Paul Lewis holds a trophy he received from Petty Enterprises as part of the team's 50th anniversary celebration. Ned JIlton II photo.
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JOHNSON CITY - For more than a decade, Jack Ingram held the record for the most NASCAR Busch series victories with 31, a distinction that often made Johnson City racer Paul Lewis scratch his head and wonder.
The predecessor to the Busch Series was the old NASCAR Late Model Sportsman series, and Lewis knows he won more than 31 races in that division. In fact, he probably won more than 31 races over a two-season span.
Unfortunately for Lewis, no one really kept track of the Late Model Sportsman records and statistics, and in 1982 when the Busch Series was created, the series started with a clean slate - statistically speaking.
In 1969 Bobby Allison was driving a Chevelle owned by J.D. Bracken in the Grand National series (now Nextel Cup) and won several races. As a result, he was hired to drive for the legendary Holman-Moody team. That gave Lewis an opportunity to jump into a winning car.
"After Bobby went to drive for Holman-Moody, I drove the car at the end of the season," Lewis said. "Donnie Allison was the crew chief, and the next year in 1970 we started running that car in the Late Model Sportsman series, and we won a bunch of races. I believe the first time we ran the car we won, and after that if we didn't win the race you could rest assured I wrecked or blew the engine.
"We ran that car in '70, '71 and late into '72, and there's no telling how many races we won. Probably more than 40 because I believe we won 22 or 23 in one year alone."
Lewis came within an eyelash of winning the 1972 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman championship but lost it to Jack Ingram when he suffered a blown motor in the last two races of the season.
During that era he also held the Late Model Sportsman qualifying record at Bristol Motor Speedway until Cale Yarborough broke it in 1977.
But that success in the old Late Model Sportsman series was actually phase two of Lewis' NASCAR driving career. Like most drivers of his era from the Tri-Cities region, Lewis got his start in the 1950s running the dirt short tracks in Johnson City, Kingsport, Rogersville and across the region.
In 1960 he got an opportunity to run his first NASCAR Cup race at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving a 1958 Chevrolet owned by Johnson City racer Jess Potter.
That car had originally been driven by Johnson city racer Brownie King and has been restored to a show car today.
Lewis admits that his debut on the Grand National circuit was less than impressive, and wasn't helped by the fact his team had only dirt racing tires to take to the four-tenths-of-a-mile asphalt oval.
"That race was a complete nightmare," Lewis said. "That car weighed 4,450 pounds, and we didn't know anything about setting up cars for asphalt. I think I spun out four or five times in a 200-lap race. We didn't have any money to buy asphalt tires, and the last couple of spins I just sat there laughing because I must of looked silly. Dirt tires were a lot harder, and they'd heat up, and after four or five laps around you'd go. But I still wound up 12th because a lot of cars fell out.
"I won a lot of non-sanctioned ‘outlaw' races in that car on dirt, but we were pretty much outclassed when we took it to a NASCAR race."
Lewis had a respectable rookie season in 1960, earning four top-10 finishes in Potter's car.
He built a new Chevy Impala for the 1961 season for the superspeedways and continued driving the '58 Chevrolet in outlaw events.
Lewis helped make a bit of NASCAR history at Bristol Motor Speedway, starting both Cup races in BMS's inaugural season in 1961.
He finished 11th in the first race, and then crashed out of the second race. But he believes that track might never have been built if he hadn't planted the idea in original owner Larry Carrier's mind.
"I did a lot of business with Larry's brother, Carmack, who ran a dealership, and got to be pretty friendly with Larry," Lewis said. "Larry was a race fan, we'd talk about racing, and I got to putting pressure on him to build a racetrack - a half-mile paved oval. I kept after him, and one day he said to me, ‘You think a racetrack like that would really work?' I said, ‘Absolutely. Look how NASCAR is growing.' From that point on, he got real aggressive about it.
"He started to build it out by the airport, but the county didn't want it. They thought we were a bad bunch of people, I guess. So he bought that property in Bristol and built it there."
After the 1961 season, Lewis raced only sporadically in the Cup series for the next three seasons.
He acquired his own '64 Ford for the 1965 season and ran 24 races out of his own pocket. The highlight of 1965 for Lewis was three top-five finishes and a pole at Harris (N.C.) Speedway.
He earned that pole in a car he'd purchased from another Johnson City racer, Herman Beam. Ford Motor Co. had originally given that '64 Ford to Beam so he could give his driver at the time, Cale Yarborough, more seat time.
For the 1966 season, Lewis bought a '65 Plymouth from Petty Enterprises, and that led to his greatest success in the Cup series.
During the best hot streak of his Cup career in 1966, he finished second at Bristol Motor Speedway, and then a few weeks later started a streak of four top-five finishes in a row, ending with a fourth place at Bristol and his lone Cup victory at Smokey Mountain Speedway in Maryville.
He ran 21 races in 1966, earning 14 top 10s, nine top fives and that one victory. His 1966 record was good enough to earn an offer to drive for Petty Enterprises in the second-to-last race of the 1966 season at Rockingham.
"Toward the end of '66 Richard Petty finished first and I finished second at Augusta, Georgia, and I guess they saw what I did with one of their old Plymouths and decided to give me a chance to drive a new one," Lewis said. "The Pettys are one of the finest families you'll ever know, and Lee Petty was a gentleman's gentleman."
Unfortunately the Petty opportunity was limited to one race and ended with a blown motor and a 29th-place finish.
As an "independent" driver, Lewis raced without assistance from the manufacturers. That put him at a disadvantage with teams that did have manufacturer assistance, and eventually lack of funding ended his Cup career in 1968.
"Of course, NASCAR wasn't as big back then, and there weren't nearly as many opportunities for big sponsorship money and top-notch rides," Lewis said. "If you wanted to keep going, you had to race out of your own pocket, and a lot of times I had one car and one motor, and if something happened you'd miss races until you got it fixed. Sometimes your pocketbook dictated how hard you pushed the car, but I was fortunate to have a few really good opportunities to drive good equipment.
"But I won a Cup race and a bunch of what you'd call Busch races today driving my own cars with very limited funding, and there's not many guys around who can say that."
Lewis has continued to mentor young drivers in the area since his retirement from driving in the late 1970s. He most current pupil, Alton Saterfield of Kingsport, has been a consistent winner and champion in the Street Stock division.
In 2005 Lewis was inducted in the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame at the museum in Mooresville.