NASCAR trucks bound for the Mudsummer Classic at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway
By M.B. Roberts
Bring on the trucks. On July 24, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (CWTS) rolls into rural southwestern Ohio for its inaugural race at Eldora Speedway, the storied half-mile dirt track owned by three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart.
“We wanted to do something unique for the track’s 60th season,” says Eldora Speedway General Manager Roger Slack. “This is a special place and not just for dirt racing fans. It’s like Daytona, Indianapolis, Fenway, Wrigley and Lambeau — all the magical places in sports.”
The Mudsummer Classic marks the first time that one of NASCAR’s three national series will run at a dirt track since 1970, when Richard Petty won a 100-mile race in NASCAR’s top division at State Grounds Speedway in Raleigh, N.C., in front of 6,000 fans. At the Eldora event, which sold out in January, some 18,000 fans will pack the grandstands while several thousand more gather on the grassy hillside beyond the track’s towering dirt banks to watch race history in the making.
“People have been talking and tweeting about it ever since we did a top-secret test at the track last summer,” says Slack. “This race has captured people’s imaginations.”
Build it and they will come
Former bandleader and promoter Earl Baltes built Eldora Speedway, also known as The Big E., in 1954, operating the venue for 50 years until he sold it to Stewart in 2004.
During his reign, Baltes repeatedly set the standard for short-track dirt racing with open wheel events such as the first United States Auto Club (USAC) races in the 1960s and stock car events such as the first World 100 in the 1970s World of Outlaws races.
Over the years, fans flocked to Eldora for special events such as 2001’s Eldora Million, the richest short track race in history, and for dirt racing’s most highly anticipated annual events including the World 100, the King’s Royal and the Late Model Dream.
And now its current owner is bringing NASCAR to Rossburg, Ohio (population: 201), the smallest town ever to host a NASCAR national series event. How did this happen?
It’s simple: Tony Stewart loves dirt.
Just my speedway
Stewart, a motorsports icon who has chalked up dozens of wins and 12 championships in every racing series from Three Quarter Midgets and IROC to Indy and NASCAR, won his first championship racing go-karts on the dirt track at his hometown Columbus (Indiana) Fairgrounds at age 8 in 1979. A few years later, in 1983 and 1987, he collected two national karting championships before he began racing higher horsepower, open wheel three-quarter midgets (again, on dirt). In 1991, he moved on to the USAC, racing on both pavement and dirt tracks, including Eldora Speedway, where he first competed in 1992.
“When I walked in, I was in awe,” he told Stock Car Racing magazine in 2009. “I thought that I might have bitten off more than I could chew, it was so fast! Right then, I felt that there was no other track in the country that could even come close to this place.”
Over the next few years, Stewart was a regular at Eldora, where in 1995 he won the 4-Crown Nationals, a one-night event where drivers compete in four different races (USAC Midgets, USAC Sprint Cars, USAC Silver Crown and UMP Dirt Modified). But it wasn’t until 2004 that the NASCAR champion seriously considered buying the track.
“I was with him, flying out after the Kings Royal race,” says Slack. “We looked down in the dark but the track was still all lit up, with a long line of headlights and taillights snaking their way across the countryside. It looked like a scene from the movie Field of Dreams.”
Later that year, Stewart bought his dream track and immediately made improvements such as more bathrooms, additional catch fencing and a new LED scoreboard.
“He keeps reinvesting,” says Slack. “But he’s committed to preserving the track’s heritage.”
In the last decade, Stewart has maintained long-held traditions and established new ones, most notably the Prelude to the Dream charity race where Stewart, a three-time winner of the event, recruits NASCAR’s top drivers to come to Eldora to compete in a Late Model Dream Race undercard.
Now, there’s the Mudsummer Classic, set to include CWTS drivers as well as dirt racing stars such as Scott Bloomquist (driving for Kyle Busch’s team) and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars such as Clint Bowyer. The big question is whether or not Tony Stewart will get behind the wheel of a truck.
“He’s torn,” says Slack. “As owner, he really wants to be involved in track preparation. He can’t do that if he drives. But he realizes this is a first. He has a legitimate shot to make history by promoting the race and also winning the race.”
For the guy who raced in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day — twice — this should be a down and dirty no-brainer.