ELDORA: The Grand Dame of Dirt
By: Ro Cowan, Red Dirt Clay
*Special to POPULAR SPEED*
Eldora is one of the most historical and most beautiful tracks on the circuit. When you walk through her gates, you get the same kind of chills you get when you walk through the gates of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If you listen closely, you can hear her history whispered in echoes – welcoming you to her grounds, her track and her family.
Eldora is a high banked, ½-mile clay oval track. Her turns are banked at 24 degrees and her straightaways are banked at eight degrees. Her perfect oval shape makes her very unforgiving and more than one legend has met her third turn wall very unceremoniously. Known as “Big E” she has been auto racing’s showcase since 1954 but her beginnings were very humble. Eldora began as a corn field.
“Had to think a long time about cutting it out in the first place because we were getting 125 bushels per acre on that land,” recalled Earl Baltes who is the original owner and creator of Eldora. In 1954, Baltes opened the brand new ¼-mile clay track known as Eldora. He would enlarge the track to a 3/8th-mile in 1956 and again to its current ½-mile high banked configuration in 1958.
In 1958, most dirt tracks had either no walls or they had retaining fences made from wood or Armco steel rails. Baltes erected concrete retaining walls to the facility to keep the cars inside the track. Eldora was the first dirt track to use concrete walls, a move that many still question today.
In 1971, Eldora began writing her own storied legend when Baltes announced the World 100 for Late Models. Over 200 cars showed up with only 24 making the show. The purse, in the beginning, was $4000 with $1000 being added every year since that time. Respect for the race is evident when all dirt tracks in neighboring states go dark that weekend. This allows drivers, fans and owners to attend the race that is considered the birthplace of modern dirt late model racing.
Nearly 25 years later Baltes created the second signature event at Eldora: “The Dream.” To grab the attention of competitors across the country he offered a winner’s purse of $100,000. The pre-registration list showed 234 entries. “The Dream” still runs today and this year will host a different format which has not yet been unveiled.
In 2001, “The Eldora Million” was run for the first time. Its winner was long-time Eldora favorite, Donnie Moran, who won the first million dollar racing purse in the history of the sport.
Eldora has played host to many sanctioning bodies races over the years. ARCA, CRA, UMP, All Star Sprints, World of Outlaws and USAC are just a few.
In 1962, USAC brought its non-wing sprint cars to the track for the first time. They became a quick favorite of Eldora and a staple on her schedule. In 1978 the first annual World of Outlaws Kings Royal was held. It quickly became an annual event and one of the crown jewels for The World of Outlaws Winged Sprint Cars.
In 1981, Eldora began the 4 Crown Nationals. The race consisted of drivers from Midgets, Sprints, Silver Crown and Late Model/Modifieds/World of Outlaws. The first winners were Ken Schrader in Midgets, Steve Kinser in Sprints and Silver Crown and Joe Wallace in Late Model/Modifieds. The 4 Crown Nationals still runs every year. In its 22-year history, many drivers have won two legs and even three legs but only once has anyone won all four crowns. In 1998, Jack Hewitt won all four divisions and set a record that has yet to be matched.
In 2004 Eldora opened a new chapter in her history when Tony Stewart, three-time NASCAR champion and multi-race winner at Eldora, purchased the track from Earl Baltes. Stewart made immediate improvements such as adding a video score board, new catch fence (now known as Eldora catch fencing), new caution light system and LED Billboards. Two years ago he added a weather warning system and built “Little E,” which is a “track inside a track” with a 1/20-mile track for Quarter Midgets and a 1/7-mile track for Go Karts.
In 2005, Stewart added his own signature race: “The Prelude to The Dream.” The race ran the night before the legendary Dream for Late Models. It consisted of visiting Sprint Cup drivers who competed for charity in borrowed cars. The Prelude ran from 2005 thru 2012. It has been placed on hold because of the new format making “The Dream” a two-night show. In the fall of 2012, the historical announcement was made that Eldora would complete her sanctioning body list by adding NASCAR.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will run at Eldora in July 2013. It is the series first trip to a dirt track and will host a pure USAC format in what is titled, “The Mudsummer Classic.”
The NCWTS drivers will seek to add their names to the list of winners at Eldora that include drivers like Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Doug Wolfgang, Joey Saldana, Jack Hewitt, Tony Stewart, Ken Schrader, Jac Haudenschild and Kyle Larson – just to name a few.
The “Grand Dame of Dirt” seats 20,000 spectators and features bleacher as well as hillside seating. She is one of the crown jewels of the world of dirt track competition.
Photo Credit: Eldora Speedway