Two-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart hasnt always been praised for driving fast. In fact, early in his career, the feisty driver was scolded for barreling through the pits at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio (pop. 216), on an all-terrain vehicle.
I chewed him out, recalls Earl Baltes, 88, the speedways former owner. I stopped him dead. If I catch you doing that again, youre going to park that thing; youll walk for the rest of the day!
These days Stewart, 39, doesnt have to worry about being reprimanded at Eldora Speedway. He bought the legendary dirt track from Baltes in 2004. Still, he clearly remembers being admonished by his longtime friend.
I was scared to death, says Stewart, who grew up in Columbus, Ind. I had never had a racetrack promoter tell me they were going to take my four-wheeler and give me the keys back at the end of the night. He ruled with an iron fist, but everybody respected him for that too.
Stewart began competing at Eldora Speedway in 1992, racing around the half-mile dirt oval at the age of 21. Eldora is a marquee track, says Stewart, who took victories in both sprint and midget car races at the legendary track. There arent many half-mile tracks like Eldora, if any.
The Big E
Baltes opened the famed speedway in 1954 and named the track after a former dance hall on the site. Through the years, he consistently packed Eldora with zany publicity stunts and crowd-pleasing promotions such as marrying a pair of apes, belly dancers in Victory Lane, and occasionally paying racing legends such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt to make appearances. But his boldest promotions at the Big E were his record-winning purses.
Ever hear of a half-mile dirt track for late-model cars paying a million dollars to win a race? asks Baltes, who rocked the short-track world in 2001 with his blockbuster Eldora Million, paid out of Baltes pocket without a dime of corporate sponsorship money. We cut the weeds back to put more people in. Boy, we had a heckuva crowd, and we didnt lose money.
Ive always called him the Dale Earnhardt of racetrack promoters, says Bob Rawson, 61, a souvenir concessionaire from Charlotte, N.C., who has sold hats and T-shirts at Eldora for 40 years. You either liked him or you hated him, but you always respected him.
The decision to sell Eldora was painful but necessary for Baltes after both he and his wife of 63 years, Berneice, suffered heart attacks in 2000 and 1997, respectively. The man who 12 years earlier had scolded Stewart for speeding in the pits approached the entrepreneur in 2004 about buying the track.
I got a call one day from Earl, recalls Stewart, who owns 13 other race-related businesses. I couldnt believe that Earl thought enough of me to think I was the perfect guy to take the racetrack over from him, from a guy whod done it himself for 50 years.
In Stewart, Baltes knew he had a quality candidate: a racing star with an aptitude for business. I sold Eldora to Tony Stewart because I knew how much Eldora meant to him, Baltes stated in his autobiography, Earl! I wasnt looking for a buyer; I wanted a caretaker, a steward.
The speedway, with a crowd capacity of nearly 20,000, hosts 25 days of weekend racing each year from mid-April through mid-October.
Prelude to the Dream
One popular event that Stewart brought to Eldora is an annual duel in the dirt with fellow NASCAR drivers. Since 2005, the celebrity racedubbed the Prelude to the Dreamhas featured Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and others challenging Eldoras high-banked, brake-mashing turns for charity.
We realized that one-day events like this could really do a lot for charities, says Stewart, who won the race three of the last four years. Its been very humbling that the guys (fellow drivers) respect what were doing enough to want to be a part of it.
Proceeds from the star-studded race support the Tony Stewart Foundation and have funded $2.5 million in programs for animals, soldiers and childrens charities. Last years Prelude to the Dream benefited a quartet of charities that aid severely wounded military personnel, fallen soldiers and their families.
Stewart is a hands-on owner of Eldora Speedway, known to climb aboard a piece of equipment to smooth the track surface prior to the race. I hop on a tractor and do a lot of work on the sheepsfoot roller, says Stewart, who adds its not unusual for short track owners to maintain their own racetracks. Its not rocket science.
As the legacy of Eldora roars into the future, Stewart, who earned his racing stripes on the celebrated dirt track, continues to tip his hat to Baltes and look to the tracks founder for guidance.
Anything we do there of any significance, Ill always ask Earls thought on it, Stewart says. Even though its my name on the ownership, its still Earls racetrack in my opinion.