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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Familiar voice silenced far too soon

October 5, 2022, 9:38 pm

Longtime World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series announcer Rick Eshelman is gone, dead at the age of 61. But I’m having a hard time processing that heartbreaking fact.

My personal connection to Eshelman — during my stint as the WoO tour’s public relations director, I worked alongside him from mid-2006 through mid-2013 — certainly made it difficult when I learned he was found dead Saturday on the grounds of the closed Mount Vernon (Ill.) Raceway after taking his own life. Beyond that, though, every time I browse through social media I see another picture of Eshelman pop up or click “play” on a race video that features his distinctive announcing style.

And when I replay the broadcast of Eshelman’s Aug. 13 induction into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame, I listen to the words he spoke in his acceptance speech and can’t comprehend that, just a month-and-a-half later, he’s no longer with us.

Eshelman seemed so happy, so proud, so thankful as he stood that day behind a podium underneath a big tent at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky. He recalled receiving a phone call last October from NDLMHoF president Gerald Newton that Newton began by saying, “Congratulations!” and then Eshelman responding incredulously, “For what?”

“He said, ‘You’re going into the Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame,’ and for about five minutes there was silence on the phone,” Eshelman said. “I don’t know who was more perplexed — me being told I was being inducted, or him thinking, He’s not saying anything … this guy doesn’t shut up! But it was a great call, one that I’ll never forget.”

Why, so soon after such a crowning moment in his 43-year announcing career, Eshelman would choose to commit suicide is a question that will forever be pondered by those closest to him, including his 33-year-old son, Derrick, his fiancee, Melissa Browning Carmichael, with whom he lived beachside in Daytona Beach Shores, Fla., and his countless friends and acquaintances. But the apparent inner turmoil Eshelman was experiencing was masked by his jovial personality and the smile he more often than not was seen flashing at the racetrack.

This was, after all, a man doing what he loved. He attended his first race at the age of 3 while growing up in his native Michigan and by the time he turned 10 was sitting in the bleachers of his local track, the paved Flat Rock Speedway, and listening intently to announcer Howard Williams. “I knew what I wanted to be,” Eshelman said, and, in April 1979, he got his shot, going from his jobs selling welding insurance and scoring to calling the races at Flat Rock when the regular announcer didn’t show up.

Eshelman had found his calling. Never again would he be far from a microphone, even announcing races during his stint in the Air Force during the early ‘80s; he was stationed in Grand Forks, N.D., and his sergeant was a Dirt Late Model driver at the nearby River Cities Speedway (then Grand Forks County Speedway), so Eshelman tagged along to the track and soon found himself in the announcer’s booth and learning a valuable lesson that stuck with him for four decades.

“The owner of the racetrack’s daughter said, ‘You are not the show. You will never be the show. The show is out there (on the track),’ ” Eshelman recalled during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “And I’ve learned that, and for the last pretty much 40 years I’ve stayed with that. (The drivers), they’re the show. I just bring a little bit of excitement to it, a little bit of information.”

After leaving the military and returning to Michigan, Eshelman accepted a variety of local announcing gigs, including, starting in 1992, the weekly job at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio, where his love of food prompted promoter Pam Henricks to alter his compensation package.

“When I started Pam said, ‘I’m gonna pay you $55 (per night) and all the food you can eat,’ ” Eshelman recounted. “The next year came along and she said, ‘You’re getting a raise. You’re getting $75 (per night).’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ and she said, ‘You get one trip to the snack bar.’ ”

During a trip in January 2000 to the awards banquet at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, Eshelman met the track’s legendary owner, Earl Baltes, and was asked to join the race staff as the half-mile oval’s announcer. He called Eldora’s special events for much of the ensuing decade-plus and relished the opportunity “to announce some of the greatest races ever,” including the historic Eldora Million in 2001. His stint there also connected him to official Dean Miracle, who, after being tapped as the director of the World of Outlaws Late Model Series shortly after its rebirth in 2004 under the World Racing Group banner, enticed Eshelman to join the national tour on a full-time basis.

Thus Eshelman became the voice of the World of Outlaws. He left the position midway through the 2013 season because the grind of the road had begun to wear him down. But, after recharging his batteries working with the short-lived National Dirt Racing League in 2014, he returned to the WRG family in 2015 to announce the DIRTcar Summer Nationals for two years and in ’17 was back where he belonged with the WoO.

“It just wasn’t the same without Rick,” said Rocket Chassis house car owner Mark Richards, the winningest car owner in WoO history. “He is the face of the Outlaws. When you think of the World of Outlaws and you’re a fan, one of the first things you think about is hearing that voice on the P.A. I just think it’s gonna be hard to replace Rick Eshelman.”

