It would be too cliché to say Luke Fenhaus enjoyed a dream season in 2021. There’s no way the 17-year-old from Wausau, Wisconsin could have dreamed everything that happened during the year.
The season started with a win in the Dells Icebreaker and ended with Fenhaus collecting the 2021 Kulwicki Driver Development Program championship. At Slinger Super Speedway, Fenhaus won both the track championship and the Slinger Nationals.
There was also the little matter of racing on a national stage, competing against the likes of Tony Stewart and Marco Andretti when the Camping World SRX Series came to Slinger thanks to that Slinger Nationals victory.
Yet when you ask Fenhaus about his 2021, he’s just as quick to note the failures that pushed him and his team to step up their game all year long.
“It was an incredible year. There were times we struggled, but for the most part, we were running up front, running fast in practice, running good in qualifying, running good in the races,” said Fenhaus. “We got those three wins that were huge for us and propelled this year to what it was.
“We took what we lost, what we struggled with, and made it an advantage and learned from it. We just minimized our mistakes for the rest of the season. We had to go forward from losing all those races to gaining. We’d go back to the shop, learned what we did wrong and capitalized on it, made the most of it.”
In any other year for a young, up-and-coming driver from Wisconsin, winning the Slinger Nationals is a bucket-list accomplishment that would make your career.
For Fenhaus in 2021, it was just the start of a whirlwind week. Winning the Nationals earned him the “golden ticket” to compete as Slinger’s hometown hero when the Superstar Racing Experience came to the high-banked quarter-mile just five nights later.
It was an incredible experience, but it also left little time to bathe in his Slinger Nationals success.
“Winning Slinger Nationals was huge. That was a dream come true for me, to win that race and be a part of that race. It was hard to let it sink in with the SRX things going on, all the interviews happening. It was hard to take a step back, realize it all and enjoy it with your team and everyone else. I don’t think we had a time or place to do that.
“The SRX race was obviously huge, which was why it didn’t sink in. The next day, I’m on TV with CBS. Michael Waltrip and Marco Andretti are on there as well, and that’s when it started. There was nothing really to celebrate about the Nationals. It was all moving forward to the SRX race. Now I have to get prepped, because I want to win the SRX race.”
It was hard to let it sink in with the SRX things going on, all the interviews happening. It was hard to take a step back, realize it all and enjoy it with your team and everyone else.
Fenhaus didn’t win the SRX race, but he was arguably just one late caution away from doing so. He led 92 laps before finishing second to Marco Andretti. Throughout the entirety of the 150-lap main event, he battled with Andretti and Tony Stewart for the top spot.
The battles earned the respect of Stewart, Andretti and the rest of the SRX roster of superstars. It also made Fenhaus a household name in racing circles after the young driver stood toe-to-toe with some of the best to ever don a firesuit.
“It put me on the map. I got a ton of publicity out of the SRX deal and made those connections with Tony, Marco Andretti, Ray Evernham and so many guys there. They were so cool to meet, and now I can talk to them as a friend. It was cool to make those connections.”
Of course, Fenhaus also spent most of 2021 battling with another great, Rich Bickle. Bickle, the five-time Snowball Derby champion, competed in his final season during 2021.
The young lion and the sage veteran crossed paths plenty of times during 2021, starting with the Joe Shear Classic at Madison International Speedway where they finished 1-2, with Bickle taking the checkered flag.
Slinger’s track championship came down to a fight between Bickle and Fenhaus, with Bickle winning the finale but Fenhaus claiming the title.
Bickle has never been shy in criticism of younger racers, but it was different with Fenhaus in 2021. The two earned each other’s respect and admiration throughout the year.
“I knew of him, but I had never talked to him,” said Fenhaus of BIckle. “I hadn’t shared a word with him before this season. To race out the Joe Shear Classic with him and share so many moments with him throughout the season was cool to me. I learned a ton from him, and he shared a ton of memories with me. He helped me a ton on and off the race track.
“It was so cool to do that with him and take that step with him. It’s sad that it’s over. We just got started, and now it’s ending. It was cool to share the moment and get to know him, realize what he’s been through and where he’s going. It was an honor to race with him all year long.”
After a remarkable season, Fenhaus was named the 2021 Kulwicki Driver Development Program champion. Hoisting the Kulwicki Cup was Fenhaus’ main goal for the year, and it also came with a stout challenge.
“That was our main goal this year, to capture the Kulwicki title. That was big for me. There were plenty of eyes on that program. Dylan [Zampa] and a few others were right there all year, so that made it tough.
“It was tough to do, but I’m glad we did it. It was a huge step in the right direction. I was honored to be a champion of such a unique program.”
Last week, Fenhaus was named as one of four drivers who will take part in the ARCA Menards Series’ preseason practice at Daytona International Speedway through its Road to Daytona program.
It’s a small step towards loftier goals in his racing career. There is nothing concrete beyond continuing his own racing operation in Wisconsin for 2022, but he hopes hard work and more checkered flags will continue to pave new roads and create opportunities.
“We’re making progress. Obviously, funding-wise, it’s hard to do an ARCA deal because there’s so much funding that goes into those series. I’m trying to seal the deal for next year with a couple of things we hope to announce soon. For now, we’ve got our own stuff. We’re going to build a new car and race up here as much as possible.
"I’ve got a deal going for down south, which should help, but for now it’s trying to win some more races up here. That’s what it takes, win races, running good to put the eyeballs on you. I’ve got a couple of things working, but right now it’s all about Luke Fenhaus Racing and trying to progress it.”