Ron Norman’s days as a driver are in the rearview mirror. But for him, what’s out the windshield is far greater than anything he ever imagined.
For the past couple years, Norman has been working hand in hand with Matt Levin at Levin Racing in efforts of bolstering their smaller team to eventually run up front. It hit a point in 2017 where Norman thought about stepping aside from driving and heading atop the pit box.
"What it boils down to is when we got halfway through 2017, I was having to drive my own car, get out of my car, help the guys on the team on Matt’s car," he said. "I just told them one day, ‘you know, it’d make a lot more sense if we created a business model for Levin Racing.’ We brought in an outside driver. Matt kept himself as a driver because he’s the owner. And I learned to do the crew chief side of it. I thought I’d really enjoy it as much as I love racing. I love driving, I like learning how to make these cars go fast."
"I’m really happy with the way things are going," he said. "Everybody asks me how sad I am, but I’m not. I’m really happy to do this. Just another transition in my life."
It hasn’t come easy, though. Norman scored four top 10s in the last two seasons behind the wheel and Levin scored eight in 2018. Turning an entire organization around from top to bottom takes time.
"We’re getting better," he said. "We’ve had a lot of really good runs and a lot of success since I got out of the car by applying what I learned from Jefferson Pitts, Jeff (Jefferson), Jerry (Pitts), Roger Bracken and all the guys up there. A lot of experienced guys I’ve gotten to work with over the past few years. Now we’ve built this thing into a program… it’s really panning out pretty well for me."
Norman didn’t think being a crew chief was going to be the profession for him at first. He got started late as a driver and began winning super late model championships at age 30. Although that was (and still is) a great passion of his, the timing simply was never going to work out.
Racing-Reference: Ron Norman Career Statistics
"It’s difficult to think about moving up to the Xfinity or Cup Series at that age," he said. "I was 40-years-old before I got really good at it. We’ve continued to race, but I didn’t start racing until I was 24, 25-years-old. Most of these kids now that are racing, coming up through K&N at age 16 and 17, moving up pretty early. (Driving) was not even on my radar when I got into K&N, but it’s a really good landing spot. It’s some really good experience and kind of a dream come true for me to get up there and run in the higher echelon of the touring series."
With the addition of two-time winner Kody Vanderwal to the stable for this season, the expectations for the team have changed. Last season, top fives were great runs. This season, wins aren’t out of the question.
"For me, success as a team to get some wins, any number," Norman said. "I don’t care which number it is. I don’t care which team, we’re all doing work at the shop together, we’re all doing it at the track together. Even though there’s people assigned to each car number, it doesn’t really matter. Well lean one each other all day long."
Norman says Sheldon Creed’s win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track last year, the organization’s first victory, did a lot for morale within the team. Aside from the two cars they’ll bring to the track every week, they now are planning on bringing a third car to the track "most" weekends and have began getting inquiries for a fourth car at some venues.
"Sheldon Creed last year, that was a team win for us," he said. "Kind of put us on the map as a contender. We haven’t spared any expense over the winter, got a couple new cars. All brand new motors, drivetrain and we’ve worked really hard to get aligned to where we can handle the extra guys that are coming in."
Change didn’t happen overnight. Norman recalled entering the business with John Wood two years ago, being blown away with the respect he was treated with from officials, competitors and the like. He enjoyed himself, was getting help from everybody and wanted to continue on.
"I got to go to college with Jerry Pitts and Jeff Jefferson for almost a whole year in 2017," he said. "I call it that because I spent and rented an apartment and lied up there basically working at their shop. For me it was a big eye opener. We came back and I said ‘I can apply everything I learned and stay home this year.’ In 2018, we did everything from home. We looked at it this year and said we want to turn it into a sustainable, close to a break even type of business."
Before, Levin Racing was made up of all volunteers who worked their full-time day jobs and came to the shop at night. Now, the team is able to pay their employees for the first time in their existence.
They recently tested at Tucson Speedway with a driver who they’re planning on bringing to Irwindale Speedway and beyond: Northwest SLM driver Austin Tom (along with Vanderwal). Tom susprised Levin with how quickly he got up to speed at the test, giving him confidence in the team as a whole heading into the second race of the season.
"I think were in shape to run in the top three or better," he said. "We were in the top three in practice and the race in Las Vegas and I think we’re going to come out pretty strong at Irwindale. There’s guys that the racetrack is in their backyard. They’re going to be strong there, too. Of course the regulars that are always tong everywhere. But we’ve got a good chance to come out here and surprise some people."
The Irwindale 150 will take place on Saturday, March 30 at 7 p.m. (approx.) with the race being streamed live on FansChoice.TV. This will mark the first time the series visits the Southern California half-mile since 2017.