Matt Levin has done a lot with a little in his racing career.
The Tuscon, Arizona, native didn’t come from a racing background. Growing up working in construction for his father, the now 43-year-old was interested in the sport from an early age. He regularly attended his home track, Tucson Speedway (formerly known as Tucson Raceway Park) and told himself he would get behind the wheel, one way or another.
"I loved watching racing," Levin said. "I’d go by myself if I had to, sit in the stands and watch. Back then it was in its hayday. Brian France was down here, they had Winter Heat series, trucks, all that stuff."
"I just got excited watching it. I never really had a background in racing. I just told myself I’m going to do this. So I went out and bought a street stock, but I didn’t have any background on how the cars are set up, tire pressures, you name it. It looked like you just hop in the car and go."
In 1999, Levin’s dreams started to become a reality. After purchasing his initial street stock, he became known in the area as the shop rat, going from shop to shop to learn from fabricators, engine builders, machinists and more.
"I learned so much and then won some races in the street stocks, limited late models, super late models, we had a lot of success," Levin said. "We won a track championship in the mid 2000s. Did all my own fabricating, I painted all my own cars, you name it I did it. Being mechanically inclined, I enjoyed racing, competing and working on cars."
Despite not having family or friends to lean on as he attempted to make it in racing, Levin said the people around the sport were willing to point him in the right direction and lend a helping hand without hesitation.
"There’s a lot of good people," Levin said of the racing community. "That’s where I met (crew chief) Ron Norman. We’d socialize and talk. I was more of a fabricator, and then Ron and I met and started working together in 2003. I would do all the fabrication and he’d focus on setup. It wasn’t that difficult, whether it be construction, railroad or racing, I was like ‘Hey you know what? We’re going to learn,’ and we had fast success."
Norman and Levin’s friendship has now evolved to a new level: business partners.
Aside from his crew chiefing duties on Levin’s No. 10, Norman drives their hauler to the race track "70-80 percent of the time," and is one of the few full-time employees on the team.
"He’s like a family member to me," Levin said of Norman. "We probably argue like family members every once in awhile, but he also cares deeply for me and me for him. Ron’s full time job was running a printing press, and he kind of retired from that full time three years ago. Ever since then, he’s raced side-by-side with me the last two years and this last year he decided to kind of hang up the suit and really pursue the crew chief side of it."
"We’re just trying to understand K&N racing, it’s obviously a whole different beast than SLM racing. Luckily there’s great people in the West Series like Jerry Pitts, Bob Bruncati and Bill McAnally, they’re very willing to steer us down the right road."
Levin has never won a race or scored a top five finish in his 47-race K&N Pro Series career. Competing against the plethora of talent that comes through Bill McAnally Racing and Bob Bruncati’s stables year after year, it’s not easy to run up front and compete for wins week and week out.
That’s what makes the "average" days for some an incredible day for guys like Levin.
"It feels good when I’m running up there passing those cars knowing the resources they have," Levin said. "When we were up in Oregon, we passed Ryan Partridge and Derek Thorn. Those are talented drivers with great crew chiefs and that’s what they do all the time, is focus on racing. They have pull down rigs and we do it the old way with ramps and other systems. It’s satisfying, but challenging because you’re going up against the best equipment, the best drivers."
Some of those drivers are so young, his five children are older then them. The advancement of technology with iRacing, simulators and driver coaches, Levin says, has put older drivers like him at a bit of a disadvantage.
"The race teams do a great job of helping (the young drivers) mature and how to behave," Levin said. "It’s challenging for me because I have a family life, a work life, and I don’t focus on racing 24/7. Our biggest challenge is just going to new tracks. It takes me half the practice to find the line where these kids have had a good 40 hours on a simulator. We’re at a deficit, but I always welcome the challenge."
A lot of the time in NASCAR, the superstars in the Cup Series grab most headlines. But drivers that spend most, if not all of their careers in a lower series tend to develop niche followings. Levin realizes that he’ll probably never be a Cup champion, and wants to pay it forward to the racers who aren’t as financially well off but still deserve as good of a shot as the next driver.
"There’s a lot of talent at these local tracks that we go to," Levin said. "There’s the cost of racing for a big team like BMR and it’s out of the budget of some of these guys that don’t have that opportunity. My end goal is to have a race team that might not be the caliber of a BMR or Bruncati and not require that kind of money, but be able to offer good quality equipment, top five, top 10 running equipment, that people will want to try to get into this sport. That’s why I took Ron out of the drivers seat to become a more of a crew chief and management role to go out there. Just giving these guys more opportunities at a more affordable price to go race."
This weekend, Levin will be following from afar, as NASCAR NEXT driver Will Rodgers will pilot the No. 10 at Gateway Motorsports Park on Friday for the Monaco Cocktails Gateway Classic presented by West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame.
"What it boils down to is that I have a lot of work at home here. It’s challenging, you know, the grind. Every other weekend we’re racing. When I got back from Evergreen Speedway, I talked to Will and his dad, I have a really close relationship with Will, and we worked out a deal where he would drive my car for our owners points. I’m going to be in Tucson wishing Will all the best. I’ll be sitting this one on the sideline which is tough for me, but I’ve gotta be smart about what pays the bills."
Paying the bills in his non-racing life helps his peace of mind when he gets to the racetrack. And despite knowing a win is pretty much out of the question, the grind is what keeps him going.
"Over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of improvement," Levin said of his team’s progress. "A lot of top 10 finishes, and a sixth-place still means we passed a BMR or Sunrise car. Our goal is to keep learning it and see progress, which we are, but its challenging, no doubt about it … Ron and I always say ‘if it was easy everybody would be doing it.’ We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished."