A grassroots fundraising campaign is expected to breathe new life into a central Illinois dragway, as local racers and supporters helped raise the needed capital for vital updates to its aging racing surface.
Coles County Dragway track operator Rodney Viehland, along with racer Katrina Shain, launched the campaign less than two months ago in an effort to raise money to resurface the first 330-feet of the track that was originally poured more than half a century ago. On Wednesday, the campaign crossed its $30,000 target, thanks to generous donations of $5,000 by a pair of individuals. Now, the campaign is working toward a second goal of raising $70,000, which would would permit Viehland to pave both lanes all the way to the 1/8-mile finish line.
Viehland operates the strip owned by the Fuqua family, whose patriarch, Bill Fuqua, Sr., was part of the original ownership group that built the strip in 1966.
“In 2010, I was a retired military guy working for Lockheed Martin, and I hated it…hated it with a passion. A friend of mine was about to retire and we took over the track and have had it ever since,” says Viehland. Rodney and his wife are now the sole operators. “We are the longest-running lessee’s the Fuqua family has had — they tell me I’m only the only person that’s ever made every payment on time and in full.”
Viehland has poured considerable funds into the facility, sharing that, “I own pretty much everything but the grass. The grandstands, all the buildings, the timing equipment, everything here I own.”
At the track’s banquet in January, Shain proposed the fundraiser to the racers. Initially, a number of racers expressed dissent with the idea as, according to Viehland, a former operator had deployed a similar fundraiser in the past and blew town without making any of the promised facility upgrades. But an outpouring of financial support has made the fundraiser successful in a span of just 50 days.
“I didn’t really want to be a part of it, because the racers already had a bad taste in their mouth about an owner pocketing the money and leaving,” Viehland says. “They were supposed to put bathrooms in here and all kinds of things. The track was closed for a while after all of that.”
Viehland notes the racing surface is the final piece of the puzzle that he believes will make Coles County more competitive in the region.
“The asphalt is from 1966, so it’s old. We are just extremely lucky to be able to get cars to hook and get down this track. We work very, very hard on it to keep it in good shape. But when you get to the 4.70 range and faster, it starts to have issues. We have a Pro Mod racer that’s local, we have local some Top Dragster racers, and I want them all to be able to use the facility,” he notes.
“I spent my entire life savings to take over this track. When I came in, there were 37 lights on the property and two worked. There were 20 speakers and one worked. Some of the return road asphalt was worse than gravel. The grandstands were falling through. The timing system was horrible. We took every penny we had to rehab it, and our car count numbers from 2011 to 2019 are up 233-percent and spectators up 56-percent. But our biggest stumbling block is this 1966 racing surface, so our goal was to redo the surface from 60- to 330-feet. Our concrete starting line is great, no one has any issues with it.”
The fundraiser has amassed $34,000 at press time; on Monday the paving company will begin work, and depending on how much is raised by then, additional length beyond the 330-foot mark will be resurfaced. Viehland hopes to have the work done within a matter of days, beginning next Monday.
Viehland has been overwhelmed by the generosity of so many in the local racing community. In the last three days the donation amount doubled. When a second donor called and extended a $5,000 donation to the cause, thus getting them to the finish line, Viehland says he was left speechless.
“I told myself, ‘we’re going to make this.’ Now, today we’re at $34,000. So, how do I feel?” he responds, pausing as he chokes back tears.
“I am not an emotional person at all, but when I talk about this, I can’t stop. I was in the military for over 20 years and spoke before foreign dignitaries and leaders on some very passionate issues, and never once did I lose my military bearing. But when the camera crews came yesterday, I did. Right now, I am,” he adds. “It’s just unbelievable. I know it’s going to be huge for us. It’s going to increase car counts, which is going increase spectators and I can then increase the purses. And we’ll have more money to make this place better. I take everything we get and put it back into the track. I know we could do more if we had more.”
Viehland knows there will be detractors of the idea of a fundraising campaign for improvements to a privately owned business, and he’s up front in addressing the topic.
“When we got this place, it was the Fred Sanford junkyard of racing facilities. It had a great following, but it was broken down. We took everything we could to try making it better, and we have made it better. But we haven’t made it perfect. We bring in $222,000 a year and we pay out $220,000 in expenses and payouts and insurance, and there’s $2,000 left at the end of the year and you still haven’t paid yourself and your wife. And I want to take that $2,000 and get something better for the track instead of putting it in my pocket. I’ve taken everything that I’ve got to do it, and there’s no help from the land owner to make the repairs. I could go back to Lockheed and make six-figures, but I’m here working hard and putting everything into it to keep it going. And if people can’t appreciate that, then they don’t need to come here.”
Both Viehland and the Fuqua’s are adamant that there is every intent of Coles County remaining a drag strip well into the future, providing racers stability in an area that has already lost one dragstrip this season.
“There’s nothing else that could be done with this land. It was a dump before it was a racetrack, so the toxins in the ground probably wouldn’t allow you to pour on it for development. You couldn’t farm it. Bill, Jr. promised his father that it would always be a dragstrip. His great grandson, Alex Fuqua, now owns it. He has said that the track has been in the Fuqua family for 50-plus years and he plans on having it here for 50 more years.”