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Joe Fennel may be the dean of Dickson Street restaurateurs, but this weekend, he answers to the nickname “The Godpepper” for his role in establishing one of the region’s most renowned running events, the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival.
Fennell, 62, will watch the festival launch its 27th edition this Friday at the University of Arkansas Experimental Farm on Garland Ave. with the Tom Lewis One-Mile Pepper Dash at 6:30 p.m. The festival itself begins in earnest at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the same location with the Chile Pepper 10K open followed by an open 5K, collegiate, high school and junior high races.
Before the day is done an estimated 6,000 runners including 120 high school and 80 collegiate teams will compete in 11 races. The event, which is expected to draw 5,000 spectators this year, has contributed $497,000 to Northwest Arkansas high school cross-country programs since its inception.
Fennel, who founded Jose’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in 1980 and Bordinos Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar in 1996, stepped away from actively running the festival, which is one of the largest and most-respected cross-country events in the nation, but he still regards it as one of his greatest collaborations.
“It was a way to give back to the community in a needed area,” Fennel said. “By the time we started the race in 1989, we were getting on solid footing with Jose’s, and I had a little more time to put into something outside the restaurant. But the success of the Chile Pepper has come from the involvement of so many — sponsors, volunteers, supporters, the University of Arkansas. Everyone came together to make the Chile Pepper what it is today and to show support for the local high school cross-country programs.”
Seeds for the festival were planted during a run when then Fayetteville High School cross-country coach Kelly O’Meara mentioned to Fennel and Randy Rhine that his team’s budget was $100.
“Things were different then,” said Fennel, who is president of the 39-member Dickson Street Merchants Association. “There wasn’t as much money to go around, and most of it went to football and basketball. But, even back then, $100 wasn’t a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about buying shoes and uniforms and paying for trips. We decided to do something about it.”
Fennel and Rhine mustered enough volunteers, and they hosted the first Chile Pepper 10K in May at Razorback Golf Course where the event was held for years. The proceeds from the initial race went to Fayetteville’s program, but as the race grew into the event it is now the Chile Pepper Board of Directors made the decision to spread the wealth to other cross-country programs in the Northwest Arkansas area.
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