As a NASCAR star, the demand on Stewart's time is constant, whether he's at Eldora or a Cu
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 provided a Field of Dreams moment for Stewart before he
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 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."
Stewart with the track's legendary former owner, Earl Baltes. Photo by Larry Kellogg
Stewart has made some improvements to the vintage track, including a new state-of-the-art scoreboard outside the second turn, significant restroom upgrading, a new catch fence completely around the outside of the track, resurfacing of the track, a new lighting system, and new bleachers behind the south end of the facility. Some fans have indicated that it's becoming the Bristol of dirt racing.
Having been around the sport nearly his entire life, Stewart obviously knows how to play the promotions game. He even approached the IROC folks about having the cars run at Eldora. If the group can get sponsorship to continue running the all-star series, Stewart says IROC may run a race at Eldora in the future.
"I'd sure like to see how well some of those pavement guys would adapt to the Eldora dirt," he says.
With his murderous NASCAR schedule, where just about every minute is choreographed, it's hard to believe that a Nextel Cup superstar could be an active player in the track's operation. But when a Cup race is in the eastern part of the country, it's a safe bet that Stewart will show up if it's humanly possible. And it's certainly not to the sound of the public-address system blaring, "Tony Stewart has just entered the grounds." Nope, that's just not Stewart's style.
"I fly in to the Celina Airport, which is located north of the track," Stewart says. "Then I'll pick up my four-wheeler and go down into the pits and see if everything is running OK. I try not to interfere but help if I can, like picking up a stray part on the track or checking on an accident.
"I always like to look at the condition of the track. That's one thing that I think I really know. I'll let the other operations at the track be done by those who know how to do them."
The colors on Stewart's Dirt Late Model match the colors of his Cup car. Photo by Larry Ke
He says that he loves the short-track fans, many of which watched him during his open wheel days. "They are so laid-back and respectful, they don't rush up to me and demand an autograph," Stewart adds. "They also respect my time when I'm at the track, especially when I'm working with my open wheel teams when they are at the track."
Maybe the most ambitious undertaking that Stewart dreamed up for his new track was the so-called Nextel Prelude, a race featuring a number of Nextel Cup drivers (including Stewart) racing Dirt Late Models on the track's high banks. The event sold out immediately in the two years it has been held, with the track taking on the air of corporate America and NASCAR.
Not to overlook the open wheel fans, Stewart instituted the Old Spice Summer Sizzler, which brought former open wheelers Dave Blaney and Kasey Kahne to the track to join Stewart in racing 360 winged Sprint Cars against the drivers of that type of race vehicle.
Stewart says that he's constantly looking for new events to add to an already ambitious schedule.
"I'm thinking about some kind of big UMP Modified event," he says, "and I've also thought about maybe getting ARCA back to this place, where they ran back in the 1960s." It's not surprising to learn, given his celebrity status, that Stewart has been able to bring significant national sponsorship to his track. The list includes the likes of FedEx, Home Depot, Nextel, Old Spice, Crown Royal, GM Performance Parts, Subway, Chevy, MAC Tools, and Advance Auto Parts.
Eldora Speedway holds a unique position in short tracks by being rated at the top in both open wheel and stock car categories. In open wheel, it's the Kings Royal and the USAC Four-Crown Nationals, while the Dirt Late Models have the World 100 and the $100,000-to-win Dream races.
"Hey, I plan to try as hard as I can to keep that top position for those two types of cars."
Stewart has company in role of track owner
Tony Stewart certainly isn't the only NASCAR driver who is involved in the promoting and/or owning of short tracks. Here's a look at other Cup drivers who are involved as track owners.
Schrader has been at it the longest, first becoming the co-owner of I-55 Speedway in Pevely, Missouri, 11 years ago. Next came the Paducah (Kentucky) International Raceway, which was purchased by Schrader and Bob Sargent, with Stewart becoming a partner more recently. A dirt track in Macon, Illinois, was the latest purchase to date, with Sargent and Stewart again being partners with Schrader.
So, what's the motivation for the considerable Schrader involvement?
"All of those tracks were in financial trouble, and there was just no way that I wanted them to go away," he says. "Overseeing these tracks is like running any business. In racing, it's putting on a good show at a reasonable price."
Schrader downplayed the influence of his celebrity status on the tracks' success. "Oh, I guess that it certainly doesn't hurt, but I don't think it's really a big deal," he says.
Schrader says that he's had all kinds of phone calls from other tracks in trouble. "But I would only be interested in short tracks in the close proximity of my home state, Missouri."
Knowing Schrader's dirt racing roots, it's not surprising to learn that the trio of tracks are all dirt.
For Blaney, it is an entirely different situation, as he is a co-owner of Sharon Speedway in Ohio. He was one of a number of family members purchasing this eastern Ohio dirt track, one of the oldest continuously operated tracks in the nation.
"I try to get over to shows when I can, and I'm involved with helping make the race schedule," says Blaney. "When we bought the track, we didn't have plans for doing much to it, but that all changed when we realized there was a lot to be done. So we re-did a lot, including shortening the length of the track for better racing."
Blaney says he had zero experience for this undertaking.
"Heck, all I've ever done is race, and I looked at racing from that view. But now, you also have to look at decisions from the fans' point of view. Sometimes it's hard to please both. But one thing for sure, we try to run exciting shows and get done early."
