Anecdotes, reflections and memories of Baltes
DirtonDirt.com asked Eldora Speedway regulars, observers and drivers to tell us, using their own words, their favorite brief anecdotes and remembrances of interactions with Earl Baltes, the late founder of the world’s most famous dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio (edited for clarity and length; more on Baltes):
Dave Argabright, who worked with Baltes on his autobiography, “Earl!”:
During the summer of 2004 Earl and I were working on his autobiography. I spent quite a bit of time at Earl’s home, and each day we would break for lunch. His doctors had recently advised him to practice better health habits, and beer was strictly taboo. Berneice kept a close watch and as we prepared to leave she gave Earl “the look.” “No beer, Earl,” she said. “I know,” he said quickly, and she smiled and nodded her approval.
A few minutes later we were seated at the bar at St. Henry Nite Club. Earl waved at the waitress and called out, “Bring us a beer and a Coke.” She placed the beer in front of me and the Coke in front of Earl. As she walked away he reached over and swapped the drinks and began drinking the beer. I was surprised, and amused. “I thought Berneice said you couldn’t have any beer,” I said. He immediately acted very surprised and a familiar twinkle came to his eye. “By God, did she mean me?” he said with amazement. “I thought she was talking about you!”
Freddy Smith, Hall of Fame driver and two-time Dream winner at Eldora:
When I won the first Dream, I had a cast on my arm because I had broken my wrist. (Baltes) was the only that signed it. I wouldn’t let anybody sign it, but I asked him to sign it after we won the show. He said: “Well, sure, I’ll sign it.”
Brian McLeod, long-time motorsports journalist and Late Model Illustrated co-publisher:
It was a rainy weekend toward the end of Baltes era as the owner of Eldora Speedway, and rumors had been circulating for a couple years about the potential sale of the track. The weather had wreaked havoc and true to form, Baltes had been up all night working on the grader. He was visibly tired the next morning, stopping the heavy equipment at the top of turn three near the exit gate.
His hat was typically twisted sideways with the brim pointing upward toward the dreary skies, and he looked probably 30 years older than he was at the time, and he was already in his early 80s. It was one of the most exhausted moments I've ever seen the man have in the years I've known him, and he looked like he could use a kind word. I meandered over to thank him for his efforts, and he looked at me with that familiar twinkle in his eye. Before I even asked a question, he looked down at me and uttered a few words that still give me goose bumps to recall.
"I just ain't sure how much longer I'm gonna be able to do this," he said, stepping gingerly from the grader seat, while appearing completely vulnerable for a single instant. "Been out here most of the night, and I'm just gettin' too old for it. I don't like that one bit, but it's catching up with me, and I know it. It's taken all I've got to stay awake, and prepare this track."
We talked a bit more about this and that, but he never hinted or said to me during that conversation that he'd sell the place. We both knew he would, and we all know he eventually did. That might have been the only time in my life that I saw Baltes appear exactly like the rest of us mere mortals … a human being with limitations, despite having one of the strongest and most determined work ethics we've ever witnessed in the sport.
Dustin Jarrett, long-time announcer at several tracks, including Eldora:
One of my fondest memories of Earl was my son Chase's first ever trip to Eldora. He was less than a year old and had been in the media suite with Earl and Berneice the entire evening. After an evening of watching and playing peek-a-boo with Earl, as I was leaving, Earl gave his famous wave — to which Chase waved back. Earl Baltes was the first person Chase ever waved to. Seems fitting.
Bob Markos, wide-traveling Late Model race fan and racing historian:
Going to Eldora back in the '60s, I recall even then I was always going to see the big names, one being Earl Baltes himself. Back then everyone knew him, walking around wearing a coconu-straw fedora golf hat — later replaced by a ball cap with its bill turned skyward. He treated his fans like gold, for he realized they were his bread and butter, But drivers knew never to cross him, for he ruled with an iron fist. Like three-time World 100 winner Larry Moore once told me: “If he caught ya pulling a fast one, he’d put you in the electric chair for 30 days!”
One of my favorite Earl stories came when talking to Hall of Famer Leon Archer about his first visit to the Big E. The Georgia driver told of how much he enjoyed the track and how he liked Earl right from the get-go for the way he treated every driver equally.
