EARL BALTES: ELDORA SPEEDWAY'S MAESTRO The Man Who Fueled Eldora Speedway's Historic Rise to Dirt Track Prominence ROSSBURG, Ohio (May 31, 2009) -- Long before Tony Stewart purchased Eldora Speedway in November 2004, the venerable, half-mile...
EARL BALTES: ELDORA SPEEDWAY'S MAESTRO
The Man Who Fueled Eldora Speedway's Historic Rise to Dirt Track Prominence
ROSSBURG, Ohio (May 31, 2009) -- Long before Tony Stewart purchased Eldora Speedway in November 2004, the venerable, half-mile dirt oval was already an iconic racing facility.
Nestled deep in the Ohio countryside, the 55-year-old dirt track has played host to some of the biggest names in racing -- a tradition that continues on Wednesday, June 3 with the fifth annual Prelude to the Dream.
Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards will join Stewart and numerous others in this year's edition of the all-star dirt late model race. All will have their eyes fixed on winning the feature event, while much of the nation affixes its eyes on them via the live HBO Pay-Per-View? broadcast.
The goal of the Pay-Per-View event is to benefit four entities that cater to severely injured military personnel or fallen soldiers and their families -- Wounded Warrior Project, Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Operation Homefront and Fisher House. Each has a mission that outlines assistance to the courageous men and women who serve their country and need additional support both during and after their time of service.
The fact that HBO Pay-Per-View is at Eldora speaks to the track's visionary nature -- a vision founded and implemented for 50 years by Earl Baltes, the former owner of Eldora Speedway.
The 88-year-old Baltes will take in this year's installment of the Prelude to the Dream from his designated seat in the base of the press tower. And while he may be retired from the track ownership business, he'll still watch with a deep sense of pride in what has become of the racetrack he carved into the Ohio dirt.
For more than 50 years Baltes tended to Eldora Speedway, the beloved half-mile dirt oval that has become a must-see destination for every grassroots race fan. A farmer with humble beginnings, Baltes played the ballroom music scene as a young man along with his family. Little did he know that the smooth notes of his saxophone during those gigs would later be replaced by the soothing sounds of racing engines. After noticing the crowd at the Eldora Ballroom during a dance one evening, Baltes began to think of an entertainment venture that would grab the attention of the surrounding residents.
It was his desire to entertain that prompted Baltes to purchase the Eldora Ballroom and the land surrounding it, and in 1954 he built what would become one of the most well-known venues in all of dirt track racing. The ballroom in which the track was named for still stands and continues to be used today. The name Eldora, which Baltes translated into "gold or riches," seemed to work for his new venture and was fitted into the newly finished race track's heritage.
The sound of racing engines took to the high banks of what was then the quarter-mile dirt track for the first time on June 6, 1954. Gene Pyle took the distinguished honors of becoming Eldora Speedway's -- or Eldora Park as it was known in the early years -- first-ever feature event winner. Pyle competed in an unsanctioned, open event featuring the race cars of the period, which were known as coupes or sport coupes.
The war years didn't affect the attendance or popularity of the track, and Baltes added to the racing activities by hosting dances every Wednesday and Sunday night in the Eldora Ballroom. A popular entertainment option for the region's residents, Eldora featured a full racing program every Sunday afternoon before a lighting system was installed. In 1956, Baltes reconfigured the track into a 3/8-mile oval, with the final, half-mile reconfiguration coming in 1958.
Orchestrating the Legend...
Since opening its doors in 1954, Baltes strived to make Eldora the frontrunner in motorsports growth and stability. The sport of dirt track racing has seen many milestones achieved within its catchfence and many of the greatest names of motorsports have taken to the high banks that are indicative of Eldora's legend. Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen, Pancho Carter, Gordon and current owner Stewart have all found their way to Eldora's victory lane in USAC Racing competition. With a longstanding reputation of separating the men from the boys, the track's notoriety has transcended almost every form of motorsports.
Baltes' progressive thinking and constant pursuit of uniqueness saw him host some of the most notable events in dirt track racing's history. In 1971, he created the World 100 for the late model series, which at the time of its inception paid the winner a $4,000 purse. The event has grown into one of the biggest race of any late model racer's season and is one of the largest attended races of the year. Baltes followed the success of the event up by creating the "Dirt Late Model Dream" in 1994, which also hosts the best late model drivers in the country. The event pays $100,000 to the winner each year.
The 1980s saw a growth spurt for the facility, as Baltes helped introduce the world to USAC Racing in 1984. Al Michaels and Jack Arute brought ABC's Wide World of Sports to Eldora Speedway to showcase sprint car racing's finest. Later that year, the first-ever King's Royal event, featuring winged sprint cars, was introduced to Eldora's loyal fans. Baltes and Eldora also hosted the first USAC 4-Crown Nationals event, which went on to become a late-season classic that still draws fans from across the country each year.
The next decade would prove to be just as remarkable for Baltes' half-mile field of dreams, as the introduction of ESPN's USAC Thunder Series brought sprint and midget car racing into the homes of millions. The events that were broadcast from Eldora were a pinnacle part of the network's plan, and Baltes and his staff gave racers and fans alike some of the best racing events to date. In 1993, Baltes again scored a major victory in the promoter's ranks, as he introduced "The Historical Big One" for the World of Outlaws Sprint Series to Eldora's faithful. The race, which paid the winner $100,000, was the first of its kind for dirt track racing.