Eshelman developed an announcing style all his own, eschewing a formal, buttoned-up delivery and instead calling races with the passion of a fan. He famously came up with nicknames for as many drivers as he could and peppered his calls with corny one-liners that would make me and other regular Eshelman listeners shake our heads because we heard them so often, but bring smiles to the faces of first-timers.

“At some point it was almost, like, repetitive,” Tyler Erb, who started his touring career as a WoO regular, told DirtonDirt.com’s Derek Kessinger when asked about Eshelman’s jokes. “You knew he was gonna say it, but it was, still, kind of what you expected. When you tuned into a World of Outlaws race, you just knew you were gonna hear him make the call in his own unique way and it made him stand out.”

Eshelman was up for just about anything that might add to the show, too. I’ll never forget that, in the lead up to 2007’s inaugural Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa., then WoO Late Model Series director Tim Christman and I suggested — perhaps “half-jokingly,” as Christman said — that Eshelman should dress up as Uncle Sam on race night because his tall, lanky frame gave him the look of the classic patriotic character. He not only agreed to don the Uncle Sam but made it an annual part of the Firecracker’s driver introductions.

“He embraced that,” Christman said. “He even grew out his beard for two months before the race to look like Uncle Sam.”

(Alas, Eshelman didn’t take my suggestion that he should make a regular thing out of wearing different holiday- or track-specific costumes — an alligator outfit at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park, a Civil War soldier’s uniform at Southern speedways, a leprechaun get-up on St. Patrick’s Day, etc.)

Eshelman wasn’t just the familiar voice everyone heard through the speakers at the track or in their homes during WoO events. He was also the friendly face everyone saw in the pit area at WoO shows (and some other WRG-affiliated races where Eshelman was a helping hand), the approachable guy who made his way from hauler-to-hauler to gather notes and sponsors and make everyone feel welcome.

“He made me feel like I wasn’t an outsider,” Erb said, recalling his first year traveling with the WoO as an inexperienced teenager.

“I think he was everybody’s friend,” Midwesterner Jason Feger told Kessinger. “He connected with everybody.”

That included canines as well as humans. Eshelman never passed a dog in the pit area without stopping to pet and hug them. Brent Larson’s wife, Melanie, wrote on Facebook how Eshelman visited their hauler to see their little dogs and offer them treats, and, of course, the racetrack dogs that Eshelman saw most often came to know that he had treats in his pockets; several times I saw Walter, the well-known coonhound owned by Tyler Bruening’s crew chief Zeb Holkesvik, come up to Eshelman as he was sitting at the WoO driver registration table and put his nose right to Eshelman’s pants pocket because he was well aware what was inside. (By the way, posted on Walter’s Facebook page — yes, Walter is on social media — following the news of Eshelman’s passing was a photo of Walter riding on a golf cart with Eshelman and Carmichael.)

The Eshelman I will remember is the man who never failed to greet me with a hearty, “What’s up, Scoop?” and a strong handshake — Eshelman would always come in hard with his right hand and give you a half-slap, half-shake — when I crossed his path. I’ll remember standing behind him in the announcer’s booth and looking over his at his driver roster at so many tracks. I’ll remember all the laughs we had on the road during my WoO days. I’ll remember his love for professional wrestling and our mutual fandom of the Detroit Tigers and Lions. And I’ll remember his long aversion to technology; only in recent years did he trade in his flip-phone for a SmartPhone and join Twitter. (I’m not sure if he ever gave in and used GPS rather than his trusty Rand McNally atlas to plot his route from track-to-track; he said GPS stood for “Giant Piece of S---,” though he had to admit, back when he was driving the infamous WoO hauler called “Matilda,” that not having a GPS caused him to drive about 150 miles too far north on one trip and another time end up in a South Dakota pasture surrounded by cattle.)

Most of all, I will never forget the passion Eshelman had for racing. It was undoubtedly one of his most unmistakable traits.

“He loved his job,” Erb told Kessinger, “and there’s not many people that can say that, that they truly love every minute of what they do.”

Current WoO Late Model Series director Casey Shuman wrote poignantly in a Facebook post about Eshelman’s devotion to the sport.

“The guy truly loved being at the racetrack,” Shuman wrote. “No matter how bad of a night we were having, he dug in, got stuff done and had a smile on his face, or was telling some ridiculous jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh at.

“He was an ultimate team player. He went above and beyond on a nightly basis. He committed to come assist with our new Xtreme Outlaw Series (for sprint cars) the moment it was announced and didn’t care what he would be doing, he just wanted to be at the track and a part of it.”

It seems unfathomable that Eshelman will no longer be plying his trade. In fact, during his recent Hall of Fame induction speech, he was looking positively toward the future, noting that, with the “blessing” of WoO COO Brian Carter, he had more than a half-decade of work left in him.

