In the winter of 2018, Washougal residents Paul and Sara Kitchen packed up their motorhome and drove their 17-old son Levi to Kentwood, Louisiana, where he would enter the Real Deal motocross training program at the Wildwood MX Park. They knew Levi couldn’t solely rely on his talent anymore and needed professional training if he wanted to become the best motocross racer he could be. They also knew that they couldn’t continue to financially support his burgeoning career and that it was time for him to turn his passion into a living.
Paul and Sara believed in their son, but couldn’t help but question if he was prepared for the demands of adulthood that would be thrust upon him. They wondered whether they’d have to return to the Pelican State in a few weeks to pick him up.
“I really didn’t think he would make it,” Sara said. “I mean, he was a small-town Washougal boy who likes to hang out with buddies, and now we’re going to leave him and he’s going to learn to cook for himself and do his own laundry? I didn’t think we taught him enough independence to be on his own because we did everything for him when he was here. I said to my husband when we left, ‘I don’t think he’ll make it more than a month.'”
But he did last more than a month, in fact. Much more. He worked diligently to improve his craft and became one of the United States’ top amateur racers. His efforts were rewarded earlier this month, when he competed in the first professional race of his career.
The 20-year-old Washougal native, a member of the California-based Monster Energy/Star Racing Yamaha team, finished 12th out of 42 riders in the 250 class race during the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship’s RedBud National in Buchanan, Michigan, on July 3.
Levi called his 12th-place finish “a super special moment.”
“I knew the nerves were going to happen because it was an all-new experience — lining up with 40 of the best guys on a 250 is pretty nerve-wracking,” Levi Kitchen said. “But it was an awesome experience. When I was sitting on the (starting) line, I knew the ‘me’ from seven years ago dreamed of doing that. To see all the work pay off and to be with the team that I’m with and be on that line was definitely a pretty surreal feeling.”
During a motocross event, riders complete two races, or “motos,” in which points are awarded and combined to determine the overall standings. Levi overcame his early nerves to finish ninth in the first moto, but fell several times and ended up in 19th place in the second moto.
“I was pretty happy with how it went,” he said. “The night before I was pretty nervous just because there was a lot of hype around it and it was my first pro race. But it went well. The goal coming in was to be as close as I could be to the top 10, so I think getting 12th was a positive for sure. It could’ve gone a lot worse, I guess you could say.”
Levi’s performance exceeded the expectations of his parents, who traveled to Michigan for the race.
“We were shocked,” Sara said. “We said, ‘We’d be happy (if he finished) in the top 20, ideally top 15.’ For him to finish 12th after a couple of tip-overs — wow, that was good. He went into the race to learn, and he feels like he accomplished that. They didn’t have high expectations (for him). They said, ‘Go and get your feet wet. It’s a really fun race and see where you end up.’ Starting up towards the front and finishing ninth in that first ‘moto’ was an amazing feeling. In the second ‘moto,’ he was in the back with the chaos, so he kind of got a little bit of both (extremes).”
Levi knows that he has more work to do, but is more confident and “hungry” to succeed after his performance at RedBud, according to Sara.
“I’ve obviously taken more time (to turn professional) than most people do, but I think that helped me a lot because I’ll be more mature than others as they go pro,” Levi said. “I know that I’m ready now, especially with my experience in Michigan. That definitely gives me a lot more confidence knowing that I belong out there. I definitely would like to get up toward that top-five area by the end of the year. I know I can do that.”
Levi, currently living and training with his teammates in Florida, will compete as a non-professional for the last time on Monday, Aug. 2, during the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at Loretta Lynn Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, taking advantage of a new rule that allows amateurs to make their professional debuts and still compete in the pro sport classes in the amateur Loretta Lynn’s circuit.
After the Tennessee race, he’s planning to participate in the final five LucasOil Pro Motocross Championship races of the 2021 season, then come home to Washougal for a short break before returning to Florida to prepare for the 2022 season, his first full year as a professional.
“Luckily (his team) didn’t put too much pressure on him (for the RedBud race), and I don’t think they will for the rest of this outdoor season because this is truly his rookie year and he’s not eligible for a championship regardless of how well he does,” Sara said. “The real pressure is going to come in the next two years, because he’s contracted for (the 2022 and 2023 seasons) with the Star Yamaha team, and they’re going to expect a winner and (top) performances and championships if he wants to get another contract signed.
“To see him flourish into a young adult that’s navigating through all of this professional stuff, it’s pretty special,” she continued. “We’re pretty excited, to say the least. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s like, ‘He made it?’ He has, for the next three years.”