WHERE THE RUBBER LITERALLY MEETS THE ROAD. Fireball Run competitors line up during a previous season of the series, which can be viewed on Amazon Prime.
Fireball Run is a lot of things: a television show, a 2,000-mile cross-country road rally, a life-sized trivia game, an economic development and tourism promotion tool, and even a way to raise awareness for missing children. And this month, Fireball Run will be yet another feather in Eau Claire’s cap: The “Adventurally” series – which can be viewed on Amazon Prime – will kick off its 11th season in Eau Claire on Sept. 23.
The physical setting won’t be the only role the Chippewa Valley will play in the series: One of the show’s 40 teams will be from Eau Claire. Luke Hanson and Julie Thoney will compete as the Xcelerators, so named because the team is sponsored by Thoney’s employer, Xcel Energy.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity for our community to have some more exposure, as far as all the great things that are happening here.” – Julie Thoney, competitor on Fireball Run, which will begin its 11th season in Eau Claire
Thoney, the community service manager at Xcel’s Eau Claire office, acknowledges that she originally declined when asked to take part in the series. “It was a little outside my comfort zone … I don’t want to eat bugs or sleep with snakes,” she said with a laugh. Fortunately, however, those kinds of challenges aren’t part of Fireball Run: In fact, the producers shy away from the term “reality show” when describing the program. They prefer to describe it as “factual entertainment,” because instead of navigating concocted scenarios, participants drive real-world highways and visit real-life sites that viewers can go see for themselves.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity for our community to have some more exposure, as far as all the great things that are happening here,” Thoney said about how Eau Claire will benefit from appearing on Fireball Run. “I think it’s going to highlight some of our businesses and our downtown locations, and it will talk about all of the cultural activities we have here.”
The adventure will begin Saturday, Sept. 23, in Phoenix Park. From roughly 9am to 5pm, visitors will be able to mingle with the teams, check out their vehicles, and see the series being filmed up close. Between 7am and 9am the following day, the cars will line up on nearby Barstow Street, after which the green flag will be waved and the competitors will hit the road for their next destination: Rochester, Minnesota. Over the ensuing eight days, competitors will wind their way across the heartland, hitting Dubuque, Burlington, and Fort Dodge in Iowa and then Vermillion, Yankton, Pierre, and Rapid City in South Dakota. Along the way they’ll see the sights, have unscripted adventures, and distribute posters bearing the images of missing children.
WATCH THEM XCEL. Luke Hanson, left, and Julie Thoney will represent Eau Claire as the Xcelerators.
Thoney and Hanson, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., have been learning what they can about the cities, gathering maps and gazetteers to avoid getting lost, and building a network of contacts who can help them in various cities. (Competitors sometimes go on scavenger hunt-style quests, so having access to local knowledge helps.)
“Each day we get a mission, and we have no idea what the mission is or where within the particular city it will send us,” Thoney said.
And, because this is a road rally, vehicles play a role, too, with each team providing its own wheels. As befits a vehicle sponsored by a power company, the Xcelerators will be driving a 2017 Ford Fusion Energi, a plug-in hybrid. Other teams will be traveling in everything from Deloreans to Porches to a 1969 Chevy C-10 panel truck. With its wide array of vehicles and competitors (who include local officials, former Miss Americas, and an original Power Rangers star), Fireball Run a bit of a spiritual successor to the 1981 film The Cannonball Run, albeit without Bert Reynolds, Farrah Faucet, or any of the speeding. (All the vehicles will be tracked via GPS, in part so producers can ensure they aren’t breaking traffic laws.)
While the program will be recorded this fall – and fans will be able to follow the action at fireballrun.com – the completed series won’t be ready to watch until next year. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, you’ll be able to view the series free on your TV, computer, or other digital device. If you aren’t, you can download individual episodes from Amazon for 99 cents each. (And if you can’t wait until next year to see a Chippewa Valley participant on Fireball Run, you don’t have to: The 10th season of the show, which was recorded in the fall of 2016, included an Eau Claire contestant, Elaine Coughlin.)
Whatever way viewers tune in for her team’s adventures, Thoney is looking forward to the opportunity to promote Eau Claire and to learn more about other communities. “Hopefully we can be good competitors and make the Chippewa Valley and our companies proud,” she said.
Learn more about Fireball Run and how you can watch it at fireballrun.com. To vote for the Eau Claire-based team, the Xcelerators, as the fan favorite, go to www.fireballrun.com/events/2017-big-country/teams/eau-claire-xcelerators.