Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 5/21/12
CAMBRIDGE, Wis. Traces of the local boy's rise to national prominence on the NASCAR circuit are abundant in the streets of Cambridge, a source of pride that folks in town hold close like a badge of honor.A giant No. 17 logo is fastened to the top of the fire department building. That's the number Cambridge native and NASCAR superstar Matt Kenseth drives each weekend in the Sprint Cup Series. The fire department numbered one of its trucks 17 in his honor, too. The town of Cambridge even has a street named after him.They haven't forgotten where Kenseth received his start, traveling to nearby towns in the late 1980s winning short track races. And they have maintained their loyalty to Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a former Winston Cup Series champion. "It's pretty cool just to see that people from a small town can make it at a big level and be successful," said Cambridge resident Owen Johnson."It's a big deal," said Dawn Johnson, owner of the Sports Page bar in Cambridge. "We're a small town. We have a celebrity in NASCAR."Yet for as proud as the people of Cambridge are of Kenseth, that's how proud Kenseth is of the town that helped mold him. Though he lives in North Carolina with a wife and two kids, he still returns home on occasion to see family and friends. And even when he isn't in Cambridge, he's made sure to leave a mark on the town (population 1,400).A 10,000 square foot building on the west edge of Cambridge represents Kenseth's lasting legacy. It is the home of the Matt Kenseth Fan Club, drawing thousands of ardent supporters from across the globe into Cambridge annually. Kenseth had the facility built in 2004 to share his accomplishments with his fans. "We're really a destination spot on weekends," said Susan Carpenter, one of the employees at the fan club. "We have people coming through constantly from all over the country. We get people from Australia, Canada just all over."Inside the building is an overflow of Kenseth memorabilia, from his Daytona 500 trophies to driver suits to actual racecars used in competition. A section is reserved for fans to purchase Kenseth merchandise as well hats, mugs, shot glasses and shirts, among other items. Merchandise can also be purchased from Kenseth's online store.Matt's sister, Kelley Kenseth Busse, helps run the facility with Carpenter and described the building as vital to keeping Matt's growing fan club alive.The fan club actually began 17 years ago out of the family house but quickly grew as Matt's success soared.He debuted on the Winston Cup Series in 1998 as a fill-in for Bill Elliott, who was attending his father's funeral on the day of a race in Dover, Del. Kenseth finished in sixth place, the third-best debut for any driver, and continued to climb up the racing ranks. He went on to win the NASCAR Winston Cup championship in 2003. At the time, Kelley owned a business that was part Laundromat, part video store and part motel. She also helped run Matt's fan club. But demand for Matt Kenseth gear was so high that she had to rent out three motel rooms just to hold all of the merchandise."With three people running it, it was just crazy," Kelley Kenseth said. "The truckload would come in and we'd sit in the parking lot and count 400 jackets, box them up and UPS would come."After Matt won the Winston Cup series, he hatched an idea to build his own fan club on the outskirts of town. That way, the family could fit trophies, cars and other memorabilia under one roof without the need for three rented motel rooms. Matt purchased land, and the fan club broke ground in February 2004. By July of that year, the Matt Kenseth Fan Club building was ready. "It just made sense," Kelley Kenseth said. "Everything was getting bigger than we could really handle."Yearly membership dues are 25. This year, as part of a 17th anniversary celebration of Kenseth's fan club, fans can bring in two items to be signed by Kenseth for free. Just a few weeks ago, he was in town to sign gear and film a commercial for a local Blain's Farm and Fleet.Carpenter said there were roughly 3,000 memberships to the fan club. Since some are family memberships, she estimated that nearly 5,000 people were a part of the club.Of course, his biggest fans remain in Cambridge, the town that helped Matt Kenseth forge a racing career."They don't have to be fans of Matt's," Kelley said. "They don't have to be proud of him. They can choose whomever they want to like in NASCAR. But they pretty much choose him. He gets a lot of local support. I think it's very helpful that he is a very genuine person."Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter
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