It's Friday morning, twenty-four hours before qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled to begin, and the Beck Motorsports garage in Gasoline Alley is in full-on thrash mode. Team owner Greg Beck pores over setup sheets. Driver Shinji Nakano is belted into his cockpit. Crew-men torque bolts and polish wheels. Even the caterer is hustling, setting up trays for the day's lunch service.
In the middle of this maelstrom, as if in-habiting the eye of a hurricane, David Lewis lounges incongruously in a solitary chair and leafs through the morning paper. He's a handsome guy in his late forties, conspicuous by virtue of a rakish white Vandyke and an elegantly casual ensemble free of sponsor logos. Appearances notwithstanding, he's hard at work. It's just that his job consists mainly of waiting, in this case waiting for one of two potential sponsors to pony up enough money to put his client, unemployed driver Richie Hearn, into a race car.
"I'm so depressed. This is why I went to law school?" Lewis flings down the newspaper. "I've been chasing these deals for five months. Five months! This is what happens every year. It's always a tease right up until the end, and more often than not, the door gets slammed in your face." He checks his cell phone for messages. Nada. "Just tell me something," he mutters. "Anything! At this point, I'd rather hear a no."
If you want to know about how racing really works, talk to David Lewis. Not about the action on the track, which is just the tip of the iceberg, but about the backroom business deals that make the sport possible. Lewis manages about a dozen open-wheel drivers and motorcycle racers. Not just big-name guys who've already got cushy deals. Up-and-comers like Andy Lally. Down-and-outers like Roberto Guerrero. Talented drivers who could get the job done if only a team owner would give them a chance. Or a sponsor would supply the cash.
"I'm really annoyed by all the kids from South America who get rides here because they bring money," Lewis complains. You can still hear vestiges of Boston in his voice. "I'm not saying they're not talented. But that's not why they're getting the rides. And as long as you can buy your way in, CART and the IRL won't be truly world-class series."
Last year, Lewis represented four drivers who were regulars on the IRL circuit. Although none of them had a top-tier ride, Hearn, Billy Boat, Raul Boesel, and Robby McGehee earned nearly $2.4 million in prize money among them. But the new IRL chassis-and-engine formula, instituted in 2003, sent costs skyrocketing, pricing many smaller teams out of the IRL. As a result, none of Lewis's drivers-"my guys," he calls them, more big brother than proprietor-began the season with a ride.
Lewis spends nearly every weekend at one racetrack or another. This being May, he's committed to the Indianapolis Motor Speed-way for the month. Traditionally, seats open up at the Speedway, where thirty-three cars start the race instead of the usual twenty-five or so. But this year, thanks to the new IRL formula, even an Indy-only program runs $1 million, and it looks as if there might not be enough cars to fill the field. Boat has a solid ride in Panther Racing's second car, and Jimmy Kite has been nominated as the driver of the perennially underfunded PDM Racing effort. But that's it, and Lewis is getting desperate.
Lewis prowls Gasoline Alley in search of news. In the Panther garage, he hears that Arie Luyendyk may be retiring after tagging the wall a ton this morning. In a flash, he's double-timing it to the pits to see if car owner Mo Nunn needs a new driver. Lewis isn't the only vulture descending on the scene. Along the way, he spots out-of-work driver Memo Gidley in Chip Ganassi's pit. Then he high-fives a passing Alex Barron, who finished fourth here last year driving for a team that's been squeezed out of business. "He's trying to snake the ride, too," Lewis confides without breaking stride. "He's probably on his way over to Toyota Racing Development right now. That's a Toyota car."
Nunn's busy when Lewis arrives, so Lewis collars engineer David Cripps, who worked with Hearn at Della Penna Motorsports a few years back. Cripps tells him to talk with Scott Cronk, who's involved with the sponsorship behind Luyendyk's car. Lewis zips back to Gasoline Alley. "I doubt anything will come of it," he admits, "but I don't want to miss out if there's even a remote chance." Along the way, his cell phone rings. It's McGehee calling about the Luyendyk ride.
Five minutes later, Lewis is huddled in conversation with Cronk. It turns out that Luyendyk hasn't yet decided whether to withdraw or not. Just in case, Lewis pushes his drivers. Then, thinking on his feet, he tells Cronk that he might be able to work a business-to-business deal with a guy promoting an anti-rust product that might be perfect for treating the cell phone towers erected by longtime Luyendyk sponsor Fred Treadway.