Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi
Although his first car was a ’71 Ford Mustang, Michael Lewandowski bought his ’79 model new straight from the factory when he graduated high school that same year—and he’s still racing it today.
Growing up in Michigan, Lewandowski developed a sentimental side and a tendency to hold on to things. As the original owner of his ’79 Ford Mustang, he never wanted to give it up.
“I bought it off the showroom floor for $6,200 cash, which was a lot of money at the time, but I was fortunate to have had a good job before the recession,” noted the man of his youth. “I’ll probably be buried in it, too… it’s senseless to give it up, it’s part of the family now.”
Lewandowski admits his car was “ugly” when he bought it, as his heart had been set on a ’79 Indy Pace Car instead. Budget constraints meant he wound up with a “nasty, old white car with hub caps on it, no air conditioning, and roll-up windows” cheaper Mustang instead. Despite that, though, he was able to afford the V-8 engine and automatic transmission to at least make it fun where it mattered most.
“I’m the original Mustang Mike, they’ve been calling me that since I bought my ’71 Mustang in high school,” claimed the man, now 59, who street-raced in his youth and lived only five miles from Detroit Dragway, which closed in ’96.
Thanks to a blind date, Lewandowski met the love of his life and his wife of 30 years, Cathy, not long after. They had a son together, Austin, who now helps as Lewandowski’s crew chief, but it was Austin’s birth that helped spur the father into safer racing.
“My wife worked for the city court and told me she wasn’t going to answer to her judge for me getting speeding tickets,” laughed Lewandowski, who respected her wishes. He purchased a trailer and finished up an overhaul on the Mustang, which included a paint job of a beautiful blue hue, to keep Cathy happy. “I realized I was a family man now with a son and obligations, and I needed to keep my license to be able to get to work, so it was time to stop the kid stuff on the streets and go race somewhere more controlled.”
Lewandowski headed to Detroit Dragway and started racing legally as a self-proclaimed “bracket bomber.” Over the years, he added to his Mustang with upgrades here and there.
“The financial pain wasn’t as bad when it was a little at a time, since I couldn’t afford to build a whole new car, and I wanted to keep the original ’79,” he shared.
When he decided to step up to a more serious program, Lewandowski looked into heads up racing thanks to guidance from Kim Mapes of Watson Racing and started racing sporadically with the NSCA back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
“I didn’t know a thing about it, but Kim talked me into a nitrous setup and helped me build a motor,” noted Lewandowski, who raced with his friend for several years. Wanting to update the look of his ’79 Mustang for its new life, too, Lewandowski added bumpers from an ’89 model to enhance its visual appearance.
Eventually, Lewandowski started having trouble with his car and decided to upgrade it further, but didn’t feel safe enough.
“My son was 12 or 13 at the time, and we were traveling three states away. What if I got hurt,” mused the man who was concerned about his child and revamped the entire car as a result. “I built it myself in my one-car backyard garage at home with my son. Nothing really was ever sent out to a chassis shop.”
Piecing together a 25.5 SFI-certified roll cage in his spare time on the weekend, Lewandowski also purchased the equipment needed to manage the process including a tubing bender, a welder, and more.
“I believed in having my own tools to do what I wanted when I wanted, and to learn alongside my son as a family project,” shared Lewandowski.
Unfortunately, his son was diagnosed with cancer in ’08. That obviously put racing on hold for a few years. By 2012, though, Austin was doing better and had gotten old enough where Lewandowski could travel without as much worry.
In 2015, Lewandowski was ready to come back out with a vengeance, but didn’t know where or what to race. Randy Conway, seven-time NMRA champion, suggested that Lewandowski take a look at NMRA ARP Open Comp.
“I understood bracket racing, but index racing was new to me,” confessed the driver. The following year, Lewandowski made his debut in NMRA ARP Open Comp at the season opener in Bradenton, Florida. He finished out the 2016 season ranked 22nd in the massive class of 79 competitors, and improved significantly the following year with a 10th-place, championship-points finish in 2017. Incredibly, by 2018, Lewandowski was fifth overall in NMRA ARP Open Comp points for the season.
By 2018, though, Lewandowski gained enough experience that he desired to move to a quicker class. At the time, Lonnie Grimm suggested Limited Street, but Lewandowski figured his car didn’t fit, as his nitrous setup was a fogger-style system and the rules allowed for a plate only.