In 2003, Baltes again entered uncharted territory. After months of consulting with race fans from all over the world, the then 82-year-old Baltes announced the Mopar Million Sprint at Eldora Speedway. Boasting a $1 million purse, the event would mark the first time that a corporate sponsor would back a marquee event at the facility. Featuring the non-winged sprint cars of USAC Racing, the event became an instant classic and provided Eldora Speedway with a path into a new era of racing.
A New Chapter...
After 50 years of ownership, Baltes and his wife, Berneice, made one of the most difficult decisions of their lives in late 2004. Running Eldora Speedway was all the couple had known for most of their lives, but with their advancing age and the daily demands of the facility growing in scope, they made the decision to sell the legendary half-mile track.
In November of 2004, it was announced that NASCAR star Tony Stewart had purchased Eldora Speedway. The official changing of the guard came on Nov. 18, 2004, as Baltes turned the reigns of his masterpiece over to the next generation of history makers. Stewart was a fan-favorite as the new owner, and he assured the Baltes family that he would continue to build on the track's longstanding history and traditions.
While Stewart continues to build on the legend that Baltes began, the now 88-year-old track patriarch is still very much a presence at Eldora. Race fans can often see Baltes and his wife sitting in the lower level of the press tower, where they practically become part of the track's landscape during racing events. The ever present smile and turned-up ball cap are signatures of the man that set Eldora's illustrious history into motion.
Changing of the Guard...
In 2005, Stewart and the Eldora Speedway staff announced they would begin a new tradition, one that would bring NASCAR into the heart of short-track racing. Featuring 14 of the biggest names in NASCAR and the NHRA, past and present, the 2005 Prelude to the Dream saw the largest crowd in the track's history file into the hamlet of Rossburg, Ohio. Without missing a beat in his transformation from owner to consultant, Baltes' presence presided over the event, as he watched from his seat in the press tower.
The first event of its kind, it provided racing's elite an opportunity to experience the thrill and demands of one of dirt track racing's most challenging venues. Also unique was the fact that all proceeds of the charity event would be donated by the Tony Stewart Foundation to the Kyle and Pattie Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp. When the dust settled, the crowd cheered as Kenny Wallace accepted the winner's check on the frontstretch stage.
Retired But Still in the Mix...
While Baltes' official retirement as the owner of Eldora Speedway came in late 2004, his influence on the sport is still recognized as the years continue to pass. In 2006, Baltes was named as the Grand Marshal for the O'Reilly Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. The following year, Ohio State Route 118 was christened as Earl Baltes Highway. The stretch of road named after one of racing's most influential promoters begins to the south of Eldora Speedway in Ansonia, Ohio, and runs to the north of the track, ending in St. Henry, Ohio.
A part of Baltes' legacy also continues to live on within the day-to-day operations of Eldora, as his daughter, Starr, and her husband, Joe Schmitmeyer, still work at the facility. Starr can be found in the ticket office at the track's main gate on race days while Joe mans the VIP sign-in window at the pit gate on the facilities north side. Baltes wife, Berneice, accompanies him to the track's major events. His son, Terry, was the track announcer for many years and is still present for many of the events held each year.
2009 Prelude to the Dream...
This year's Prelude to the Dream will see some of NASCAR's finest return to the half-mile, high-banked oval for the fifth installment of Eldora's classic event. Led by Stewart, 25 drivers are confirmed to compete in the event. The elite group of drivers includes Gordon, Newman, Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth and many others.
This year's rookie crop will see Joey Logano, Casey Mears, David Stremme and Brian Vickers make their first appearance at the legendary facility.
Earl's Take on Eldora Speedway's New Classic -- the Prelude to the Dream...
When you first heard of Tony Stewart's idea to bring NASCAR and NHRA drivers to Eldora Speedway to compete in the Prelude to the Dream, what were your thoughts?
"Eldora has seen quite a few drivers that have come in, raced and moved onto NASCAR and IndyCar racing, but never in my wildest dreams thought that I would see the day when all of them would come back and race at the same time. The Prelude gives race fans an opportunity to see some of the best drivers in the world race on the dirt, which is unique in itself. I think that the idea is a great one and I look forward to the event each year."
Have you been pleased to see the growth and success of the Prelude to the Dream?
"You better believe I'm happy with the progress the event has made. It makes me damn sure that I put the right guy in charge of this place. Tony (Stewart) has the passion to make Eldora strong for many years to come. With events like the Prelude and, of course, our traditional crown jewel races, the tradition of the track is sure to live on. I'm just glad that I'm still around to be able to witness some of the exciting things he's been doing."
Are you pleased that the Prelude to the Dream is being broadcast on HBO Pay-Per-View again this year?
"I think having the race broadcast on HBO is a great thing. Even though Eldora is often blessed with big crowds, there are a lot of people out there who have never seen this kind of racing -- or even a dirt track before last year's Prelude event. I'm sure that having the race put on television helps to introduce it to new people, and that will just help to ensure that dirt track racing continues to grow in the years to come."
Which other marquee events held at Eldora Speedway have been some of your favorites?
"The World 100 holds a special place in my heart to this day. It was my first truly big race and the first race of its kind to pay big money. Back then, in that first year, it paid $4,000 to win and that was a lot of money back then. It's also special because it's been so consistent. We came up with a game plan for that race and we've stuck to it over the years. We increased the winner's share of the purse $1,000 each year and they still do that to this day. I've got a lot of favorite races from over the years, events like the King's Royal and The Dream, but the World 100 will always be at the top of my list."