ST. LOUIS — With a bit of a track record as a "big idea, innovator" type of guy, Cody Sommer will be the first to tell you that he's not exactly developing "the next big thing" by promoting an indoor motor sports event.

After all, the "3Ms" of midgets, motocross and Monster Jam trucks have been entertaining spectators in indoor arenas during the winter months for decades.

The twist this time, however, is that Sommer — a Central Illinois native who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. — will be plucking dirt late models and modifieds off the county fairgrounds of rural America and taking them downtown.

Specifically, that's downtown St. Louis, where Sommer will stage the Gateway Nationals on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at The Dome at America's Center (formerly the Edward Jones Dome).

"Every winter the indoor racing season is abuzz for the midgets," Sommer told The Pantagraph last week. "As a super late model or modified fan or competitor, it's depressing to watch the positive buzz over midgets that's created and not be able to be involved. You develop a cabin fever for racing when you've got a long offseason and you have to wait to sling dirt."

Sommer's comments came following a long day of watching the dirt that will be slung this weekend get pushed around and fashioned into an approximately 1/5th-mile oval track on the floor of the cavernous dome. It was one of the final steps in an arduous journey that Sommer began in earnest full-time about a year ago.

Sommer, 29, has taken his entrepreneurial bent on a circuitous path into the world of special event promotion.

Born in Kewanee and raised in Sheffield, a small town located about an hour north of Peoria, Sommer developed a passion for racing while growing up and dreamed of someday making his living in the sport in some way.

As the saying goes, if you want to be a movie star you move to L.A. If you want to make it in racing, you move to Charlotte or Indianapolis and try to find your place in the industry.

Not long after graduating from Bureau Valley High School, Sommer chose Charlotte, where literally thousands of people in the metro area pay their mortgages and put their kids through school while working full-time in some capacity in the sports/entertainment conglomerate known as NASCAR.

The area's lock, stock and barrel full of engineers, fabricators, shop hand assistants to the engineers and fabricators, motor people, marketing people, PR people and a huge host of others comprise the behind-the-scenes "folks back home in the shop" that are thanked by the winning driver on national television each week in victory lane.

Sommer was able to latch on with a variety of teams in various capacities before zeroing in on his ultimate goal, which at the time was following in the footsteps of another Illinoisan who gambled several years earlier and relocated to Charlotte to chase his dream.

"In 2008, I wanted to be the next Chad Knaus," said Sommer, referring to the Rockford native who hit the jackpot as crew chief for the Hendrick Motorsports team that has won a record seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships with driver Jimmy Johnson.

It was also in 2008 when a situation arose that proved to be pivotal to the doors of the dome opening this weekend in St. Louis: Sommer got laid off.

At the time of the layoff, Sommer said he was an assistant to the engineers in the research and development department at Chip Ganassi Racing. When Ganassi merged his operation with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., a number of duplicate positions were eliminated; Sommer survived one round of cuts, encompassing more than 100 employees.

But he didn't survive the second round when R&D programs were cut across the board as the national economy seriously tanked, putting a squeeze on sponsorship dollars, the lifeblood of NASCAR.

Seeking employment, Sommer hooked up with an acquaintance in Charlotte who was an executive with Wave Energy Drink and was hired by the company. 

"It introduced me to my second labor of love, the beverage industry," Sommer said. "It opened my eyes to a whole new world of corporate America and business."

Sommer threw himself into the beverage trade with a passion, learning all that he could as quickly as he could. He later established his own microbrewery in the Charlotte area, Stout Brewing Co. (a local comparison would be Destihl), which now markets products in a number of states.

While at Wave, he was able to keep a hand in NASCAR when the company sponsored Tommy Baldwin Racing and driver Mike Bliss. Most importantly, that gave him first-hand experience in the intricacies of motor sports marketing and how corporations are able to maximize a sponsorship investment that can reach into the tens of millions of dollars per team at the Sprint Cup level.

"There's a lot of work that goes into brand activation," Sommer said.

With Wave giving him the knowledge and Stout Brewing giving him the freedom, Sommer sees this weekend's event in St. Louis as a starting point for taking what he's learned at the major league level and applying it to grassroots, dirt late models. After all, dirt late models were his first love while growing up in Central Illinois.

"I think I can come in and make some noise and have an impact," Sommer said. "I don't mean that I want to pick apart everything that's ever been done, but there's a lot of things that could be done a lot better and it's something that dirt track racing really does need."

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for the Pantagraph. He can be reached at byentes@pantagraph.com.

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