Max Cookson, a 20-year-old rising racing star from Palmyra, Maine, has taken the early lead in the 2023 Kulwicki Driver Development Program (KDDP) “Kulwicki Cup” point standings. With four months remaining to determine this year’s champion, Cookson leads 19-year-old Spokane, Washington, hotshot Haeden Plybon by 154 points (577 for Cookson to Plybon’s 423). Jacob Borst, a promising 19-year-old racer from Elon, North Carolina, is a close third, trailing Plybon by only seven points. Riley Stenjem (Utica, Wisconsin) is fourth with 374 points; Evan Shotko (Coopersville, Michigan) is fifth with 265 points; Jackson Boone (Franklin, Tennessee) is sixth with 260 points; and Levon Van Der Geest (Merrill, Wisconsin) is seventh with 171 points.
“Simply put, after the first three months in the battle for the 2023 Kulwicki Cup, it was Max Cookson who checked all the boxes the best of our seven finalists,” said KDDP Executive Director Tom Roberts. “Not only has he been ultracompetitive on the race track, Max has done an outstanding job with his community service aspect of the competition. He’s reinforced everything this season with excellent social media skills.
“We were able to introduce video conferencing into our judging and voting process this season and it certainly added an important new dynamic for everyone. All seven finalists participated and reviewed presentations of their seasons so far with our voting panel. The drivers were even allowed to ask each other questions. We all felt that not only was the Zoom meeting beneficial with our balloting, it also worked to enhance the overall sense of comradery between all involved.”
After the evaluation of the drivers, dialogue between members of the panel and the voting process concluded, here’s how the point standings look of the end of the first reporting period (from April 15 through July 15):
1st - Max Cookson - 577
2nd - Haeden Plybon - 423
3rd - Jacob Borst - 416
4th - Riley Stenjem - 374
5th - Evan Shotko - 265
6th - Jackson Boone - 260
7th - Levon Van Der Geest - 171
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“During the first 14 weeks of the 2022 KDDP competition, five of our drivers had scored victories and there were 11 total wins. For the first time in the program’s eight-season history, all seven 2023 finalists have posted wins at this point and there have been a total of 17 victory lane visits.
“While the weather has impacted this year’s edition of our program with rainouts hitting every driver, we’ve still seen the most completed races since 2019,” offered Roberts. “During our first three months of the 2023 season, our drivers have recorded 80 finishes. We realize that some have benefitted from ‘twin feature nights,’ but it’s still impressive when you compare that number to only 42 events at this point during the 2022 season and 65 in 2021.”
As of this period’s cutoff date (July 15), the number of races that each driver competed in varied from only six events up to 17. The current 2023 KDDP competition (on-track) points look like this: (points/wins/top-5s/top-10s/Total Races)
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2023 KDDP COMPETITION POINTS
(Current through July 15, 2023)
|Position||Driver||Points||Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Total Races|
|7||Levon Van Der Geest||36||1||2||5||10|
“While Max is out front in the early going, I wouldn’t count anyone out just yet, especially considering how competitive all of these drivers are,” said Roberts. “You also have to consider that three times we’ve had drivers at the bottom of our initial standings bounce back to be podium contenders at the end of our seven months of competition.
“With our unique points system awarding the competitors for both on-track and off-track activities, it will certainly be interesting and intriguing to follow all seven of these promising young racers and cheer them on the remainder of the season.
“We’re so proud of all of these outstanding young racers,” Roberts said. “They come from diverse backgrounds and represent several divisions of short track racing all across the country. The big qualities they all share are grit and determination. It’s apparent to all of our voting panel members that they thoroughly understand what our program is about. They want to represent Alan to the best of their abilities, both on and off the track.”
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Here are “competition briefs” for each driver at the July 15 cutoff point:
MAX COOKSON: Maine’s Max Cookson has found success at both the local and touring level, picking up wins at his home track of Oxford Plains Speedway and with the Pro All Stars Series (PASS). Cookson has three wins during the first scoring period and, because of his success at Oxford Plains, has passed a sizable number of cars this season due to the track’s “handicap” system of determining each week’s starting lineup.
Cole Butcher, two-time program finalist and lone recipient of the prestigious “KDDP Wheelman Award,” has been impressed with what he has seen this season from Cookson. “What Max is doing is quite amazing,” Butcher offered. “Not only is he leading in the track points at Oxford Plains, he’s also the leader in PASS National and PASS North points. That’s incredible. I hear that he’s going after all three championships. As tough as the competition is and with him never being able to start races up front, it would be remarkable if he can pull it off.”
HAEDEN PLYBON: Finishing no worse than sixth this season, Washington’s Haeden Plybon is building upon a great 2022 with an even better 2023. Scoring five victories in both Pro and Super Late Model competition, the two-time Kulwicki finalist currently leads the Northwest Super Late Model Series point standings. He picked up the win at the prestigious Leonard Evans Memorial at the Wenatchee Valley Super Oval in April.