“Lonnie said ‘Well, you better keep a look out for them rules’ and hooked me since I had originally built the car for heads-up racing and that’s what I wanted to do,” recalled Lewandowski, who was able to compete in NMRA JDM Engineering Limited Street starting in 2019 thanks to a rule change in his favor.
Lewandowski wasn’t quite sure what to do over the winter, but freshened up his engine just to be safe. Originally built back in his NSCA days, the 352ci small-block Ford powerplant has seen its fair share of competition. The Ford Motorsports A4 block houses a cool custom component—a crankshaft from PCG Machine with Lewandoski’s own name etched in it.
“It’s an authorized Callies forging,” explained the owner.
A set of Trick Flow Specialties High-Port heads from the early ‘90s that have been worked over by the 16-time NASCAR champions at Richard Childress Racing sit atop the block.
“Thanks to Doug Hess of Hess Performance Machine for his excellent machine work, too,” added Lewandowski, who has also installed a set of Kooks long-tube headers and Vibrant mufflers on his ’79 Mustang.
His nitrous-oxide system, a custom concoction consisting of NOS nozzles and Induction Solutions solenoids and plumbing, is ramped in through an Edelbrock progressive controller intended to help control wheel speed.
The transmission Lewandowski chooses to run is a Powerglide by Joel’s on Joy with an aftermarket housing and cases for safety, and a Neal Chance torque converter. He specifically chose the Powerglide because he was having trouble leaving the line without spinning in his NSCA days, and the automatic gearbox was the best solution to overcome the problem.
“I know from my bracket roots that you have to make it to the finish line to win, and you can’t do that without leaving the starting line,” he noted. “So, I needed to leave the wheelstands behind and focus on getting down the track every time because it’s not always the fastest car that wins.”
Lewandowski’s Mustang sits on QA1 coilover shocks, while a Ford 9-inch rearend with Team Z Motorsports housing and Strange Engineering center section with matching axles help power go directly to the pavement. Similarly, Team Z upper and lower control arms with an AJE crossmember and A-Arms round out the simple-yet-effective suspension system.
A set of beautiful Bogart Racing wheels can be found on the car and are wrapped in true Mickey Thompson S/S Drag Radial rubber.
“I don’t run the Pro Drag Radials like everyone else because these enable me to take a weight break and they just plain work,” clarified Lewandowski of his somewhat unconventional tire choice.
Finally, as safety is a top concern for the seasoned wheel man, Lewandowski has installed a set of Kirkey racing seats with RJS Racing Equipment belts and window net.
“I really like RJS because they’re a Michigan-based company and we like to support local businesses,” shared the man.
Lewandowski wound up sitting out the first 2019 race at Bradenton, as it’s a long haul from his home in Michigan, but kept an eye on the Limited Street class and realized that he would be able to compete.
“So, we started that year with the NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals in Atlanta,” said the man who had a surprisingly stellar season. “Everyone was really friendly, but I was in the jaws of the shark even though I was just out there to have fun.”
Thanks to runner-up finishes at both the Inaugural NMRA Gateway Rumble presented by HPJ Performance in St. Louis and the 19th Annual NMRA Ford Motorsport Nationals in Pennsylvania, Lewandowski wrapped up his rookie year ranked fourth in points in the Limited Street championship battle.
In Pennsylvania, Lewandowski hurt his engine but wasn’t able to diagnose what he believed at the time to be an electrical issue. Unfortunately, the problem continued to plague him in 2020 when he returned to NMRA JDM Engineering Limited Street for his second season.
Lewandowski opted to sit out the Florida season opener yet again, but raced in June in Atlanta, Georgia, at the 12th Annual Scoggin Dickey Parts Center NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals. There, he qualified third with an 8.77 at 153.89mph blast and took a first-round win over William Lujan before going out to Chad Wendel in round two.
“I fought the car all weekend, but wound up starting a friendly rivalry with Samantha Moore in the staging lanes that pushed us both to do better, so that was good,” said the man of the silver lining he found.
At the 15th Annual NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street Legal Drag Racing at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois, Lewandowski qualified seventh for NMRA JDM Engineering Limited Street when he ran 8.919 at 153.53 mph. A broke bye put him through to the second round of eliminations, but he wasn’t able to get the win there.
Given that the race took place during the pandemic, his son wasn’t able to attend due to being immunocompromised from his bout with cancer.
