Deals on Wheels

December 6, 2004
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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.
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"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.
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As a business manager, Lewis is responsible for negotiating and vetting the increasingly complex contracts his clients sign with team owners and car sponsors. At the same time, he also serves as a companion, confidant, advisor, cheering section, shoulder to cry on, poor slob to vent at, and all-around go-to guy. But his number one priority is to get rides for his drivers. By whatever means necessary.
"I didn't get into this business to be a marketing man," Lewis says with an elaborate sigh. "But I'm always trying to find sponsorship for my guys. It's not that I go into every meeting with the sole purpose of getting money for my drivers. But I have to convince people that it's profitable-and fun-for them to be involved in racing."
At the moment, Lewis has to convince himself as well. As a manager, he takes a ten percent commission of everything his clients earn from racing. Five months into the new year, none of his drivers has started a race, and ten percent of nothing equals bupkis. "The commission system doesn't work very well in racing, because most guys are grossly underpaid, and the owners are always looking to put drivers in their cars for less money," he says. "Most guys are lucky to make $30,000 to $60,000 a year-right up to the Indy ranks-and they're risking their lives to do it. The problem is that they love racing so much that they're willing to do it for next to nothing, and they're so desperate to get into cars that owners take advantage of them."
The manager/agent system is well entrenched in other major sports. But unlike baseball players, drivers aren't unionized, which limits their bargaining power. Also, car owners make most of their money not from ticket sales or TV rights-the MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL paradigm-but from sponsorship. So drivers who bring sponsors with them can often buy rides.
Managers and agents are relatively new to racing, and they're still thin on the ground. The closest the sport comes to a William Morris Agency is Motorsports Management Inter-national. MMI has eight managers-David Lewis among them-and more than a dozen drivers under contract. Its most prominent client is Tony Stewart, whose career has been shaped by MMI founder Cary Agajanian.
Agajanian's father, J.C., owned Indy 500 winners driven by Troy Ruttman in 1952 and Parnelli Jones in 1963. He also promoted races for decades at Ascot Park in Southern California. Cary grew up in the sport and never really left it. But along the way, he earned business and law degrees and then went into private practice. So when racers had legal questions, they naturally asked him for advice.
In 1991, he was contacted by a young midget tyro who'd torn it up at Ascot. A kid named Jeff Gordon. Yeah, that Jeff Gordon. Wonder Boy To Be wanted to go stock car racing. Car owner Bill Davis had offered him a Busch contract, and Gordon asked Agajanian to give it his seal of approval
Driver contracts can be exceedingly complicated. Besides base salary, prize money must be divvied up. (Typically, drivers keep 30 to 50 percent.) Contracts may specify how many appearances a driver has to make, who's responsible for which expenses, and how and when the arrangement can be terminated.
While car owners tend to be astute businessmen, most drivers are out of their depth in contract negotiations, fresh meat in shark-infested waters. That's not to say that a lot of owners aren't generous. But if they want to play hardball, you don't have to be Nostradamus to forecast the coming disaster.
When Agajanian saw the proffered Busch contract, he realized it would have given Davis a stranglehold over Gordon's career. Agajanian revised the language to give Gordon an out. And when Gordon turned out to be the Next Big Thing, he was free to negotiate-with Agajanian's help-a gobs-of-money deal with Rick Hendrick.
Four Winston Cup titles later, you'd have to say that this worked out pretty neatly for all interested parties. Well, except Bill Davis. And, paradoxically, Cary Agajanian. Because while Gordon and Hendrick got rich, all he got out of their deal was a few billable hours.
"I thought there had to be a better way than sending somebody a bill for a couple hundred dollars in return for a lifetime of experience, contacts, and relationships," he says. "There were a lot of marketing people out there looking for endorsements and sponsors. But there was no-body giving drivers advice about contracts and everything else that went into their careers."
It's taken a while for MMI to develop traction in the marketplace. A lot of drivers don't appreciate the benefits of a manager. Neither do a lot of car owners. Agajanian declines to name the biggest bullies, but suffice it to say that some car owners want to cram one-sided contracts down the throats of their drivers.
