On 13 May, The Checkered Flag sat down with Willie Freshour, president of the Short-course Off-road Drivers Association (SODA), about a wide array of topics. Subjects of discussion included the 2022 season opener at Slinger Speedway a week prior, the upcoming round at Gravity Park USA, and SODA’s place in the Midwestern off-road racing scene.
Provided below is the full transcript of the interview. Some text has been altered from the original dialogue to improve readability and remove verbal pauses. An audio version will be released soon.
TCF: Where did the idea to race at Slinger come from?
WF: A mutual friend of the owner of Slinger and myself that races off-road trucks and he always had the idea to do it. Me and the owner of Slinger kind of were hesitant. We thought it was a dumb idea at first. Even the SODA organisation, we talked about it in a meeting, and one of our board members was like, ‘Have you ever been to [Slinger]? It’s a concrete bowl with walls on it, like how are you supposed to have an off-road race?’
But we figured it out, obviously.
TCF: How difficult was designing the course and eventually building it?
WF: It was pretty difficult. Town & Country Landscaping did all the work and they ended up having a lot more work in it than they expected. They were the sponsor of the race, but I think they were pretty happy with the results. They’re definitely interested in doing it next year and improving on the course design and stuff. But yeah, it was definitely a bigger undertaking than we originally thought. It was a little crazy to do an over/under on the first race there, but Town & Country wanted to make it happen and they did, so it was pretty neat.
TCF: Were you already familiar with Town & Country or Ryan Kuhn over there before bringing them aboard to help with building?
WF: No, but some of the racers that race our series know him from his snowmobile racing tracks that he does, and also some of our media people have worked with him in the past and have a positive relationship with him. As the president of SODA, I hadn’t worked with him before. I think Slinger works with him quite a bit on other projects.
TCF: Having overseen construction as president and raced on it in Class 8, do you feel the track provides a different type of racing from what you’re used to at traditional off-road courses?
WF: Oh, yeah. Definitely. We really wanted to have the crazy turn one, turn two of asphalt of Slinger, with trucks sliding sideways around it. That was I think an exciting aspect to have as part of an off-road race. Obviously, fans that are used to watching the regular stock car show are pretty excited to see vehicles jumping over and flying through the air across the start/finish line. It was a neat course.
There were a lot of racers that were afraid to come out the first year, but they saw the videos and some of them were even in the stands and said, ‘Aw man, I should have came out.’ They thought they wouldn’t be able to turn their cars or get them to just slide around because you still have to run like off-road race tyres. It’s a pretty demanding course on your tyres, compared to what we’re, you know. The dirt, we’re usually just trying to keep a sharp edge on our tyre, but the asphalt and dirt, the heavy braking and then sliding sideways, it’s just a whole new tyre game.
But it was a lot of fun to drive in. I drove in it personally, and it was very technical and flowed real smoothly. You couldn’t tell that from looking at the track before the race, like how smooth you could run the course and drift around corners and stuff. It was a lot of fun.
TCF: In a way, it’s kind of similar to rallycross. Did you take any pages from them?
WF: No? I’m heavily copying the Mickey Thompson Stadium races that were through the eighties and mid-nineties, and which I guess the rallycross stuff is kind of a copy of them too, but that’s heavily what we got inspiration from. When you look back at the short course off-road racing history, the eighties and nineties SODA series and the eighties and nineties Mickey Thompson Series were kind of the best that this type of racing was ever done. So we tried to pull as much from how those two race series were ran to run our new reborn SODA series.
TCF: I spoke with Todd (Thelen) over at Slinger the other day and he said that he didn’t really know most of the drivers who raced SODA, but he did know who C.J. Greaves was when he brought his RZR out. How big of a deal would you say it was for someone of his name recognition to show up?
WF: I mean, yeah, it’s good, but the best part about him coming out was how positive he was, and his dad Johnny was there too. They’re very, very positive about what we’re doing and very excited about it, and they really enjoy racing with us and want to race with us more and are excited about racing Slinger next year and the other tracks on our circuit.
It’s really good. I’ve been in off-road racing for decades, but some of the guys that are new to it, when they see something like this, they’re skeptical, and when they hear C.J. doing an interview talking about how much fun it was, it definitely helps. It just definitely helps with the progression of the sport and the series.
TCF: It’s probably too early to be looking at the future, but could we see SODA potentially doing more of these races within ovals outside of Slinger?
