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Bruce Yentes

Bruce Yentes

Gibson City dirt late model ace Kevin Weaver has long been "suggesting" it, seeing a tipping point approaching as far back as a decade ago.

LaSalle Speedway promoter Tony Izzo will be implementing it — weather permitting — at this weekend's "Thaw Brawl" special event scheduled for Friday and Saturday at his ¼-mile facility off U.S. 6 just east of LaSalle.

"We listened to the drivers and not only are we paying $15,000 to win Saturday's main event, we are going to pay $1,500 just to qualify for the feature event," Izzo said in a release.

Izzo's $1,500-to-start not only constitutes "paying through the field," but paying sufficiently to keep the sport alive.

"To keep racers around and racing, we have to be able to at least cover the expenses," said Weaver, a standout weekly series racer who's been banging around on Central Illinois bullrings for over 35 years.

Bloomington's Jason Feger competes on a more regional and national scale than Weaver, but wholeheartedly agrees.

"You need to keep everybody going down the road," Feger said. "Everybody needs to make a little money. When just the top two or three guys are making money and everybody else is just getting by, eventually we're not going to be able to do this."

Dirt late model racing is notorious for boasting of paying "$50,000 TO THE WINNER!!" of it's bigger events, while at the same time tossing peanuts and — oftentimes just the shells of the peanuts — to the remainder of the field.

The theory is the top-heavy purses will attract Tennessee driver Scott Bloomquist and the sport's handful of other bigger stars who, in turn, attract more people to the grandstands to help the promoter keep his track open.

The problem is, many believe the day is approaching where there will be nobody left for Bloomquist, et al, to race against because nobody else will be able to afford to do it.

With a feature also slated for Friday night at LaSalle, Weaver believes the increase in pay through the field would allow him to pretty much break even for the weekend by qualifying for the main event both nights.

"If I want to load up and go to the track and race and come home, it costs about $1,000 a night," he said of his weekly trips to Farmer City and Fairbury, as well as a handful of UMP Summer Nationals races and other special events.

That includes — averaged out over the season — the cost of the car, tires and fuel, as well as the amount spent on getting to and from the racetrack. Some competitors spend a lot more, few spend much less in the dirt late model ranks.

"A lot of people don't realize what it costs," Weaver said. "For your street car, you go to a tire dealer and buy a $170 tire that lasts 50,000 miles. For the racecar, I buy a $170 tire that lasts 50 laps."

To defray some of the cost, most drivers sell team t-shirts and many competitors hold race parties over the winter that feature food, drink and raffled items. Feger's party is legendary and is held annually at the Interstate Center in Bloomington.

Weaver held one for the first time in seven years earlier this month in Gibson City.

"The party turned out pretty good," he said. "It takes all of it to even get a chance to continue to do what I do."

Weaver also has Jimmy John's back on board as a sponsor to help defray some of the costs, after the sandwich chain took a one-year hiatus. 

"It's not what a lot of people think, that it's like Jimmy John's (multi-million dollar) deal with (NASCAR's) Kevin Harvick or something, or 'Weaver's on a free ride again,'" he said with a laugh. "But it does make a big difference in my program."

For the most part, though, Weaver's and other grassroots level dirt track programs are overwhelmingly funded by what they earn at the track and any profit they can derive is generally poured back into the car. 

This has generated an unintended consequence of top-heavy purses — there's a competitive imbalance in dirt late model racing that's never been more starkly apparent than last year. That's when one driver (New Berlin's Brandon Sheppard) won nearly half of the races on the World of Outlaws Late Model national tour.

Feger may have a solution to begin tightening that back up. 

"There's enough money to go around, but for some reason they want to give it all to the guy that wins," he said. "I've always felt 10 percent is good. If it's $20,000 to win, it should be $2,000 to start. Tony's right in line there. He's $1,500 to start and $15,000 to win."

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Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph and can be reached at byentes@pantagraph.com. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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