From 0 to 130 mph: A Mount Vernon native breaks out of the pack ...
... and his family isn't too far behind.
Levi Kissinger began driving long before he got his learner's permit. At 14, Levi reached 100 miles per hour. At 15, he won his first race. And at 16, with far more driving experience than the average teen, he got his driver's license.
Now 23, Levi, a native of Mount Vernon, Ind., has a racing career that spans nine years and about 250 races. Although much has changed during his career (he's now reached 130 mph and switched from a pro-modified car to an open-wheel modified car) one constant remains: his family.
Mom Wendy, dad Danny and sister Kelsey, 20, make up his pit crew, which means they never miss a race. Levi's pit crew looks different from those of most drivers who have their friends help out. Plus it is rare to see females in the pit crew. "He gets a lot of crap for having girls help him with his car," Kelsey says.
As his pit crew, his family takes care of the car before and after the race. They change or put air into tires, check the oil, adjust bars such as the rear extension and put fuel into the car. Although they all contribute, Kelsey has gotten very good at working on the body of the car while Danny helps Levi make changes to the car during the week and Wendy fills in all the spaces in between. "I can change gears, she says." I can do what I have to." It's a time consuming responsibility, but one the Kissingers wouldn't give up easily.
Levi is not the first in his family to race. His father, Danny Kissinger, and his great uncle Clarence Kissinger raced before him. Danny started as a member of Clarence's pit crew and then began to race himself. So it was no surprise when Danny put Levi, at age 14, in his late-model racing car, Levi took to it very quickly. "Once you get the bug, you can't get rid of it," Danny says.
Most of the guys Levi races against are much older than him and have been racing for 30 to 40 years. Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt is Levi's favorite track because of its prestige and history. The track has been around for 50 years, and many NASCAR drivers got their start there: Jeff Gordon used to race every week at Tri-State in the '80s.
No matter the track, the race format for each night rarely changes. The riders are given a hot lap session (three laps long) in order for them to get a feel for the track and adjust their car to the track's conditions. The riders then run a heat race (usually around 10 laps) to determine how the riders will line up for the feature race. Starting in a bad position could cost you the race. Although the format stays the same, each track varies slightly. The tracks Levi normally races on are anywhere from one fourth to half a mile and they are normally oval or D-shaped.
On a cold Novemeber evening Levi's car pulls up to the starting gate at Tri-State for the last race of the season. He won the heat race so now he will start the feature race in first position. The bleachers are filled, and there are even people standing around the edges of the track-not an unusual sight at Tri State. The drivers, with Levi leading the way, slowly pull onto the track to take their places behind the starting line. Levi wants to end the season at Tri-State on a good note. The flag official thrusts her arm in the air, down comes a green flag and they're off.
As he's gotten older Levi's equipment and racing record have improved. He was 35th in the nation last year in his racing class. Levi also qualified for every feature race he entered into this year. Levi is currently on his fourth car. He says he likes to change his car every other year because technology is constantly being updated. However, he has to change sooner if he wrecks the car bad enough that it can no longer be fixed. He has put $35,000 into his current car: an open wheel modified car. The motor alone cost him $20,000. Levi says the cost of a car all depends on how fast you want to go. Although Levi has spent a lot, he says his car isn't close to Indy500 cars, which are about 10 million.
Levi has a good-paying shift job earning ($30/hour) at the Countrymark Oil Refinery in Mount Vernon. He studied mechanical engineering but left after two years because he didn't have enough time to do everything. He says he hopes to finish his degree some day.
Add to the cost of the car the work that needs to be completed on it each week during race season, from February to November. Levi spends between $300 and $400 a week on upkeep and to prepare the car for the next weekend.
Levi doesn't practice during the week during race season. The week is about the preparations for the car. Levi and Danny spend between 30 and 40 hours a week working on the car. Set-up changes and adjustments made before and after races, make a big difference, and even the smallest alteration can have a huge effect.