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"One of the problems with this industry is that there aren't enough guys like Cary and me," Lewis says with righteous indignation. "Most drivers are unrepresented. They need somebody to look out for their interests. We need some standards. We need to pay people properly. We need reasonable insurance. We need a minimum salary for rookies. How can two guys like Boesel and Guerrero not be wealthy after all they've been through?"
Lewis isn't faking his enthusiasm for racing. He raced a Formula Vee in college and dreamed of being the next Mario Andretti. But attending law school put him on a different track. "And the rest of the story is sad," he jokes. Make that half-jokes. Lewis was never satisfied with life as a litigator, and he always dabbled in other stuff-importing gray-market Bimmers, for example, and running a mail-order lacrosse business.
In 1999, through a mutual friend, Lewis hooked up with Hearn, who'd just lost his CART ride to a paying driver. "If I'd had somebody representing me, I never would have gotten in the trouble I did," Hearn says. "The problem is, I'm not comfortable promoting myself, and I don't like haggling. People would offer me something, and I'd get soft and say, 'Whatever.' With David, I just tell him, 'This is what I want. You take care of it, and tell me when it's done.'"
At Indianapolis, though, the prospects are so grim that Hearn and Lewis work as a tag team. On Pole Day, they forlornly watch qualifying on a TV monitor in Beck's garage. The good news, at least from their perspective, is that Luyendyk can't get Nunn's car up to speed. Wednesday morning, official word comes down: Luyendyk is out. Lewis and Hearn immediately have a motorhome confab with Nunn. Meanwhile, several friends call to put in a good word. Nunn's choice comes down to Hearn and Barron, who raced another Panoz G Force/Toyota at Motegi while subbing for the injured Gil de Ferran and who's already tested this year at the Speedway. Hearn and Lewis stand vigil for seven hours, taking turns going to the bathroom. Around six p.m., Lewis spots Barron slipping into the garage with his race seat. "That's it," Lewis tells Hearn. "They obviously chose Alex."
Hearn is bummed but not yet despairing, since he's tentatively been offered a seat in a third Panther car. Meanwhile, Lewis hears that Tony George has dispatched IRL emissaries to persuade top teams to add entries to create a full grid of thirty-three cars (but no more than thirty-three, so Sarah Fisher, the slowest first-day qualifier, isn't bumped from the field). Better still, Roger Penske is supposedly leasing a third car to Sam Schmidt.
Hearn drove for Schmidt last year, finishing sixth at Indy, and they would have run together in 2003 if they could have raised enough money. Sure enough, on Thursday, Schmidt tells Hearn about the ride, but he says the driver needs to bring some money, which, of course, Hearn doesn't have. But as a discouraged Hearn leaves the track for the night, a friend tells him he knows some local businessmen who might come in as sponsors. Friday morning, Hearn and Lewis meet with two guys from Contour Hardening, and the company executives tell them, "We'll bring a check tomorrow at nine in the morning." Better still, Lewis thinks he can sign on veteran Indy entrant Mike Curb, a longtime Agajanian associate, as another sponsor.
Cue Ethel Merman singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses!" After a few more scares, Schmidt signs Hearn to drive the ex-Marlboro Team Penske G Force, now entered by Contour Hardening/Curb Agajanian. This leaves Pan-ther short one driver. After several candidates are considered-including Guerrero-McGehee gets the nod. Lewis calls him at home in St. Louis: "Get on a plane, and be here in an hour and a half." Lewis doesn't leave Gasoline Alley until McGehee's seat is fitted at ten-thirty p.m.
Despite not having turned a lap until Bump Day, Hearn and McGehee both qualify easily. So does Kite, who gets the PDM ride after all. With Boat another last-day qualifier, Lewis has four of the final six drivers in the field. Thursday night, he happily attends the traditional Last Row Party. "I didn't expect to have four guys in the race," he says. "And Richie's in the best equipment that he's ever been in with the best chance to win the race."
Epilogue: Boat lost his engine after seven laps, Hearn hit the wall on lap 61, and McGehee retired after 125 laps with diabolical handling. But Kite, who picked up last-minute sponsorship from Denny Hecker's Auto Connection, finished thirteenth, third best of the Chevrolet contingent.

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