dominated midget racing with VW power.
The new midget debuted in 1979 with Linne-Lewis and Dennis Kirk Accessories on the hood. The all-black with tan-gold number and lettering has the same colors, number and lettering now as it did then. It is fully restored and in racing trim. How the midget became a roller again is remarkable.
CAR HISTORY: The No. 97 driven by Fox during 1979 raced in 26 of 44 events. It tallied 335 points and finished eighth in car owner points out of 139 midgets with USAC National Midget points. Fox set a new track record of 13.367 in the car on June 14, 1979 at the Rockford, Illinois paved quarter-mile. He drove No. 97 to a 40-lap main event victory on September 7 at the Anderson, Indiana paved quarter-mile. Fox also scored a second, four third, one fourth, three fifths and sixths,one seventh, three ninths and three 12ths in USAC features.
The No. 97 midget was sold following the 1979 season to Dennis Devea of Joliet, Illinois. The chassis and VW engine eventually parted company; the VW location was lost to history. Co-car owners Linne and Lewis also went their separate ways after 1979 and each man became prominent USAC Midget car owners. They won one 1979 main together. Lewis won 133 solo victories from 1980-2011. Linne won 69 USAC National Midget feature triumphs.
Lewis cars won five Belleville, Kansas Midget Nationals and the USAC Turkey Night Grand Prix six times. His TNGP winners were: Fox (1990-91), Leffler (1999), Stewart (2000), East (2004) and Darland (2007).
In 1980 Steve bought a new midget, the first Edmunds coil chassis, and started his use of No. 9 and Nine Racing, Inc. for his midgets. He continued his decades-long employment of Fox as his driver. Fox drove the Lewis No. 9 Edmunds/Autocraft VW to victory on October 29, 1980 in a 50-lap main event at the Ascot Park clay half-mile in Gardena, California. The Lewis No. 9 scored 236 points and tied for tenth in final 1980 USAC National Midget car owner points. Steve sold that car with engine to Wisconsin owner/driver Dean Erfurth.
Lewis used the Edmunds and Autocraft VW combination until the mid-1980s. Then he bought the first Bob East-built Beast in 1987 and used a Gaerte engine. He later mated a Fontana block and Ford DOHC engine. Steve also used Ed Pink-built Ford and Toyota engines during his illustrious career. He remained a Beast midget customer and at times ran as many as four cars in major events. His Nine Racing, Inc. midgets used numbers 9, 9x, 19 and 91 on those occasions.
Steve wanted to buy the No. 97 Edmunds from then owner Henry Pens, a 16-time USAC National Midget feature winner, and later his son Danny Pens, a one-time USAC National Midget main winner. Neither would sell the 97 midget. Surviving son Danny eventually contacted Steve to see if he would trade a Beast midget chassis for the 1979 Edmunds. Steve completed the deal about 15 years ago and spent years trying to locate the engine. He finally located an Autocraft VW owned by USAC midget owner Don Cumberworth, a former So Cal resident living in Indiana. Don's son Chris drove their No. 41 Autocraft VW midget for years. Steve bought the VW from Don in 2011, shortly before Don's death.
Steve spent years restoring both his Edmunds chassis and the Autocraft VW engine to mint condition. He had the black paint and tan-gold lettering restored to the same appearance it had in 1979. Once his first midget was restored and the VW dyno-tested, Steve wanted to see his No. 97 Autocraft VW at speed on a race track.
He called Doug Stokes at Irwindale Speedway and arranged to use the track from 5 to 9 pm. Steve contacted current USAC Midget owner/driver Jerome Rodela, from nearby El Monte. The 2005-06 USAC Western Midget driving champion agreed to put the restored No. 97 midget through its paces. Jerome's wife Lisa and daughter Kendall, 6, watched. Wally Pankratz, the 2000 USAC Western Midget driver champion, came with his push truck and pushed off No. 97 all evening.
Jerome took slow warm-up laps and then picked up the pace. He hustled the car several times and pronounced the chassis and engine fit. Jerome then turned some laps in the 13 second bracket. There is no USAC midget track record for the third-mile because midgets always used Irwindale's half-mile. USAC Ford Focus Midget and TQ Midget records on the third-mile are 14.2 and 14.1 seconds respectively.
Steve brought his own red driving uniform and helmet to test drive his No. 97 himself. Steve's Pirelli World Challenge Series Porsche 911 GT3R driver son Michael, 26, was in charge of safety. Michael, who raced stock cars at Irwindale in 2011, buckled his dad into the tight cockpit. Steve took warm-up laps and then picked up his pace and ran low 17-second laps. He declared the successful evening a fun experience and everything he thought it would be.
Michael raced formula cars in Europe for years. He was a teammate of Patrick Long (No. 31) for the Effort Racing/Curb-Agajanian Porsche 911 GT3R team. Michael drove No. 41 to Pirelli victories in 2015 and at St. Petersburg, Florida in March 2016. The team folded in mid-season. Michael now drives the same Porsche 911 as No. 98 for a new owner. Michael raced it in September at Laguna Seca. Michael is a global warming conscious person. Racing in the Pirelli Long Beach GP during April, Michael rode his bicycle from his home in Irvine to the LBGP circuit.
Steve's other midget currently is a Beast that is on display in Bill Smith's Racing Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. Steve gifted his No. 19 Beast chassis to Tony Stewart without engine for Tony's car collection. Tony won the 2000 Turkey Night GP at Irwindale in Steve's No. 19. Steve plans to keep his restored Edmunds/Autocraft VW in his possession.
On the Irwindale practice night Steve had his No. 97 midget on track, two other noteworthy race cars practiced separately on the half-mile track. A red and white No. 21 Oswego (N.Y) Speedway super-modified with a 460 cu. in. Chevy engine ran laps. The owner bought the car knowing there was no western series to race it. He enjoys working on it and taking hot laps at Irwindale periodically for fun.
A brand new all-black late model also practiced on Irwindale's half-mile. It will carry No. 53 when it races, possibly at a Las Vegas “Bullring”event during November. Cole Cabrera, a veteran late model, Lucas Oil Modified and ASA Truck driver, has not raced in three years. Cole, 22, from Exeter (central Calif.), might return to racing. The car owner is crew chief on a NASCAR K & N West car from central California.
The new late model Cabrera tested at Irwindale is a LFR chassis. It was built by Tony Eury, Jr. and Jeff Fultz for a firm founded in 2014 by Rob Fuller in Mooresville, N. C. LFR late models are popular at the half-mile, banked Mobile International Speedway in Alabama according to the car owner. It will be the first LFR late model to race on the West Coast.