(Photos: Adam Glanzman/NASCAR)

Greg Van Alst and Tyler Reif are early pleasant surprises to start 2023 ARCA Menards Series season

Two ARCA Menards Series races, two unique faces in Victory Lane.

The start of the 2023 ARCA Menards Series season has seen two pleasant surprises secure victories, first with veteran Greg Van Alst shocking even himself with a win in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, and then 15-year-old rookie Tyler Reif followed with his own storybook ending when he won in his first ARCA Menards Series start at Phoenix Raceway.

When Van Alst climbed from his car to speak to FS1’s Jamie Howe, he exclaimed “this isn’t supposed to happen to guys like me!” The reality is, while teams like Venturini Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Rev Racing have raised the level of competition in the ARCA Menards Series over the last decade, guys like Van Alst have been winning ARCA races for 70 years.

ARCA co-founder John Marcum championed his Midwestern-based stock car tour as “the hamburger circuit,” a place where the blue-collar racer could build a successful career.

The lists of ARCA champions and winners proves that claim. The two drivers who lead both of those lists, Frank Kimmel and Iggy Katona, were true to their blue-collar roots throughout their careers. Other ARCA champions, such as Jack Bowsher, Nelson Stacy, Benny Parsons, Bob Dotter, Andy Hillenburg, Chris Buescher and Austin Theriault were also true to their blue-collar roots, and each grinded out their championships working on their race cars in addition to driving them on race day.

“It’s been a busy month since Daytona,” Van Alst said in Phoenix, with the smile from Victory Lane at Daytona still firmly affixed to his face. “It’s been a life-changer, that’s for sure.”

Over the course of the last two decades, the ARCA Menards Series has not only been a destination for blue-collar career racers, but it’s also become the first rung on a formal driver development ladder in which young racers make the transition from weekly racing or regional touring series and take their first step as a professional racer, with their goal to end up in one of the three nationally-touring NASCAR series.

Reif, at just 15 years of age, joins an exclusive club of drivers who have won in the ARCA Menards Series before they are legally able to drive on the street. Todd Gilliland won at Toledo Speedway just one day after his 15th birthday, and just one day after becoming eligible to race in ARCA, in 2015. Erik Jones also won before his 16th birthday at Berlin Raceway in 2013. Both Gilliland and Jones currently race in the NASCAR Cup Series, a goal Reif would like to also eventually match.

Reif’s team co-owner, Chris Lowden, himself an ARCA Menards Series West driver, knows the joy that Van Alst felt at Daytona. As a team that competes in the West Series full-time, it’s often perceived as an uphill climb to beat the ARCA Menards Series teams in a heads-up fight. But that’s exactly what his team did last Friday night.

“We had some high expectations, but I don’t know if they were that high,” Lowden said after Victory Lane celebrations wound down on Friday. “He (Reif) is good, really good. It’s great to defend our home turf for the West teams, too. We’ll head to Pensacola (for the ARCA Menards Series East season opener) and try to do it again.”