VERSAILLES, Ohio — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Eldora Speedway photo —
Earl Baltes, the founder of Eldora Speedway and a renowned figure in all of dirt track racing, died this morning just before 7 a.m. at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. He was 93.
Born on April 27, 1921, in Versaille, Ohio, Baltes built what was first a quarter-mile dirt track in a field in nearby Rossburg — a dirt which first opened to the public on June 6, 1954 and would go on to be one of the most famous venues in all of motorsports.
Baltes said for years he “stumbled onto a race at New Bremen Speedway and was impressed by the big, enthusiastic crowd,” which inspired him to begin building the legendary facility. Baltes had grown up a bandleader and saxophonist, but after World War II ended, Baltes was bitten by the racing bug and the rest, as they say, is history.
Baltes reconfigured the oval to its present day half-mile shape in 1958, and the track became an industry leader — known worldwide for its high-speed and often daring competition, big-money payouts and timeless events — including the World 100, the $50,000-to-win King’s Royal, the Dirt Late Model Dream and USAC’s Four Crown Nationals.
At the helm of it all for more than 50 years was Baltes, who used clever and unique promotions to spur Eldora’s growth and popularity. One of the most notable was the “Eldora Million” in 2001, which offered an unheard-of $1 million prize to the winner and was won by dirt late model star Donnie Moran, later known as the “Million Dollar Man.” Baltes was also instrumental in bring the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series to the track, with the screaming sprint cars an integral part of the Speedway’s history since their inception in 1978.
The Ohioan worked on all measures of Eldora during his time at the helm of his speedway, but also promoted other speedways in Ohio, including those in Dayton, New Bremen, Limaland, Millstream, Mansfield, Pleasant Hill and Powell, while also promoting one in Salem, Indiana. He also promoted World of Outlaws events in Florida and founded Ohio Sprint Speedweek for the All Star Circuit of Champions.
Baltes finally stepped away from the track he built and loved in the fall of 2004 when he sold the track and turned the reins over to three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, but the original promoter was never far from the house he built.
“Anything we do there of any significance, I’ll always ask Earl’s thought on it,” Stewart said in 2010 to the American Profile of his relationship with the longtime track owner and promoter. “Even though it’s my name on the ownership, its still Earl’s racetrack in my opinion.”
And in so many people’s eyes, Eldora has, to this day, been “Earl’s race track.” Nicknamed the Duke by some, and the “Father of Eldora” by many others, Baltes was a massive part of making Midwestern dirt track racing, as well as short track racing across the country, what it is today.
“Earl Baltes was probably the best teacher in life I ever had,” said Eldora Speedway operations manager Larry Boos. “There are many words that will go down in history when describing him, but my best word is, he was a ‘friend’. I am so thankful our paths crossed. He will never be duplicated.”
“He was Eldora, he built Eldora, he lived and breathed Eldora, was a legendary promoter, [and was] a visionary man,” added long-time Eldora push truck driver Michael Simpson. “He did it his way.”
“I remember sitting up in the stands — right behind-the flagstand after the Kings Royal in 1987 — and Earl was walking up the steps and he stopped and sat down and drank a beer with me and some friends,” Simpson added. “[He was just] talkin’ about he needed to sell one more hot dog and maybe he’d break even on that event (laughs). And [then he] went on his way. I will never forget that night. It was classic Earl.”
That famed “hot dog” quote most famously reappeared in the drivers’ meeting for the 1998 World 100 — when it became part of the legend that was not just Baltes and Eldora Speedway, but Baltes at his best.
Baltes also carried a deep respect for his staff and crew, which helped make his events possible. Simpson says that was on full display in his last race as promoter of the speedway, before Stewart manned the ship.
“[For me personally, my] proudest moment — I would say — was Earl’s last race as owner before handing it over to Tony, when he gathered all us push truck guys up together and he said ‘I’ve been to race tracks all over the country and you guys are by far the best push truck drivers around.’ Hearing that was really neat. He will be greatly missed by everyone in the racing community and by all he touched and knew.”
Baltes was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1994 and was part of the second class of the USAC Hall of Fame in 2013, as well as twice being named USAC Race Organizer of the Year in 1984 and 1997. His life story was told and immortalized in the book Earl, by Indiana motorsports historian and renowned-broadcaster Dave Argabright.
“Even though Eldora’s appeal reached so far beyond the Midwest, for three generations of Midwesterners like me, it was so badass fast, so stinking exciting, had such loud, fast and pure horsepower, that Eldora turned us into not just race fans but horsepower fans,” Argabright said of the legendary track in this month’s edition of Hemmings Motor Madness magazine. “It was pure American power at its ultimate. To me, going to Eldora has always been nearly a religious experience.”
After his retirement in ’04, the state of Ohio honored Baltes by renaming Highway 118 “Earl Baltes Highway” — a stretch of road beginning in Ansonia at its South and traveling to St. Henry in the North.
Perhaps Three Wide Media’s Ro Cowan said it best of what Eldora Speedway is feeling right now: “The Grand Dame is weeping for her King has gone.”
“Earl was a man whose dream and vision along with his courage to pursue them changed our sport forever,” Cowan added of Baltes. “He enriched the life of every single driver and every single fan who has ever visited Eldora Speedway. Whether you have been to Eldora or you just have it on your bucket list; whether you have taken her prized checkered flag or just dream of doing so, Earl Baltes changed your life.”
And he changed so many lives over the course of his own — including, of course, the life of his successor Stewart.
“Earl was the yardstick other track promoters measured themselves by. He constantly raised the bar, and he did it by creating events everyone else was afraid to promote,” Stewart said. “He did them himself, too. Not as a fair board, or a public company, or with major sponsors or millions of dollars in TV money. He put it all on the line with the support of his family.”
“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. They were integral to the evolution of dirt-track racing and the sport as a whole. Earl will be missed, but he won’t ever be forgotten because of his devotion to auto racing.”
Baltes is survived by Berneice, his wife of 67 years; daughter, Starr, and her husband, Joe Schmitmeyer; son, Terry, and his wife, Dee; beloved sister, Susie Barga, and six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
All of the staff at Speed77 Radio, Race Chaser Online and the Performance Motorsports Network joins with the Eldora Speedway family, the Baltes family and the racing community in offering sincere condolences to all those who knew Eldora’s own “Earl.”
Godspeed Earl — your impact and legacy will never be forgotten, and you will always be in the hearts of those who knew you.
Eldora Speedway and Hemmings Motor Madness contributed to this report.