WF: Yeah, that’s the plan. We want to stay. I really like short track racing and I love off-road racing and I think it’s good for racing in Wisconsin if we tour around and hit dirt track and asphalt tracks locally and we keep our drivers from having to drive super far, and put these crazy courses together in front of new fans that want to come out. A lot of these, especially the asphalt tracks, they don’t make a ton of money on their regular show, and then they’ll have a destruction-type show where they pack the house every year. What kind of our hope is that basically within three years or something, we’re competing with these tracks. We’re competing with those numbers of their destruction shows where we can pack the place once a year for these tracks. Our circuit can tour around this area of Wisconsin and really bring the fans out. It’s just good for the whole sport because then those fans are going to come to the regular races too at those circle tracks and/or follow our circuit around.
Obviously, with the overhead that’s happening in the last couple of decades with race tracks, they kind of need these heavy shows to keep on operating and there’s nothing worse if a track closes their doors, they generally don’t reopen. These guys all need to make money to pay their bills. Tracks are huge, huge investments and they need a big influx of income to come in. Everybody seemed to love the races that came out, the racers and the fans and everything was super positive, and anybody that was worried about us running on asphalt and dirt kind of got over it real fast. [chuckles]
TCF: If you could pick any track that you would like SODA to race at, where would it be?
WF: I mean, I love them all. We’re already talking to a lot of other tracks for next year, and I guess fans are just going to have to wait and see. But we’re adding a lot of tracks for next year. Personally, as a racer and a promoter, I love going to the small dirt tracks and the well-known asphalt tracks. They’re all fun, and they all have their own great fans and their own personalities, and it just adds an awesome variety for the racers.
Next year, we’re hoping to also do an endurance race where a rally group is coming out for their points too and motocross and stuff, but we’re just going to do one for the year at the end of the year and we do have one bigger short course track. But the rest of the races, I want to keep all that. I’d like to be in the oval tracks for the whole series, so that’s kind of our main thing that we’re trying to do.
Because of how the overhead works and stuff, it’s a great deal for the fans, the cost for a fan to come out is similar or less than going to a movie. Having an affordable entertainment to fans is a big deal, I think these days. Anybody can put an event on and charge fifty to seventy dollars for a fan to come out. I mean, that’s putting an event on where a fan is paying fifteen, twenty bucks. That makes it a better deal. You can get more volume in instead of, you know, the high price, you know what I’m saying?
TCF: Yeah, I do. So would you say that the affordability and the proximity within just Wisconsin makes you stand out from other short course series like Championship Off-Road?
WF: Yeah, definitely and that’s our biggest thing. We’re not trying to directly compete with them. We want them to continue to do well and run those huge tracks with the big TV packages and stuff and the pro racers with the big sponsorship deals. That’s all great, but we kind of want to be like the IMCA of off-road racing and help grow the the local aspect of the sport. In the next couple of years, we’re hoping to sanction more series around the U.S. and bring them under the same points battle and stuff. It’ll be definitely very good for the sport, and just the racing world in general, I think.
TCF: As someone who has competed in both and as SODA’s president, how would you describe the relationship SODA has with COR if there is any, like would you see a joint weekend in the future?
WF: I don’t think so. I doubt it. Some of the tracks would be interested in doing something, but I don’t think the series would, and they’re just so big. Some of their events—I race in those events personally too—and I mean, they have 300 to 500 race cars, and it’s just such a different deal. Their whole goal is to give you the TV time regardless of the cost to the racer, and our whole deal is to give the racers way more affordable racing with higher payback and more local, real fan exposure.
It’s really important to Champs’ sponsors that they have X amount of people watching the live stream and stuff, and our goal is to get butts in the seats. We’re not as concerned about the fans that are watching the race on YouTube, at home. We’re trying to give the best show we can to the fans that came out and the racers that came out. Those are the people we are focusing on. We try to just give teaser videos to the people online, so they see what they’re missing and if they want to see the whole race, they’ve got to come. I want them there.
In this technological world where everybody stares at their cell phone and stuff, we want real people in the stands, drinking beer and eating cheese curds, and feeling the roar of the race engines and smelling race fuel. That’s the real experience. There’s no real racing experience from watching on your cell phone, sitting on a couch. And we just can’t spend too much money. I feel like the other series just spend so much money trying to give the at-home fans the best experience they can, and I feel we’d rather a hundred percent just concentrate on the people that are there.
TCF: I’ve seen a lot of debate about Champ and their media policies lately, with their putting everything on FloRacing but a lot of people are hesitant because of the streaming prices.
