As a NASCAR star, the demand...
As a NASCAR star, the demand on Stewart's time is constant, whether he's at Eldora or a Cup track. Photo by Larry Kellogg
Tony Stewart has had many great races at Eldora Speedway through the years. In Midgets, Sprint Cars, and Champ Dirt Cars, he has run up front at the half-mile track. But during those days, his official capacity at the legendary dirt speedplant in eastern Ohio was nothing more than as a driver.
Stewart's relationship with Eldora took on a different aura when he left the track by plane after a large '04 Sprint Car event.
"It was a view that I'd never seen before, and it really got to me," he says. "I left in a jet and we turned back over the track. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Field of Dreams. It was totally dark with the exception of that little dirt track sitting out there in the middle of Ohio farmland. Then there were those long lines of headlights and taillights worming their way away from the track."
While it may have had a dreamlike quality on that night, in reality, the track had been there for over 50 years and its presence in the racing world had grown through the decades.
"I thought right then that if I was ever to own a racetrack," recalls Stewart, "this would definitely have to be the one."
An aerial view of Eldora Speedway...
An aerial view of Eldora Speedway provided a Field of Dreams moment for Stewart before he became owner of the track.
That would be the situation sooner than he ever imagined, and the process was brought about, for the most part, by Earl Baltes, the owner of Eldora since its inception.
Baltes is a legend in the sport as big as the track itself. With his down-home nature, one might have thought that he didn't have the business savvy to run such a racing facility. That assumption couldn't have been further from the truth, though, as Baltes has organized and carried out a lot of the largest and most prestigious short track classics through the years, in both open wheel competition and stock cars. In 2001, he even hosted the Eldora Million, a stock car race that gave Dirt Late Model ace Donnie Moran a seven-digit payoff for his win.
But quite possibly the best management decision by Baltes was the recruitment of Stewart as the track's anointed owner. And did the pitch to Stewart ever come out of nowhere!
"Earl called me out of the blue in 2003 and told me to come over to the track, he wanted to talk to me," says Stewart. "All of a sudden, he told me that he wanted me to be the new owner of the track because he knew that I would continue the tradition of the track.
"The decision was indeed rooted in Baltes' love of Eldora.
"We were offered more by a couple other people, but my wife and I definitely thought that Tony was the right person to run it," says Baltes.
Stewart says the fans at Eldora...
Stewart says the fans at Eldora are neither demanding nor rude. Photo by Larry Kellogg
So in 2005, it became Tony's place, with many of the track's longtime fans wondering what changes would be made. It turned out that there really weren't that many, and the changes that were made were all for the good of the facility.
"One thing for sure, I didn't want to mess up things that made Eldora, Eldora," says Stewart. "It was a situation of 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' I felt much of the success of the track came from the longtime dedicated employees who love the place and know what to do to keep it running. That's why I wanted them to stay, and they did."
Stewart says, though, that he realized he would never replace the main man who didn't return as track owner in 2005.
"Earl was an institution here and the rapport he had with the fans was amazing," Stewart says. "He spoke to everybody and they all loved him. Earl was the greatest short track promoter ever, and there is no way that I'll ever completely fill his shoes. However, I'll do my best to continue his vision."