The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 4, 2007

Former drag racer reflects on his life in the fast lane

By Randall Jett

“If you can’t stand getting beat on the race track, you better not go out there,” Herman Lewis said with a grin. “You’re going to lose more than you win, but if you’ve got everything together, you’re going to win a lot. I did. I won a helluva lot.”

Fact is, Lewis did win a lot in his drag racing career. Enough that he will be the first-ever West Virginian inducted into the East Coast Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Henderson, N.C., in October.

Lewis had more than 200 wins and set 20 world records during his career, which began in 1958.

Lewis, though, is humble about his achievements.

“I don’t care nothing about all the highlights and stuff,” he said. “I just like to stay in the background and do my thing — build parts for AMCs, go out there and set records and make them run faster than anybody else. That’s what my cup of tea is.”

The cool thing about his career, most of his wins and 19 of his records came in an AMC Rambler against Hemi-powered Dodges and souped-up Chevrolets and Fords.

Lewis fell in love with the body style of the AMC car the first time he saw one.

“I saw the AMX and I really liked the body of it,” Lewis said. “I got me one of those and I raced it. I set 19 world records and won over 200 races. I had 10 match races and won all 10 of them and won five national events, so I did real good with the car.”

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Lewis has been dubbed “The Godfather of AMC” by his peers in the racing community and the title fits. He has set records in IHRA, AHRA and SCRA competition, in two-barrel carburetor, four-barrel carburetor and the two four-barrel carburetor divisions, and at 1/8-mile and 1/4-mile distances.

Lewis started his drag racing career, though, in a ’62 409 Chevrolet, racing at the local level around Beckley.

“I raced locally for a while with a 409 Chevrolet,” he said. “When I got the AMC, man, I raced it north, south, east and west and won 90 percent of the time.”

At 69 years old, you might expect Lewis to be slowing down a little bit. You would be wrong.

“It’s been a lot of fun to do this,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world. I’ve always worked — I don’t mind working a bit. If you do, then you don’t want to get into this.”

Lewis still builds motors in his shop behind his house in Prosperity.

“I’ve always built my own motors and owned my own race cars,” he said. “I drove them all, too.

“I had a buddy (Barry Allen) one time that helped me work on it. I let him drive it some of the time, but I owned the car. He was up here the other day and told me that he was telling somebody, ‘I raced for Herman for two years and we won enough money for me to build my race car.’ I said, ‘I spent all of my money!’”

He and Allen teamed together for a couple of seasons to race the car in both the A-Modified and Super Stock.

“It used to be that you could take a car and run two classes with it,” Lewis said. “If the car was legal for Super Stock, then it meant it was legal for Modified because that was a faster class. If you wanted to move up and try it, you could.

“We would run Super Stock and I would drive in that and run Modified, and maybe (Allen) would drive in that or vise versa. We’d win them both.”

Lewis competed mainly in Super Stock A and Super Stock B classes during his racing career.

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Lewis was born Sept. 11, 1937, in Irwin, Tenn. He got interested in fast cars at a young age running the back roads and ridges.

“Times were a little bit hard back then,” he said. “A lot of people made moonshine and hauled it. That’s how I got into fast cars. I kinda liked the cars.”

That love of fast cars led Lewis straight into drag racing.

“We started off hauling moonshine down there,” he said. “You went pretty fast to keep out of the way of the law. I did that for a while. Then I started racing on the highways. I raced big-time on the highway and then I moved into an all-out race car. I just really loved it. Boy, it’s a lot of work and a lot of money goes into it, but if you love it enough, you’ll find a way to do it somehow.”

Lewis moved to West Virginia in the mid-’50s and went to work in the coal industry.

“I came to West Virginia in 1956 and went to work for the coalfields on top of the ground, never underground, but I ran heavy equipment,” he said. “I worked 39 years for Ranger Fuel and Bolt Mining in the Bolt area and retired six to seven years ago.”

Lewis also started working on high performance engines at Beckley Performance Center in 1972. He opened the machine shop behind his house in Prosperity a couple of years later and things grew from there.

“I was building race car engines and stuff,” Lewis said. “I was doing this while I was working for Ranger Fuel anyway. I just moved out here full-time once I retired.”

Today, Lewis supplies AMC engines, intakes and cylinder heads, not just around the United States but the world as well.

“We’ve built engines for people that we’ve sent overseas,” he said. “We’ve built street motors for people that put out over 650 horsepower for streets. We’ve sent them to Florida.

“You’ve heard of ‘Pinks’ that they have on television. There was a guy in an AMC that raced in that about a month and a half or two months ago. He won the first round, got a $1,000 and was going for $10,000. The next round, he broke a rod. He brought the car up here and we built him a motor for it and then he left here going on up to Maine where he was originally from. We’ve sent them all over the United States, the heads, intakes and motors.”

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Lewis has also designed new cylinder heads for the AMC motor and recently added a new intake design to supply more air to the motor.

“We just got a new intake made and got the pattern made off of it,” Lewis said. “I dropped it off at the foundry to get some intakes ported for it. It should go over 900 horsepower with no trouble with that intake on a 420-cubic inch motor.”

What makes it different from the old style of intake?

“The runners are separated,” Lewis said. “That’s just the way to go. You get a lot more air flow. An engine isn’t nothing more than an air pump. The more air you can pump in and pump out, the horsepower will just keep climbing. You can take some little four-cylinder that puts out 100 horsepower and do one thing to it — put a supercharger on it and it will put out 200 horsepower.”

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Lewis related that his biggest win came at the World Nationals in either 1984 or ’85.

“It would be the World Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio,” he said. “That one was probably the most special because it was the biggest race. I punched them all out. One AMC there and all the rest Chevrolets, Fords and Mopars. I came out on top. Then I had to pull it over there and tear it down and prove to them that it was legal.”

Lewis has held onto his AMX over the years despite attempts by others to buy the car and attempts by racing museums to get him to donate the car.

“They wanted to put it in a muscle car museum down at Dollywood,” he said. “I told them I would let them have it at the end of the season. Then I decided to race another year and then another year. I think they finally gave up.”

Lewis also raced at drag racing events with Richard Petty when NASCAR banned Dodge’s Hemi motor in 1965-66 from competition.

“I never did see him win a race, but still, he liked to race,” Lewis said. “A lot of people didn’t know that. He had a Barracuda and it said, ‘43 Junior — The Outlaws.’ That was what was on the side of it.”

— E-mail: rjett@register-herald.com