Since 2001, Benson has been a limited partner of the 7/16-mile asphalt Berlin Speedway in Michigan. The president of the track, Scott Lane, says he believes the reason Benson got into the ownership game was his love of the track and a desire to see it remain active.
"Johnny ran at the track during his stock car learning days and was a Late Model champion here in the 1990s," says Lane. "He still runs here two or three times a year and has his own car when he does."
Benson is still on the Berlin Speedway Rules Committee and offers his opinions, but never pushes them on anybody.
"Johnny's got a real fondness for Berlin," adds Lane. "And even today, after running in NASCAR tracks for a number of years, still says it's his favorite track."
Earnhardt is a co-owner of the aforementioned Paducah International Speedway. But his involvement with a new Alabama motorsports facility has gotten more publicity in terms of track ownership.
The ambitious project will include an asphalt speedway, a road course, a dragstrip, and a dirt track. And in an interesting way to recognize Earnhardt's involvement, the official name of the track will be "Alabama Motorsports Park, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Speedway."
There are a number of investors in the project, and they are joined by Earnhardt siblings Kelly Earnhardt Elledge and Kerry Earnhardt, marking their first professional collaboration.
"Our family business has always been racing, for generations," says Earnhardt Jr. "And we hope this new facility will encourage the next generation of Earnhardts to want to be involved in the sport." -B.H.
The Prelude brings out stars from Nextel Cup. Photo by Larry Kellogg
Here were a number of significant races during the early years of Eldora Speedway. For example, during the '60s, there were a number of ARCA races at the track, including two that were 500 laps in length. There were also some USAC races at the track when that organization was one of the major stock car sanctioning bodies.
But in the early '70s, Earl Baltes decided that he wanted to have a large stand-alone event on his own. Since open wheel and stock cars were popular at the track, Baltes had a tough choice to make.
"To make the final decision, I ended up flipping a coin and it came up stock cars," Baltes says.
In restrospect, Baltes has to be glad that stock cars won because the resulting race has become the biggest national Dirt Late Model event. He named it the World 100, and it was the first of the big-dollar events. And even today, it's still a career-maker and the race to win.
Former winner Mike Duvall says, "The best cars from all over the country are always there. I think Earl could pay $500 to win and everybody would still be there."
The first World was in 1971, and Earl paid $4,000 to win. Every year since, he's added a thousand dollars, making this year's event worth $40,000. The prestige of the event can be measured in two ways. First, there are the throngs of fans that make the scene every year, packing every viewing position in the place.
Next, there is the unbelievable car count, with a high of well over 200 racing machines. With that many cars battling to make the 24-car starting field (26 cars today), the odds of any particular racer starting the feature have been about 1 in 10.
Even superstars have to worry about making the race. And every year a number of the sport's big guns have to load up and go home.
The World 100 has been a showcase for many of the members of the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame. Some of those members include Donnie Moran, Scott Bloomquist, Pat Patrick, Charlie Swartz, Jeff Purvis, Larry Moore, Chub Frank, Charlie Hughes, Ed Sanger, Doug Kenimer, and Duvall.
With the fastest cars inverted for the heat races, you better believe that there is furious racing as those quicker cars try to get up to the front. In fact, many think the heats are more exciting than the feature itself.
So if you are a Dirt Late Model fan, this is the event to mark on your calendar. It's something that you will never forget. By the way, it's always held the second weekend in September, this year September 7-8. It's the biggest event at Eldora, crowd-wise, with the track's campgrounds taking on the look of a small town.
The Nextel Prelude is a charity benefit. Photo by Larry Kellogg
With the World 100 having so much prestige, Baltes decided he needed another big-time event. It was called The Dream, and the first race took place in 1994, paying $100,000 to win, which was huge money for the time period.
Getting much of the excitement from the World, that first event drew an unbelievable 234 entries. The Dream continues to be one of the preeminent events today, with this year's show taking place June 8 and 9. It's still not too late to get over there and see it. Like the World 100, The Dream attracts a majority of the heavy hitters.
Eldora is right in the middle of UMP (United Midwest Promoters) country, an organization that sanctions a huge number of races at dozens of tracks in mid-America.
Baltes decided in 2001 to end the UMP season at Eldora with a big event, hosting UMP Dirt Late Models and Modifieds. In 2006, the event attracted a stellar field of over 200 entries from both classes.
Stewart will continue this gathering, as he's doing with all the classic stock car events at the track. This year's UMP weekend will take place on October 5 and 6.
Even though Stewart has only been in charge since the '05 season, he already has established a classic race of his own: The Prelude, which was first held during his inaugural year as owner.
The Prelude is held on the Wednesday before the Dream race and brings Stewart's NASCAR environment to the venerable dirt track. The exhibition brings in a number of Nextel Cup drivers, some with and some without dirt stock car experience, and puts them all in Dirt Late Models for an actual race.
The cast of characters has been impressive through the event's two years. This year, the third annual Prelude will be staged on June 6.
Here are some of the drivers who showed up for the first two Nextel Preludes: Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader, Kyle Petty, Kevin Harvick, Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace, and the ageless Red Farmer. Of course, Stewart is out there competing as well.
Most of the guest drivers drive borrowed cars. And a number of the owners of those cars detailed them in the drivers' NASCAR color schemes. -B.H.