“I’d like to spend the next six years announcing before I retire and get put out to pasture,” Eshelman said. “I told my girlfriend Melissa, at the end of 2028, I will have announced 50 years, I’ll get the most I can get in Social Security, and I’m out of words. And for some reason she didn’t believe me.”

He paused, and then added, “Six more years and I swear I’ll be quiet.”

Unfortunately, Eshelman’s voice has been silenced far too soon. We all wish we could hear one more nickname, one more joke, one more rabid race call, from the Voice of the Outlaws.

Ten things worth mentioning

1. I mentioned this in our latest Dirt Reporters Podcast — and I imagine WoO officials are probably already considering it — but a fitting tribute to Eshelman I’d like to see would be to play a recording of his distinctive four-wide call during feature parade laps at the tour’s six remaining events. That would give fans watching at the track and on DIRTVision a chance to hear Eshelman’s voice on race night a few more times.

2. After contacting Eshelman’s son and fiancee and receiving their blessing, Anthony Sanders of Charlotte, N.C., plans to run a Suicide Prevention-themed wrap on his No. 421 machine during the Nov. 2-5 World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in Concord, N.C. “I’d like to bring awareness to a problem bigger than most people are aware of,” Sanders wrote on his Facebook page alongside concept art of his car’s scheme, which features a photo of Eshelman on the quarter-panels (with the words “a voice that will remain forever in our hearts”) and the number of a suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK).

3. Veteran Dirt Late Model driver Reid Millard of Jefferson City, Mo., who became friendly with Eshelman from his WoO appearances over the years, stepped up to handle the announcer’s funeral arrangements through his Millard Family Chapels. Eshelman’s obituary stated that Eshelman’s friends are encouraged to share personal memories or messages of condolence at millardfamilychapels.com and an announcement for a date, time and place for a “Celebration of Rick’s Life and Love of Racing” will be made in the future.

4. Eshelman was well known for starting the animal-focused Twitter feeds World of Outpaws and World of Outclaws, where he would post photos of dogs he came across at racetracks and pictures of cats sent in by racing fans. I noticed over the last few days that Dylan Coyle, the announcer for opening ceremonies and other on-track activities at World of Outlaws Late Model events, had begun posting racing dog photos on his Facebook page under #WorldofOutpaws. It’s a nice tribute by Coyle, who wrote that he met Eshelman for the first time this year and found him to “everything I wanted in a mentor: kind, zany, attentive and a great joke-teller. He left a huge impact on me, and I’ll always strive to be a professional the way he was.”

5. When I saw photos on social media of Dirt Late Model star Brandon Overton from his brother Dalton’s recent wedding, I noticed the snazzy shoes the Georgian was wearing and texted him to ask if they were made of snake or alligator skin. He responded with five gator emojis and a quip, “Don’t be hatin’.” I just told him he was a sharp dresser and he joked, “Once or twice a year.”

6. Overton skipped Sept. 23-24 racing because of his sibling’s wedding, but he was back in action last Friday night at Talladega Short Track in Eastaboga, Ala., where he scored a flag-to-flag victory worth $3,800 in an unsanctioned 38-lap Super Late Model feature run during Talladega Superspeedway’s NASCAR weekend. The Talladega visit got Overton tuned up for the oval’s $15,000-to-win Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series show scheduled for this Saturday night.

7. Another notable entry in last Friday’s Super Late Model program at Talladega Short Track was NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular and Northeast big-block modified star Stewart Friesen, who finished sixth in what was his first Dirt Late Model start since early this year. He was at Talladega’s big track to compete in Saturday’s Truck race; he finished 20th (crossing the finish line backwards due to his involvement in a multitruck wreck) and sits just outside the top-four cut line in the Truck playoffs heading into Oct. 22’s event at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway.

8. Pennsylvania chassis builder Jim Bernheisel is part of the promotional team putting on a Super Late Model event this Saturday at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pa. Dubbed the Lazer Late Model Clash, the feature offers a $3,500 first-place prize, but the payoff will be doubled, to $7,000, if the winner is driving a Lazer machine from Bernheisel’s shop in Jonestown, Pa.

9. Neat race promotion I noticed coming up this weekend: Saturday’s “Race-or-Treat” at the Moran family’s Muskingum County Speedway in Zanesville, Ohio. Before the start of the 40th Jim Dunn Memorial — a $10,000-to-win Super Late Model show that will conclude Muskingum’s 2022 special-event schedule — the Moran’s will invite costumed kids into the pit area to visit teams and collect some pre-Halloween candy. I wonder, though, if the Morans will dress up for the occasion as well.

10. Another neat thing: On Wednesday, WoO rookie Max Blair posted on Facebook that it was his son Mclane’s Show-and-Tell day at his preschool. “Anyone wanna guess what he wanted to bring?” Max wrote. The youngster went big — he had dear old dad tow his No. 111v Dirt Late Model to the school so he could show it to his classmates.

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