It all began with a simple observation in the spring of 2008 by FANS Fund founder Rich Olson. Dirt Late Model Crown Jewel events, events typically paying $30,000 or more, were seeing a steep decline in the quantity of cars entering their events. Rising fuel and diesel prices along with the nations deepening recession were causing Dirt Late Model teams to evaluate their programs. No longer did a drivers desire to compete against the best competition and earn a large payday determine their racing transporters destination. More than ever, teams are run similar to a small business; keeping the teams finances in the black now became the focal point.
Cedar Lake Speedway, located in western Wisconsin, has been challenged geographically to draw top national traveling teams from the south. The south is the predominant area where most of the top national travelling teams are based. Despite Cedar Lake having what is considered by most to be one of the largest concentrations of top Dirt Late Model talent, drawing top race teams from other areas to race against Cedar Lake’s best has always been a priority. With the USA Nationals drawing near, it was inevitable that a smaller field of racers was a certainty. As a fan, what could be done to impact the event and polarize Dirt Late Model fans around the issue of declining car counts?
2008 – Inaugural Year:
“It is such an obscure idea… maybe it is unique enough that it will work,” was Olson’s thought one day as he called Arkansas racer Bill Frye. Olson shared the idea with Frye who was gracious on the phone and said politely that he would support the idea if Olson could make it happen. Frye thinking that this was the first and last call regarding the subject.
The concept was fairly simple… a person whom people only knew as an Internet screen name would like fans from across the nation to send him a cash or check donation. The donation would be pooled together and provided to Frye if he attends the USA Nationals. The goal for 2008 was $2,500 to offset Frye’s expenses to travel and race at “Wisconsin’s Fastest Piece of Real Estate.” A carefully crafted letter detailing the idea and how to donate was posted on several popular Dirt Late Model message boards. Then Olson waited for a response…any response. Naitivity would unknowingly serve the FANS Fund founder well.
The idea was a stretch as Frye, a former national traveler, had gotten off the road and the grind that comes with crisscrossing the country. At one point during his career, Frye had spent over 250 days on the road in one year. During his travel, the humble yet self-effacing Frye was a fan favorite. Fans revered Frye not only because of his sheer talent but also his demeanor with the fans. He took the approach that without the fans; he could not make a living racing. That single notion has grounded Frye still to this day which endears him to fans nationwide. Now, off the road for several years, he raced closer to home to be with his young family and support his wife, Carol, who was dealing with some serious health concerns. Frye had grown content running his Frye Motorsports business and racing on the weekends not far from his home. What effect would his departure from being a national traveler have on this obscure idea?
The initial response on the message boards was… overwhelming! Fans from across the nation embraced the idea, spread the word and more importantly had faith in Olson that he would follow up on his promise. Within the first week alone, well over $1,000 was received. The event began to take shape and was just beginning to get its legs. A follow-up call to Frye found him speechless and humbled by the outpouring support of the Dirt Late Model community.
In the weeks to follow over $2,800 in donations were accepted with non-cash donations totaling another $600 which far exceeded Olson’s initial goal. Fans representing 20 different states donated to the fund. Some fans were compelled to donate even though they would not be attending the event. The donation drive also added a make-shift luncheon and prize drawing for those who donated. The luncheon was held in Cedar Lake Speedway’s parking lot with fans once again stepping forward to donate food and their resources to help put the event together. Over 75 people attended the first event with Frye among them talking racing and letting them know his appreciation for what they had done. Bill Frye memorabilia were raffled including t-shirts, die cast, hats, and actual door panels off Frye’s Dirt Late Model.
Frye did not make the feature line-up that weekend due to an ill-performing motor. However, Frye’s back-up car driven by a relatively unknown driver, Will Vaught, charged from his 19th starting position to finish a strong 5th place when the checkered flag flew. The run leaving many to wonder what could have been had Frye not had the motor issues with his protégé able to race an identically prepared car to the front.