JACOB BORST: Consistency has been the name of the game for Virginia’s Jacob Borst this season. During the first scoring period for the Kulwicki program, Borst scored an incredible fourteen top-five finishes, and only two outside of the top-10. The lone Late Model Stock Car campaigner of this KDDP class picked up his first victory of the year at South Boston Speedway on July 15.
RILEY STENJEM: Last season as a Kulwicki program finalist, Wisconsin’s Riley Stenjem fought as many battles against mechanical gremlins as he did against his competition on the track. However, in 2023 Stenjem has been one of the most consistent Pro Late Model runners in Southern Wisconsin and has scored multiple top-fives on the ultra-competitive Midwest Tour Super Late Model series. Stenjem picked up his first win of the season at Madison in June.
EVAN SHOTKO: The 2022 Kulwicki program runner-up, Michigan’s Evan Shotko has spent much of the summer establishing his driver development and technical support program to expand his family-owned operation. When he has been on the track, he continues to pile up the victories, scoring three dominating wins at Berlin Raceway, his home track.
JACKSON BOONE: Two-time KDDP finalist Tennessean Jackson Boone continues to be the driver to beat at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, his home track. In his last five races at the legendary oval, Boone has three wins and a second-place finish. He was leading the Southern Super Series race there with less than 10 laps to go when he suffered a parts failure. He continues to chase -- and get ever closer to -- his first Super Late Model victory.
LEVON VAN DER GEEST: A UW-Milwaukee engineering student, Levon Van Der Geest scored his first Super Late Model win of the season at Golden Sands Speedway back in June. Against the best short track drivers in the nation, Levon finished fifth at the ASA STARS National Tour season-opener at Madison in May. He ran in the top five all night at the Slinger Nationals before fading to ninth with a flat tire late in the going. With his consistency, Levon remains in the hunt for the 2023 Midwest Tour championship.
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The KDDP points system is based on a combination of judging input from members of the advisory board and the drivers’ on-track performance. Voters are asked to rank the drivers from first to seventh in their job of representing the organization and points (from 70 for first to 10 for seventh) are awarded for those rankings. Each voter is given 10 discretionary “bonus” points to award the drivers for “exceptional contributions” to the program. Community engagement, program representation and social media activities account for much of those points. The remainder of the points come from actual racing statistics (based on each driver’s best 15 race finishes. Race wins award 10 points, with 2nd-5th-place finishes getting 6 points, 6th-10th 4 points, 11th-15th 2 points and 15th-plus 1 point.
During the annual competition, two regular season rounds of judging points are averaged (however, bonus points continue to accrue) and added to a final round of voters’ judging points. The overall competition points (maximum 150 points for 15 wins) are applied and the driver with the largest points total will be the Kulwicki Cup Champion.
The next points update for this year’s edition of the KDDP is scheduled for the first week of October.
The 2023 season will mark the eighth fully-functioning year for the KDDP, which was established in 2014 by the Kulwicki estate for the purpose of helping worthy drivers toward reaching their dreams while at the same time keeping Alan’s memory and legacy alive.
The seven drivers of the 2023 KDDP class will each receive a one-time stipend of $7,777 to cover operational expenses. The organization will provide the drivers assistance in important aspects such as publicity, marketing, sponsorship development and industry networking during the season as they compete for the grand prize “Kulwicki Cup.” That award winner will pick up an additional check worth seven times the initial prize ($7,777 x 7 = $54,439) and a special unique trophy.
This year’s Kulwicki Cup competition will go from April 15 through November 15. The contest’s points system is based on a combination of judging input from members of the advisory board and the drivers’ on-track performance. Drivers are given points for both their success in chasing checkered flags and for community engagement, program representation and social media activities.
The KDDP has a proven track record, assisting a total of 38 different promising young drivers (representing 17 states & two Canadian provinces) entering the 2023 season. The Kulwicki estate has provided $762,146 in combined stipend and championship award funding in addition to all of the immeasurable off-track support provided by the organization. Through 2022 (seven seasons), those 38 KDDP drivers have competed in a total of 1,105 races; recording 178 wins, 554 top-five finishes and 797 top-10 finishes.
“While our organization is currently financially solid, our funding is depleting and we are launching a full-scale effort to unite with a major presenting marketing partner for the future,” Roberts said. “We’re confident that with the foundation we’ve laid over the years, our program can be an extremely effective marketing tool for a corporate partner to utilize.”
The 2023 KDDP Kulwicki Cup Champion will join the distinguished group of former titlists that includes Ty Majeski (2015), Alex Prunty (2016), Cody Haskins (2017), Brett Yackey (2018), Jeremy Doss (2019), Luke Fenhaus (2021) and Dylan Zampa (2022).
The KDDP urges you to keep up with all of its news and activities by regularly visiting RacingAmerica.com, the organization’s official media partner.
-Kulwicki Driver Development Program Release