In today's race Levi's work is paying off. He remains in first place after several laps. Although Levi's face and body are invisible to those outside the car it is clear he knows what he is doing. He glides smoothly around the track. When he reaches a corner he presses his feet on both the gas and the break to better control the car. He weaves back and forth between the interior and exterior of the track with ease. The audience has a similar to view to Levi: dirt everywhere. Wendy says that after races when she runs her fingers through her hair she sees dirt underneath her fingernails.
On a Sunday evening a few weeks later, the Kissingers gather around the television to watch videos of Levi's most recent races: nationals at Eldora Speedway in New Weston, OH and his last race at Tri-State in Haubstadt. Grandpa Gary Robinson missed these two races so he came over to watch. As the family follows Levi's silver open-wheel modified car with a bright green number eight on the side round each turn, Levi's sister Kelsey, 20, sits with remote in hand next to the TV announcing the race. Father Danny points to a miniature version of himself standing just outside the track. Although Levi is alone in the car, he wouldn't be able to race without his family.
But there is one family member who is prohibited from coming to Levi's races: dog Braylen. After he escaped from the family's trailer and was found running frantically around the pit during a race, the Kissinger's have banned him from accompanying them to any more tracks.
Levi takes safety very seriously and makes sure he has the best safety equipment on when he is behind the wheel. Everything Levi wears is fire retardant from his gloves down to his boots. Other than equipment there is not much Levi can do to protect his safety. "Whatever happens out there happens there isn't a whole lot I can do to change it," he laughs.
Safety plays a big role on the regular road as well. Levi says he's gotten a couple of speeding tickets. "When I was younger I used to drive on the street like I did on the racetrack. Just don't tell mom or dad." It appears mom already knows.
"He has a lead foot," Wendy says.
"Who doesn't in this family?" Kelsey replies.
This evening Levi continues to hold his lead. The crowd watches as his car glides in between a wreck-he's been called a "clean driver," a compliment he takes with much respect. Levi crosses the starting line as the official raises a black and white checkered flag indicating one lap to go. Levi rounds the final curve, the crowd cheers, he crosses the finish line, he's won. Kelsey says she is the emotions for Levi. When someone bumps him on the track she gets angry and when he wins she feels great. While Levi, at 5'10 with light brown hair remains stoic, at the end of the race, Kelsey has a huge smile on her face.
Levi has gained a good amount of recognition and success throughout the years. The most money he's won for a race is a thousand dollars. Most races the winner receives between six hundred and a thousand dollars. Kelsey, who openly expresses her jealousy of Levi's racing often travels on Levi's off weekends to watch other races. At the National Hot Rod Association in Charlotte, NC an official from the I-55 Speedway in Pevely, MO came up to Kelsey, who was wearing a sweatshirt with the track's logo, and asked why Levi hadn't raced there last weekend. Wendy says people frequently ask if Levi is related to the great Clarence Kissinger.
After a race, Levi and his family will go get something to eat--usually at IHOP or Denny's, since no other places are open late after he finishes. Levi won't eat before races. "I sure do make up for it afterwards though," he says.
Levi has gotten the opportunity to race against some of the big leagues including Kenny Wallace and Tony Stewart. He's beat Wallace twice, and although he didn't win the race, it still felt great. Levi says he feels no different when racing against these prestigious drivers. To him, they are just another racer.
Levi's room at home is a perfect indicator of the type of racer he is. His dresser, nightstand and floor are lined with large trophies. His two fire retardant racing suits (one white and one red) hang on either end of his closet. Photographs and a stenciled black picture of his car, with the number eight on it, line his walls. Levi is quick to attribute his success to his family. He says it would be almost impossible to do it alone. "It is a family sport and really helps keep our family close. Sure we have our disagreements sometimes but we are all buds at the end of the night," Levi says. Levi never uses the word "I" when referring to racing, he always uses "we." "We won," "we lost," "we worked hard." "We" is very important to him.