Kulwicki parallels inspire Levon Van Der Geest’s emerging career
Levon Van Der Geest has been around racing his whole life. In fact, he jokes his birth had a direct impact on a track championship in Wisconsin.
“My dad was racing a long time before I was born – and actually that’s a joke: I stopped him from winning his first championship at Marshfield because I was born the night of the opening race. And that was his best year there so I think he would’ve gotten the championship if I wasn’t born that day,” Van Der Geest quipped.
At a young age, the Wisconsinite took his first steps inside of a race shop. Then, at eight-and-a-half years old, he started racing Bandoleros prepared in that same shop.
The first two years weren’t easy for Van Der Geest. He and his team struggled with limited knowledge on smaller cars, which cast doubt on his career right away.
“I actually got discouraged. At one point, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough to, be a racecar driver. Like, I don’t know if I can do this,” Van Der Geest recalled.
Then, in year three, they brought in Dan Marquardt. Affectionately known by Van Der Geest as “Uncle Dan,” Marquardt helped their program and Van Der Geest’s career.
“He started coaching me and me and him worked together to get the Bandolero really fast. Then, in my the third year, I got my first win – and that was a really big deal for me,” Van Der Geest recalls.
“That’s when I realized, I could do it.”
In year four, Van Der Geest picked up six wins and the championship at State Park Speedway in Wausau, Wis.
“I had a lot of fun and that’s what really hooked me on racing was that season. Then, I moved up to trucks and that’s when I got addicted to it,” he said.
Van Der Geest finished fifth in the 2018 Midwest Truck Series points. Then, in the 2019 season opener at Madison, a wreck forced him and his team to work hard on putting in a new rear stub – but it paid off.
“We went straight from that to the Milwaukee Mile and I won that one. That was like the biggest win in my life,” he said. “Then from there we thought, ‘okay, we might have just got lucky at Milwaukee’ since we did a lot of prep with the truck before that race.”
“Then, we went to Marshfield and won that one too.”
Three weeks after that, at Madison, Van Der Geest earned the first of three wins in a row.
That streak put him at five wins (a single-season record) in eight races and catapulted him to the 2019 championship.
That year, his dad also won his first big championship. 15 years after their birthday blitz, they celebrated together to cap off Levon’s breakout year.
“That was kind of when I really realized that could be good at racing,” Van Der Geest recalled.
In 2019 and 2020, he set track records at State Park Speedway, La Crosse Speedway, Golden Sands Speedway, Hawkeye Downs, Marshfield and Wisconsin International Raceway.
Despite narrowly missing out on successfully defending his title in 2020, super late models came calling – and so did college.
Van Der Geest goes to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is where KDDP namesake Alan Kulwicki graduated in 1977.
Like Kulwicki, Van Der Geest is an engineering student.
“[Racing] was one of the big reasons that I wanted to go for engineering. It stemmed from trying to understand all that goes into a race car and the front and rear end geometry. We’ve raced cars that have been developing for, over 50-60 years now and longer than that – and people still are making new discoveries every year. So, I wanted to go for engineering to have an edge and understanding that. It’s been a lot of help being able to understand the car more,” Van Der Geest explained.
Kulwicki’s 1992 NASCAR Cup Series championship and 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction are often attributed to his engineering expertise and Wisconsin roots.
And that’s not lost on Van Der Geest, especially as a KDDP finalist.
“I think it’s really cool to represent Alan Kulwicki. Being able to grow up racing on a lot of the tracks that he raced on when he was coming up through racing, it’s a cool opportunity. I’ve been learning a lot more about Alan that I never knew. I’m starting to see more similarities between me and him. We both went to UW Milwaukee for engineering and then we both are racing weekly at Slinger. It’s cool to see that I’m following in the footsteps,” Van Der Geest said, noting the parallels are an inspiration to him.
Last year, Van Der Geest qualified for the Slinger Nationals. Although his engine blew on lap 40 of 200, he made a big statement by qualifying for the feature.
Earlier this month, he was fastest in practice for the Joe Shear Classic at Madison Intl. Speedway against heavyweights such as Ty Majeski and Bubba Pollard. Then, he went toe-to-toe with them in the race and finished fifth.
As Van Der Geest knows, the goal for any up-and-coming driver is to make it to NASCAR. While tough, but the first steps toward that include winning KDDP’s Kulwicki Cup and the ASA Midwest Tour championship.
“If we can manage to do that this year, then next year, I’d like to go for the ASA Stars Tour championship, to give that a shot and start branching out to more tracks. Not just in Wisconsin, because so far we’ve been mainly just Midwest. I haven’t been down in Florida, North Carolina or anything like that, so if we could branch out and start doing some of those next year, that would be really cool,” Van Der Geest said.
If you’d like to follow Levon Van Der Geest’s racing endeavors, click here to visit his Facebook page.
The battle for the Kulwicki Cup among the seven Kulwicki Driver Development Program drivers will be heating up this summer. The contest goes through November 14 and the winner will receive $54,439 toward their racing career. We will feature their stories here on The Racing Experts, beginning with Levon Van Der Geest.
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