“Doug Kenimer, who had won the World the year before, was parked in a certain place and Earl told him he was gonna have to move,” Archer said, “Well Doug said, I’m such and such and Earl said I don’t care if you’re the President — you move that car over yonder, and I mean right now!”
Sitting in the press room following a World 100 some years ago, Earl and I chatted while drinking a couple of brews. He told me of the days of playing in his family’s band, and how much he missed those simpler times. Looking out the window at his masterpiece, he spoke of how proud he was of Eldora and how he never ever dreamed that his World 100 would become such a spectacle. He also spoke of wishing to put on an event for a million dollars some day, but that his family thought he had a screw loose. To tell the truth, I thought he did, too — I damn sure should’ve known better.
He was instrumental in delivering our sport from the back pages to the headlines, and I’ll sure miss the old codger, because he could sure as heck could put on one whale of a show.
Michael Rigsby, long-time Eldora observer and CEO of DirtonDirt.com:
In my family, it's simply known as "the jacket.” Through seven moves across the country, a few girlfriends, a wife, and a mother who likes to toss things out, the jacket always stood the test of time. It was nothing more than a red coat, but that red coat has Earl Baltes' signature on it more than 20 times over, and that alone made it worth its weight in gold. No one was tossing that coat.
I was 7 the first time Earl signed it. A little kid with big glasses who sheepishly walked up to the Dirt Late Model icon and asked for an autograph. He was so kind and so gracious. That tradition, along with getting my picture taken with him, would last 24 years. He always remembered me, and always took the time to sign it, pose for the photo, and ask me what I thought about this year's World 100. He always asked what I was writing in that notebook I carried around, and I always told him: "I'm gonna cover the races at Eldora one day.”
Many years later, when DirtonDirt.com had started our first year, and he saw me in the tower as he’d become a spectator, he said: “So you're writing about the races after all.” I’ll always cherish that memory, and the jacket, and I'll have both forever.
Mark Richards, Late Model team owner and co-founder of Rocket Chassis:
I was up there with my brother to race the World 100, I’d say ’76, ’77 or ’78, and we saw Earl having trouble with his (water) pump. My brother and I were always around construction equipment because my brother was in the coal-mining business, so we went over to help him. A line was sucking air and it wouldn’t seal the way he had his clamp on it, so my brother said: “Go get a roll of duct tape out of the truck.”
We brought it back, we duct-taped this thing up, and it started sucking water out of his pond — back then he was sucking out of the pond by the side of his house. Well, he was amazed at this duct tape. I don’t think he’d ever seen duct tape at the time, because he said he had to get him some of it.
Jerry Bowersock, former Sunoco American Late Model Series champ and Eldora regular:
He’s kicked me out for a week or two for fighting in the pit area before, when I got into it with another guy. He had me up in the press box and gave me that talking to: “You know you guys can’t be fighting down there in the pit area.” You knew if he was mad at you, you just had to stand there and take your butt-chewing. But after that, it was kind of over and everybody would shake hands and be on their way. That’s kind of how he went about handling his business.
Todd Turner, long-time motorsports journalist and DirtonDirt.com managing editor:
Except the occasional hello, most of my interactions with Earl Baltes were during interviews, some relaxed during a quiet moment, others impromptu after Baltes was in the middle of one of those official rulings that are magnified on Eldora’s big stage.
Eldora’s officiating reputation to play no favorites was a hallmark of Baltes, but that typically didn’t make the offended drivers feel any better about the situation. During those heated moments, Baltes would listen patiently, stick to his guns, and seemed to diffuse each situation with his quick wit.
Among the most surprising and confusing rulings Baltes had to stick by was confirming the World 100 won by Brian Birkhofer in 2002 wasn’t 101 laps. Runner-up Scott Bloomquist, after being overtaken by Birkhofer on the last lap, zipped through the pits on his four-wheeler looking for Baltes to protest that he’d seen the white flag twice — and that he believed he was passed on the cool-down lap.
True to form, Baltes listened patiently, stuck his guns, then was ready with a quip when a reporter came calling. Were there two white flags thrown by Rick Foley, Baltes was asked?
"That's one of the best flagmen in the country," Baltes said. "He's only got one white flag.”
