One of the young rising stars to watch in this weekend’s Nissan Grand Prix of Texas, as well as the rest of the Pirelli World Challenge season, is 24-year-old Californian Michael Lewis of EFFORT Racing.
Lewis moves up from the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA, where he finished a very close third in the championship a year ago.
While Lewis might be somewhat of an unknown quantity and a first-year driver in PWC, he has worked several years to achieve the position he has now, taking over the No. 41 Porsche 911 GT3 R that Michael Mills took to the 2014 GTA title.
An open-wheel prospect who achieved success and race wins overseas in Formula 3 through 2013, Lewis had a sports car opportunity come up when he was one of four drivers invited to Porsche’s Young Driver Academy at the end of 2013.
That opened the door for a switch, one that Lewis seized following the two-day test at Barber Motorsports Park.
“Moving into sports cars was pretty seamless,” Lewis told Sportscar365. “It all came together through the Porsche Young Driver Academy, the precursor to the Young Driver Program we’re involved in now.
“After I had the opportunity to test in Barber and did well enough, we thought we should go to sports cars, because there was a scholarship provided to race in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge.”
Lewis entered with Competition Motorsports in the 2014 season and immediately inserted himself into title contention with a sweep of the weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May, his second weekend in the series.
He added two more wins at Road America and Circuit of the Americas, but was caught out in the season finale at Road Atlanta, spinning out on a wet track just past the start of the race.
While he lost the title, he gained a wealth of experience racing against Colin Thompson, Sloan Urry, Christina Nielsen and Angel Benitez Jr. for the title. Interestingly, all but Benitez have PWC programs lined up for this season.
“One thing I think helped me was in learning consistency,” Lewis explained. “We were always in the top five, so to get a big points gap was very hard. You always had to finish in the top three to get any kind of gap.”
Porsche took notice of Lewis’ rise and through Competition Motorsports and Bob Faieta, Lewis was nominated as a fill-in driver at GB Autosport to make his TUDOR Championship debut at the Virginia International Raceway round in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT America.
Lewis and co-driver Damien Faulkner finished 10th in the 17-car class. Lewis said his biggest learning curve there was pit stops, although with the sprint format of PWC, he hopes he won’t be interacting with his pit crew during the races.
As Lewis now steps into the GT3-spec Porsche 911 GT3 R for 2015, based on the 997 rather than the 991, he described some of the differences between two similar but still different Porsche chassis he raced a year ago.
“The biggest things from the GT3 R to Cup car R are we have ABS on our car, traction control, more aero, and more power,” Lewis said.
“The pedal feels physically different. You’re able to click through traction control like you are on a video game! There’s more raw speed to unleash here.”
Lewis won a shootout for EFFORT Racing’s second seat alongside Ryan Dalziel over the winter, and has prepared for the season in tests at Sebring and MSR Houston.
EFFORT Racing’s push to help young drivers, plus Porsche’s aforementioned own Young Driver Program, have helped Lewis step up along with his personal sponsors.
Lewis already said he was soaking up information from Dalziel like a sponge.
“He has incredible composure and is very calm under fire,” Lewis said. “He flies in late from Sebring last night, comes here and goes fast no problem.”
As one of the younger drivers in GTA, compared to a nonprofessional driver who only races part-time that make up the bulk of the 21-car class, Lewis has the potential to advance into GT with one overall podium finish or two overall top-fives.
“It’d be awesome to start off winning, but right now we just need to do our job and stay clean,” Lewis said. “This class has some really good drivers and it’s all a big unknown.
“But hopefully we stay in this area for years to come.”