WF: Champs put themselves kind of in a rough position because they just keep charging more for a lot of things. But personally, I think the FloRacing deal is a good thing for their series because, basically, what’s better: someone that’s not really a race fan clicking on the livestream and watching it for that eight-minute average, or the hardcore race fans that paid for FloRacing or will get FloRacing and are going to watch the entire race, and then have a high-quality race?
Realistically, they might be cutting their viewership down, but they’re going to be pinpointing a heavier base of racers that want to watch the entire race, not just a quick clip. That’s their average from what I remember; the last time I checked, their average viewership for the livestream is like eight minutes. That’s basically just, you know, that’s like almost the race or half of a race. If their average viewership goes from eight minutes to an hour, you get what I’m saying? It definitely would be good.
I think it’s a step in the right direction. I think that it’s one of those things. They just charge so much money in so many different ways. It’s gotten to the point where every time they have any kind of different charge, people just get upset. The news is always some charge, you know what I’m saying? It’s almost like a Boston Tea Party thing: the tea tax didn’t get everybody upset, it was the fact that the tea tax was like the fiftieth tax that came out that year. You know what I’m saying? [laughter] No one would have cared about paying a tea tax if it wasn’t the fiftieth tax, they weren’t just sick of taxes. But yeah, I think FloRacing is a great package. They’re real similar to MAVTV and they both do, I think, a good job. They have a lot better programmes than your Speedvision decades ago so I mean that’s really good for racing, I think.
TCF: To return to SODA, they’ve only worked one round so far, but how important would you say are the additions of Ronald Karlman and Colton Schaal to the inspection team? The tech team already has a lot of truck racing experience, but do you feel the knowledge that they bring for buggies and UTVs has rubbed off on the guys already there?
WF: Sorry, could you say that question again?
TCF: Sorry. They’ve only worked one round so far, but how important would you say are the additions of Ronald Karlman and Colton Schaal to the inspection team? You guys already have a lot of truck racing experience, but do you feel that their knowledge that they bring for buggies and UTVs has rubbed off on the guys already at the team?
WF: Yeah, it’s a big deal. So basically, last year, we brought in a really crazy over-experienced tech team and it’s one of those things, some things you learn as you go. [chuckle] We brought in a super experienced tech team with Robert Braun that’s been building race engines since, I don’t know, the nineties or earlier, like high-end race engines. Ridderbush, Jimmy Ridderbush has built chassis and Milan Mazanec, he’s been racing for forty-something years.
We get to the races and they’re checking vehicles and, as the president, they called me over because no one knew anything about buggies. [laughter] And it was kind of an afterthought. I’m like, ‘These super experienced guys don’t know every type of race vehicle.’ Ron Karlman’s been racing Volkswagens, I think since either the eighties or the late seventies, and building engines and stuff. Colton Schaal’s our least experienced guy, but that’s just because UTV racing is young. He builds a lot of cars and kind of crew chiefs for different cars and he has a lot of friends in it and he works really hard at it and he’s pretty tech-savvy, so technically, he’s our least experienced guy, but that part of the sport is just so new. It’s part of it, but it definitely brings a lot in.
The different aspects of, you know, we have trucks, we have buggies, we have UTVs, and we have ATVs. We don’t need like “jack of all trades, master of none” tech people, so Ron Karlman specialises in Volkswagens, Colton Schaal, UTVs, the tech director’s really big in trucks, and then we have our engine guy Robert Braun, he’s big on anything engine-wise. It makes a really strong team. Tech is important to keep guys honest and keep the racing fair, and on the other hand also, [to] not make bad decisions, you know? If a tech guy disqualifies you for something that you shouldn’t have been disqualified for, it’s a way bigger problem than having had an unstrict tech that didn’t check anything.
TCF: To stay on the topic of buggies, Todd Thelen singled out the buggies in particular for putting on a good show at Slinger, and I’ve seen a lot of talk about Joe Jorgensen tearing it up in Class 11. Since it is not charging an entry fee for next week’s race at Gravity Park, would you say that that is the class that fans attending would be especially excited for, or is there another class that you feel would catch their excitement even more?
WF: What we’re doing is a free entry fee for the Light Buggy class that Joe’s in and the Super Stock class. Basically, those two classes in the state have over fifty race cars, and they have the highest potential for people to show up (for) free entry fee. SODA and Gravity Park are putting their money on the line to see if extra racers will really show up for zero entry fee like they keep saying they will. If it doesn’t work, it’ll be a while until I try it again or we might not, and if it does work, we’re going to do it at more races. It’s something I would really like to do for the racers, but basically, you need more pit passes sold to pay for the winnings, you know what I mean?