“I was alone, so Samantha [Moore] and Dan Sienkiewicz from Vector Motorsports helped me out,” said Lewandowski gratefully. His new friends were able to sort out the old issue from 2019, which turned out to be related to his carburetor.
The next Monday morning, Lewandowski made the switch to a new Gary William Carburetors unit.
“The car immediately picked up three tenths and gave me what I needed to fight the fuel-injected blower cars” professed the man who has called his Mustang “The Executioner” for the past two decades because of his ability to take out the more technologically advanced competitors with his old-school setup. “I cut off their heads, and I’ve been saying it long before those Memphis Street Outlaw people!”
At the next race in Martin, Michigan, the 19th Annual Arrington Performance NMRA/NMCA All-American Nationals at US 131 Motorsports Park, Lewandowski was back on track. His 8.627 at 155.28mph qualifying hit put him fourth in the class, but a burned up piston meant he wasn’t able to race in eliminations. “Dan [Sienkiewicz] offered to help and we had the motor torn down ready to go to the machine shop, but the head was damaged beyond a simple repair and I wanted to do it right,” noted Lewandowski.
His engine was put back together in time for the 22nd Annual NMRA All-Ford World Finals season finale, and some dyno time at Vector Motorsports made sure it was ready to rock.
“That’s where our friendship really took off,” said Lewandowski. “Without their help, I would have been unsure going into the race. We were able to work out some problems on the dyno and Dan was so helpful. I listen to their advice and follow their wisdom!”
Finally, at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Kentucky, Lewandowski ran a new personal best of 8.552 at 159.99 mph during NMRA JDM Engineering Limited Street qualifying, which set him fifth in the field. He advanced over Jeffrey Bardekoff in round one with an 8.557 at 158.93mph hit, but his friend Samantha Moore took him down in round two.
Despite a season of ups and downs, Lewandowski was eighth overall in the final standings—a position he could be proud of.
“Being the only nitrous/carbureted car in a sea of fuel-injected, boosted cars is a big deal,” added the man who has a blast racing alongside his friends from all of the NMRA classes. “The NMRA does so much by giving us great tracks to race at, a livestream where my friends can watch, and a series where my family can participate, and I’m thankful for that.”
Racing with his son, too, has been a lifelong dream for Lewandowski and he enjoys the time the two are able to spend together at the track—especially when they can stand in the winner’s circle together. When Austin can’t come along, Lewandowski is quick to call as soon as each run is over to get his guidance and advice. “I even bought him a ’71 Mustang like my old one when he was 14, too,” reminisced the proud parent.
For this season, Lewandowski plans to attend each of the six scheduled NMRA events and support his friends at Vector Motorsports as much as possible. He’s also chosen to work on securing some sponsorship for the season, as he has always financed his racing operation out of his own pocket.
“Obviously my goal is to finish number one,” claimed the man of his championship dreams, “but ultimately my goal is to just go racing and have fun with a positive attitude.”
Owner: Michael Lewandowski
Driver: Michael Lewandowski
Hometown: Southgate Michigan
Occupation: Shop Manager for PAM Transport
Class: Limited Street
Crew: Cathy and Austin Lewandowski. Kurt Miller
Car Year/Make/Model: 1979 Ford Mustang
Engine: 8.2-inch-deck small-block Ford
Engine builder: Owner
Displacement: 352 cubic inches
Block: Ford Perfomance A4
Bore: 4.060 inches
Stroke: 3.4 inches
Crank: PCG Machine
Heads: Trick Flow Specialties
Cam type: Solid-roller
Carburetor or EFI system: Gary William Carburetors
Power-adder: Nitrous Oxide
Fuel brand and type: VP C-16
Headers and exhaust: Kooks long-tube headers with Vibrant mufflers
Transmission Builder: Joel’s On Joy
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Neal Chance Convertors
Rearend: Team Z 9-inch housing with Strange Center Section and axles
Body and/or chassis builder: Owner
Suspension (Front): AJE Crossmember and A-Arms
Suspension (Rear): Team Z with QA1 shocks
Brakes (Front): Aerospace
Brakes (Rear): Wilwood
Wheels (front): Bogart Racing
Wheels (Rear): Bogart Racing
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson S/S Drag Radial
Aftermarket body modifications: 1989 Bumpers and Ground effects
Safety equipment: RJS belts and Net
Vehicle weight: 3,200 pounds
Quickest ET: 8.55 seconds
Best 60-foot: 1.27 seconds
Fastest mph: 160
None and this time. Looking for some for 2021 year