The racing world lost a giant on Monday, March 23, 2015.
Earl Baltes, the founder and longtime promoter of Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio has died. He was 93 and passed away at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio.
Baltes built the Eldora dirt track in 1954. Initially it was a quarter-mile in length but four years later Baltes shaped the circuit into its current, popular high-banked half-mile configuration.
A true pioneer of the sport
Through the years, Eldora Speedway has hosted a plethora of various premium dirt-track events, thanks to Baltes’ enthusiasm for the sport. He had an affinity for Dirt Late Model races. His facility hosted the Famous World 100 for Dirt Late Models, which has become the largest dirt race in the world for that type of car. He also hosted the Dirt Late Model Dream, which was (and is) the richest dirt late model race worldwide.
Along the way, Baltes became a fan of sprint car racing, taking immense pride in the Kings Royal Weekend for the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars. He also hosted many United States Auto Club (USAC) events, including the Four Crown Nationals. Because of his excellent promotional skills, Baltes was able to get his races shown on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”; other networks such as ESPN, CBS and TNN also televised events, helping to put the half-mile oval on the be-there map for any fan of the sport.
“Earl and Eldora hold a special place for me,” said USAC CEO and president Kevin Miller. “From feeding my passion for sprint cars in my youth to being honored in working with Earl to present the 2003 Mopar Million, Eldora will always be the place that Earl built and fostered my desires to be involved in motorsports.”
Unlike so many promoters, and despite the track’s growing popularity, Baltes kept ticket prices affordable and concession costs low, attracting fans worldwide to his little corner of Ohio. His successor, Tony Stewart continues that tradition.
Go big or go home
As he continued to upgrade the Eldora racetrack, which is in rural west-central Ohio off Route 118, Baltes added seats to give the circuit space for 20,000 fans. He was an inviting and gifted host, who seemed to know every fan by name and always had a good story to share and a joke to tell.
Baltes the promoter understood what it takes to bring fans to a racetrack; his stunts were legendary and should be copied by track owners across the sport. His wild ideas would bring fans to the track as they wondered what he’d do next. For instance, in the 1960s Eldora Speedway emulated another midwestern racetrack (somewhat more famous and paved) by having three sprint car races featuring 33 cars and running 500 laps.
He once ran a season-long promotion featuring a series of skits with a family of randomly appearing apes that were eventually married in a ceremony presided over by the legendary wheel-man Duane “Pancho” Carter.
Baltes loved hosting big money races, posting a remarkable $1 million payout to the winners of the 2001 Eldora Million Dirt Late Model Race; in 2003 he hosted the Mopar Million, which had a $1 million purse and paid $200,000 to win the non-winged sprint car race.
Survived by family, and especially friends
As a pioneer in the motorsports business, Earl Baltes forged friendships with Big Bill France, helping him recruit cars for the inaugural NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway. Baltes and Eldora Speedway maintained close ties with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also promoted other speedways in Ohio, including tracks in Dayton, New Bremen, Limaland, Millstream, Mansfield, Pleasant Hill and Powell. He promoted World of Outlaws events in Florida and founded Ohio Sprint Speedweek for the All Star Circuit of Champions.
Author Dave Argabright, who penned an exceptional biography of Baltes called “Earl” in 2004 was “deeply saddened at the passing of my dear friend Earl Baltes this morning. A great and unique man who gave so much to racing. #ripoldfriend,” he wrote.
As he aged, the tributes came fast and furiously for Baltes, who is a member of copious Halls of Fame: National Sprint Car, National Dirt Late Model, USAC, Dayton Auto Racing Fans and Hoosier Auto Racing Fans. He was named auto racing promoter of the year in 1993 and the state of Ohio renamed Route 118 “Earl Baltes Highway” from Ansonia to the south to St. Henry to the north.
Moving on from ownership
In 2004 Baltes decided to sell his storied racetrack. While he had several suitors, his choice was three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and former Eldora competitor Tony Stewart; no doubt he saw a lot of himself in Smoke, the driver’s approach to promotion and his love of the sport.
Even without his name over the door, Baltes continued to attend races with his wife of 67 years, Berneice, often receiving standing ovations from the crowd when introduced. Stewart erected a statue in tribute to the founders at the entrance of Eldora Speedway.
“Earl was the yardstick other track promoters measured themselves by,” said Stewart. “He constantly raised the bar and did it by creating events everyone else was afraid to promote - and he did them himself, too. He and his wife, Berneice created a happening at Eldora. They turned Eldora into more than just a racetrack; they made it a place to be.”
In addition to Berneice, Earl Baltes is survived by his daughter Starr, her husband Joe Schitmeyer, his son Terry and his wife Dee, his sister Susie Barga, six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.