Nobody’s ever liked the fact that off-road racing has these high entry fees, and it was hard in the first place just to pay him back a hundred percent and to bring in extra sponsor money for these classes. The next step is to get rid of them if we can. I’m really hoping we can, one class at a time, just start abolishing the entry fees for our race series. The racers are the ones doing all the work, spending all the money on parts and putting on the show for the fans, and anything we can do to keep them on the track and save them money, especially in this economy, is always a step in the right direction.
TCF: To stay on the topic of Gravity Park, I think you held every race weekend there last year and you have three there this year. What’s your relationship with the guys over there? How is SODA so close with Gravity Park?
WF: Bob (Schneider) owns the track and it’s kind of his fault this SODA thing got started, if you want to say it that way. He held different specials. Every year, he’d have some racer help him put on a special here and there; he’d have an off-road special and a circle track special for the Super Stocks that I race with.
I basically just called them up in the spring because I hadn’t seen anything advertised, but usually, the guys that were helping him out, they weren’t like, super organised all the time. I was like, ‘Hey, are you going to have any specials this year? I want to put it on my calendar.’ You know what I mean? Anytime anybody puts a race on, an off-road race, if it’s not more than a day’s drive, I always try to make it and support the track and the race. When I called him, he’s like, ‘Well, whatever you want to do,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to put on races,’ and he’s like, ‘I know you’d be good at it.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe, but I’m a racer and I already own technically two businesses.’ I’m like, ‘I’m a busy guy and I have a young family,’ and he’s like, ‘Why don’t you just throw a special?’
I told him I would if two of my friends that were very experienced would help me, and I called them up, they said they would. So I told Bob I would, and within like a week, they both quit. [laugh] I ended up restoring SODA, and then, instead of running one special race, I decided to run a three-race series, a really short three-race series and kind of just see how it went. I figured, worst case scenario, I’d be selling SODA t-shirts for the rest of my life to pay off the debt I had from the three races and best case scenario, we get something going.
It worked out good last year. Bob’s very easy to work with and he’s smart about how he sets up his overhead. Most race tracks start at farms and he has a newer race track where the operating farm is like part of the facility and I think it’s cool. Some of the young racers, they kind of turn their nose up to it and I’m like, “You know, Crandon and everybody started as a farm.” They’ve been around for fifty years. You don’t realise it’s pretty much all farmers that have built pretty much every race track, you know what I mean?
TCF: Where did the idea to bring back the SODA name come from?
WF: SODA was the longest running short course off-road race series in history, as far as I’m aware. It started basically in the early seventies, and it was kind of taken over/put out of business in 1998. It basically sat idle and the name and the LLC, everything kind of just disappeared. We made all the phone calls and found out we could acquire the name for our short series and then late in the series, we found out the tech trailer still existed and it was at a farm for twenty-three years. It had all the tech equipment in it and plenty of mice. So our blue tech trailer is actually the original SODA tech trailer from the eighties and nineties with all the equipment and tools in it.
And we also acquired the history of basically Midwest off-road racing with the tech trailer of five, four-by-four skids of paperwork. [laugh] That’s in my garage where my wife’s minivan is supposed to park. I’m trying to get the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame; they are interested in archiving it, but with all the craziness going on in the economy, they’re not running over here to do it yet. It’s pretty crazy that I have the history of off-road racing in Wisconsin sitting in my garage, but it came with the trailer.
TCF: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?
WF: A big thanks to all our sponsors for the Slinger race, especially Town & Country, and all of our volunteers. I think a lot of people see my, as I’m the president, people see my name on Facebook a lot and stuff, but realistically, there’s forty officials and volunteers and the four-wheel drive off-road club, they bring volunteers. It takes a village to run this and I’m very lucky what we’re doing with SODA resonates so positively with so much of the racing community that we have. Really awesome volunteers and help with tons of experience, and a lot of them have more experience than I do, maybe sharper than I am too. It makes just a massive difference in how things run, having all that experience at the track. Everybody’s been in so many different series and so many races, they know how it’s supposed to work. I can’t say enough about the volunteers and the SODA board members and officials and class reps and how much work they put into it and how hard they work at it, and our media too.
That’s really what makes all this possible, you know?