Editor's note: Kevin VanDam will appear on ESPN2's morning show, "Cold Pizza," Thursday, July 22 at 7 ET to talk about his angling career and his starring role in a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials promoting the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ten of the 53 contenders in the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer will have a little extra momentum in the July 30-Aug. 1 tournament thanks to their success in this spring's inaugural Bassmaster Elite 50 series.
The top 10 list after the June 19 series finale includes Kevin VanDam of Kalmazoo, Mich., Stacy King of Reeds Spring, Mo., Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas, Zell Rowland of Montgomery, Texas, Mark Davis of Mount Ida, Ark., Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., Tommy Biffle of Waggoner, Okla., and Dustin Wilks of Rocky Mount, N.C.
The Elite 50 series highlighted an all-star line-up in the sport's first showdown style, no-entry-fee circuit with a guaranteed paycheck for every one of the participants who qualified a milestone in the sport.
"I never even considered the possibility of something like the Elite 50s where we don't have to fish for our own money and where we have a chance to win some big money and we're being paid the equivalent of an appearance fee like other sports," added veteran Texas pro Alton Jones, who finished second in the Elite 50 points standings. "Even the last-place guy after the four tournaments was guaranteed to make $20,000."
Two pros heading into the Classic with the most momentum from the Elite 50 series are Kevin VanDam and Mark Davis.
Michigan's VanDam, 36, is the Elite 50 points champion, as well a former Classic winner and three-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
"I definitely put a lot of emphasis on the Elite 50s and it was definitely a goal to win that," the seven-time BASS winner said. "And to be able to come through and do it, I'm feeling it going into the Classic, without a doubt. I definitely feel good about it.
"I'm pretty excited about it. I'm focused to try and win. My last two Classics haven't been very good at all, by my standards. So I'm going into it with the idea that I'm going for the win. If I come up short and I don't make the cut and finish in 53rd place, it isn't going to bother me one bit because I know how you have to fish in the Classic, and that's to win."
Arkansas' Davis, 40, is another three-time Angler of the Year and past Classic champion. And he enters the Classic with a boatload of momentum that comes from winning two of the four Elite 50 tournaments.
"I think it gives you a little bit of an edge from the standpoint that you've been competing more days (than the pros that didn't qualify for the Elite 50s)," said Davis, who also won a CITGO Bassmaster Tour event this season. "As we head on closer to the Classic it possibly keeps you a little sharper. You're not sitting on your duff somewhere getting stale.
"I think the more you compete, the sharper you stay. Plus, several of us had good tournaments like myself. I'm confident and feel like I'm carrying a little bit of that momentum with me on into the Classic."
The 2004 Classic champion earns automatic entry into the 2005 Bassmaster Elite 50 series, an added bonus to the riches that come from the world championship tournament, including a $200,000 check and the potential to collect as much as $1 million in additional earnings.
That automatic ticket into the Elite 50s is no small windfall. With the fan response and media coverage the circuit received in its recently completed inaugural season, the Bassmaster pros now have an upper echelon showcase circuit to aim for each year.
"I'm a big believer in the Elite 50s," reigning Classic champion Michael Iaconelli said. "That is definitely the direction that the sport needs to go into. I think it's part of the evolution of our sport.
"What we're doing is trying to help this sport really grow and get up to a caliber of other professional sports. One way to do that — and you use other sports like baseball, golf, NASCAR as models — is to make it more of an entertainment sport by bringing the fans in and making it more of a sport where the fans can get their hands around the pros. So I think this is a natural progression."
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Local Sponsors include the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission, Visit Charlotte, the Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center Authority, the Rock Hill Sports and Tourism Council and Time Warner Cable.