Craig Murto: Eldora founder was a legend

Earl Baltes died Monday morning at the age of 93.

The founder of Eldora Speedway in Ohio, Baltes was perhaps the best — and most legendary — dirt track promoter in the country.

After he saw a race and was impressed by the large, enthusiastic crowd, Baltes built Eldora Speedway and opened it in 1954, originally as a quarter-mile facility. In 1958 he reconfigured the track into the fast half-mile we know today.

Baltes was never afraid to take a chance. He gambled on the fledgling World of Outlaws in the early 1970s, and came up with one of Sprint Car’s biggest annual events, The King’s Royal. And he promoted the USAC Four Crown Nationals.

It wasn’t just open-wheel racing that attracted large crowds to Eldora. Dirt Late Model’s The Dream and World 100 are two of the biggest races on the schedule. In 2001, Baltes promoted the Eldora Million, a dirt Late Model race that awarded Donnie Moran $1 million for his victory.

In 2004 Baltes stepped away and sold the track to Tony Stewart, who has kept the traditional events alive and brought in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. But for many years, Stewart said he didn’t make any promotional move without conferring first with Baltes.

I was lucky enough to meet Earl Baltes once. It was 2000, and it would have been the running of the Eldora Million if overnight rain hadn’t cancelled the event until the following year. Despite the fact that the racing wasn’t going to take place, Baltes held court for media members present as well as interested fans. He talked for hours under the grandstands, thanking people for coming and apologizing for the cancellation. Colorful and entertaining, the man had as much energy as he had knowledge of the sport.

Local dirt tracks were in action Saturday night. Jason Miller won the Late Model feature at Winchester Speedway, and Jamie Lathroum grabbed the win at Hagerstown.

Shenandoah Speedway’s oval opens April 11, featuring Late Model and the always exciting Virginia Sprint Series. The track’s schedule on-line says nothing about drifting, so it was a pleasant surprise that when I stopped by the track on Saturday to show somebody the facility, we discovered that a drifting competition was underway. Hopefully the track will put a schedule for such events on its website.

The motocross track at Shenandoah Speedway runs its first event May 2, following an all-day practice on May 1. The course is tight, and has a whoops section, a smaller version of that which you see in AMA Supercross competition. Eli Tomac rode his Honda to victory in Supercross’s visit to Detroit last weekend.

The most colorful motorsport competition of the weekend was the Sebring 12-hour endurance sports car race. The Action Express prototype team driven by Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais took the win, the first for a Chevrolet-powered car in the event since 1965 when Jim Hall’s Chaparral took the victory.

Brad Keselowski’s victory in the Sprint Cup race in California was not without its share of controversy. Despite the fact that a shiny piece of metal was clearly shown on the racetrack, many fans griped that the first of two late-race cautions didn’t need to come out. Many fans thought NASCAR simply tried to prevent Kurt Busch from winning the race. Of course, if Kurt Busch had run over that metal and cut a tire at 200 mph, the same fans would have had a problem with that.

Then, as the cars got the white flag, Greg Biffle’s car spun on the front stretch. Biffle hit nothing, and drove his car away as the lead pack raced down the back stretch. Fans had a problem with that as well, since the lack of a caution gave Keselowski the shot he needed to grab the lead and win the race. For once NASCAR did the right thing by not throwing a yellow, but fans just love to blame NASCAR no matter what the sanction does.

Keselowski won the race because on the first of the two back-back yellow flags, he took four tires. Most of the lead-lap cars only took two. Since the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish resulted in a caution when Kyle Larson left his bumper cover on the backstretch, Keselowski and a few others who took four tires gained enough positions to take advantage of those tires on the final restart.

Everything was on the up-and-up, but conspiracy theories abound. And promoters love them. They were just the thing to make Earl Baltes smile.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.