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.