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Camilla's Lewis set for pro racing debut

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

HOPEFUL -- Like many other 2010 college graduates, Camilla's Joseph Lewis knows the job market is thin.

Which is why Saturday night -- when the 23-year-old Camilla resident and Hopeful, Ga., native makes his professional stock car racing debut -- is so darn important.

Now, and for the future.

"I've got a few butterflies," Lewis said Thursday. "There's always a lot riding on your first big race."

Especially this one.

You see, Lewis -- who will be donning a cap and gown from Georgia Southwestern State University very soon -- is filling in this weekend as the driver for national auto racing team Mark Gibson Racing, which needed someone to run its No. 59 Chevy Impala race car in the USAR ProCup Series in South Boston, Va.

And if this race goes well?

Well, let's just say it could be the first of many for Lewis, who currently works for the USDA in Tifton as he tries to figure out the next step in his life.

"We're just going to go out, try to keep our head straight and nose clean and run a good race," Lewis said. "When I leave Camilla (today), the goal will be to win the race, of course. But more than anything, we just hope for a strong showing and then just see where that leads us."

Mark Gibson, owner of Mark Gibson racing, is amped about Lewis' debut.

"I look forward to (him) running the 59 car," Gibson said of Lewis, who captured the Pure Stock points title at Albany Motor Speedway last season. "Joseph worked with us a few summers ago as a mechanic and tire specialist. He has an amazing aptitude for a race car."

Scott Thorpe, who owns Back Roads Motorsports in Camilla and is Lewis' hometown racing team, knows this is his star pupil's chance to stand out when it counts.

And he has no doubt Lewis will.

"Joseph's got racing in the seat of his pants," Thorpe said. "He's learned so much these last few years racing (on dirt tracks and asphalt) around the area. He's got what it takes. We think he'll do just fine."

The racing series, which is considered just one step below the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, is in the middle of its season, meaning Lewis' debut Saturday will count toward Gibson Racing's point standing.

Gibson, however, feels the No. 59 will be in good hands when the green flag drops Saturday at 8:30 p.m.

"Joseph and I both started out racing with our family members working on the cars," Gibson said. "We know small budgets and a lot of want to. Joseph has continued to race and improve his skills, and Mark Gibson Racing looks forward to having him in our car."

Lewis, who graduated from Westwood School in Camilla, began his racing career at Watermelon Speedway in Cordele in 2003, running the Mini Stock division before graduating to Pure Stock. And when he wasn't in school, he would spend most of his free time working on his own car with his friends and his father, Joe.

And it's around the shop during those late nights under the hood that Lewis and Co. talk about what he calls "the dream."

"Dad and I have been talking about moving up a division, or to a touring series," Lewis said. "I enjoy dirt racing with all of our friends down here, but my ultimate goal is to drive a truck in the Camping World Truck Series. The Pro Cup series runs on a lot of historic short tracks. It has hard racing like the Truck series, and I'm really looking forward to my first start at South Boston."

Lewis, however, is the first to admit he doesn't know what's next for his career beyond Saturday night. He's hoping for a good showing and maybe a few more races this year with Gibson.

After all, Lewis knows that with the right combination of Gibson's experience and the right sponsor, he would like to run the entire Pro Cup circuit -- which used to be known as the Hooters Series just a few years ago before its name was changed -- in 2011.

"I know that is a big goal for next year," Lewis said. "But there are some really great people that are down here working hard at putting together Pro cup cars and a team just for me (if it doesn't work out with Gibson). We hope we can attract a sponsor for next year and run all the races. Right now, I know we need to concentrate on this race and have a good run. I need the seat time and experience under my belt before looking at next year."

And Thorpe will be there right by Lewis' side either way.

The former NASCAR and ARCA crew member, who now works as a truck driver in Camilla, said Thursday that he hopes Back Roads Motorsports and Lewis can accomplish their quest to join the pro circuit by next year.

"Ideally, we would like to run (races in) Concord and Gresham this year," Thorpe said. "Joseph has natural talent and .... the Pro Cup series has a great schedule, only 16 races. More than half of them are less than six hours from here, an easy afternoon drive. The races are mostly on Saturday evening. The whole series is geared toward being affordable but highly competitive."

But first things first. Saturday night's race will be a measuring stick all the way around, Thorpe says, for where Lewis is at in

terms of preparedness to take that next step.

"Our goal for next year is to run the whole schedule with Joseph at the wheel," Thorpe said. "Of course, we have to find marketing partners and sponsors in order to do that."

Those concerns -- while very real, and important -- are secondary for Lewis at the moment. All he's thinking about right now is his chance to finally shine on the big track -- and under the bright lights -- with the big boys Saturday night.

The rest, he hopes, will take care of itself.

"The adrenaline will be kicking come Saturday," Lewis said. "Now all I have to do is go out and perform. And that's what I'm gonna do."

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Information provided in a press release from Back Roads Motorsports and Mark Gibson Racing contributed to this report.