The first-ever FANS Fund was a success for both Frye and the fans that donated. They were now part of a unique racing fraternity. The success of the event can be traced to two key items. The passion Dirt Late Model fans have for their sport and the fact that this was Bill Frye. The fans around the country wanted to rally behind this racer and see him back at the USA Nationals. The event can be summed up by a quote at the luncheon where Frye said, “In my entire racing career, this is the most humbling and incredible thing that has ever happened to me… thank you…all of you.”
2009 – 2nd Annual
Following the inaugural event, plans were under way to schedule another event for 2009. The event would be starting out once again with posts on racing message boards. This time however, the initial message to kick off the 2009 edition of the FANS Fund came from a fan that donated to the 2008 event and wrote Olson…
When you go to the races it's supposed to be special. Something or someone is supposed to give you a chill and get your heart pumping. Forget all of the 'grown up stuff and act like you're 8 years old again. Act like the guys driving these cars are super heroes. I spent several years all wrapped up in the negative stuff that goes on in my sport (yeah, my sport!) and forgot all of that. That wasn't fun. When the crowd goes crazy as a car from Greenbrier, Arkansas rolls onto a racetrack in Wisconsin.... I’ll be happy.”
Lessons learned from the 2008 edition would be applied however; the event was in for a major overhaul in a big, big way. The overall donation goal was raised from the previous goal of $2,500 to a whopping $10,000 with ten drivers being invited and each driver receiving $1,000. The idea was to modify the event by getting the fans even more involved by voting for the drivers they wished to see race at the USA Nationals. The only stipulation, a driver cannot have raced at the event within the past two years. After initially announcing the change via the racing message boards, fans gave enthusiastic approval to the change and pledged their support once the event launched.
Another change was on tap for 2009 as well, a website would be established at http://www.fansfund.com to allow fans to donate, vote, receive updates, track driver voting results and donation totals. At the time of the website launch it was announced that long-time Cedar Lake Dirt Late Model sponsor, Impact Printing, wanted to help the fund reach its goal. It helped via a contribution of $5,000. No sooner had the event started but the goal was already halfway there. The excitement built as the goal was well within reach. Fans began checking the site as daily ritual for the latest voting results, driver interview press releases, and tracking to their goal of $10,000.
The financial goal was met and the fans had selected their ten drivers. Jason Feger from Bloomington, IL was the leading vote recipient. The other nine lead by past USA Nationals Champion Rick Aukland, Josh McGuire, Scott James, John Gill, Terry Phillips, Ronny Lee Hollingsworth, Darrell Lanigan, Brian Shirley, and Dennis Erb Jr. All drivers were honored to be selected by the fans and looked forward to either returning to Cedar Lake Speedway or making their first ever visit.
While Lanigan, Hollingsworth, and Gill could not make the USA Nationals weekend, the other seven arrived ready to race and make some noise. Feger was the first to make sure everyone knew his first visit to the 3/8’s mile speedway would be memorable by setting fast-time among the 63 entrants and by also dominating his heat race. By the time the main feature rolled around on Saturday night, six of the seven FANS Fund drivers would make the starting field for the main event.
With the missing drivers, a vote was conducted by the FANS Fund founder with the fans who had donated. It was decided that the FANS Fund would add a 26th starter to the USA Nationals field. Second finishing Chris Madden was awarded that honor by finishing second during the last chance qualifier. He would not squander the opportunity driving his racecar from last to finish fifth.
Fans donating to the 2009 event were greeted Saturday afternoon to a lunch hosted by Cedar Lake Speedway in their front stretch concession building and VIP balcony. Well over 200 fans attended the event as well as the 2010 FANS Fund drivers and their crews. At the conclusion of the luncheon the fans were treated to a large drawing of prizes primarily of FANS Fund driver memorabilia. Once again, the driver door panels were the most sought after prize during the drawing.
The fans spoke loud and clear, the FANS Fund was an event that was here to stay and the move to the fans voting for their drivers was a huge success.
It was clear; a simple idea that began in 2008 had now grown into a much anticipated event and one that would be continued to be supported by the fans and the drivers. The fans donating to the event had formed a new dirt racing fraternity… one that took on the name of the FANS Fund Fraternity.
Thank you fans for making the FANS Fund and incredible ride that will continue for as long as you continue to support and embrace it.