Donnie Moran, multi-time major race winner at Eldora, including the Eldora Million:
It was funny, when I won the Million, he kept acting like he was handing me the check, and then he’d pull it back — it was a million dollars, you know. He wouldn’t give it to me, he was teasing me.
I said, “Earl, I’ll tell you what. You just keep that check and I’ll trade you for the deed for this place.” He handed the check over right there so quick, and I laughed. I said, “Uh-huh. That’s what I thought.”
Amber Rigsby, DirtonDirt.com co-founder and marketing and promotions director:
Earl Baltes changed my life forever, whether he knew it or not. My first dirt track experience was at Eldora Speedway. I had never been to a race before the World 100 in 2004. I felt like it was Woodstock on dirt — and I was hooked. I went to the World 100 every year after! So when the time came to start DirtonDirt.com a few years later, it was all in based on those amazing Eldora memories. But my favorite Eldora memory is the first time my dad met Earl.
When DirtonDirt.com covered its first World 100 in 2007, my father came to help us out. Once the races had started, Dad came to sit with me in the Eldora tower. Of course, Earl and Berneice were up in their seats, which just so happened to be next to my Dad and I. My dad had heard of the legend that is Earl Baltes and introduced himself. After Earl shook his hand he leaned into my dad and said: “You're a handsome man, could you give me a ride home?”
Of course my dad felt honored by this request (and that he felt he was handsome!), so my father told him he would gladly give him a ride home. Earl did not end up needing that ride home, but my dad never forgot that story and told everyone. My dad loved that story and always made it a point to go see Earl and say hello when he came with us to Eldora. That is truly one of my most cherished memories of Earl — and my dad. Rest in peace, Earl — you will be greatly missed.
Jimmy Mars, Menomonie, Wis., driver and former winner of Eldora's $100,000-to-win Dream:
There’s one quote I remember the most from (Baltes). It was one of my first times there and we were at a drivers’ meeting, and Earl said, “Anybody got any comments or questions?” This one guy went and said, “Earl, you got a nice place, but your bathrooms suck.” Earl said, “Well, did you come here to watch the races or did you come here to s---?” I’ll never forget that one. He always had some kind of witty thing to say to everybody.”
Chris Dolack, World Racing Group vice president of media and public relations:
Earl Baltes was quite a character. I first met him at a Lernerville Speedway banquet some time ago. He called me a handsome man — and I think he had a notion of trying to fix me up with somebody. I always kind of compared him to my grandfather, who started a die-casting business about the same time Earl built Eldora. It's not often you get a chance to talk with and gain insight from a man who created something so big that so many people continue to enjoy today. I don't know if he ever imagined Eldora would be what it is today, a mecca for the sport with suites, a huge video screen, even a NASCAR event ... I never asked him. I'm pretty sure he was proud of what it has become.
He really was a great man, the type of guy you thought would live forever. There's an older generation out there that by nature won't be here too much longer, but has lived through more stuff than we can even imagine. Take a few minutes and give one of them a call. My grandfather turned 92 yesterday. He's still sharp as a tack, always feel like you learned a little something after hanging up the phone. Rest in peace, Earl.
Mike Ruefer, long-time racing photographer and DirtonDirt.com contributor:
My best memory of Earl goes back to 1994. I was working for a company that had me traveling in Ohio and it was early spring. Since I was close to Eldora, I drove by expecting to just get a brief look. I was surprised to See Berneice in front of the main entrance planting flowers, so I stopped and introduced myself. She was nice and welcomed me and asked that I wait for Earl to come by since it was close to noon and she knew he would be coming back. To be honest I was little nervous. I felt like I was getting a chance to meet the Pope.
Earl drove up in one of his old trucks and welcomed me to Eldora. He invited me inside, grabbed me a soda and we sat down with on the bleachers in the historic grandstand. He proceed to tell me all about the Eldora, building the track and the upcoming Dream race. I was in awe and that personal conversation with him imprinted me with the passion he had for Eldora Speedway.
It's a passion I've felt about the Man and Track that has catapulted Dirt Late Model racing into a grand scale that we have today. When we finished talking, Earl told me I could stay as long as I wanted, but he had to get back to work. I didn't stay, but it was the thought that made me believe that this brief encounter was special.
As I drove away I was still mind numb that I meet him and he shared his time with me. It sure was better then my very first encounter in 1986 when, after a few too many beers on my first visit to the track, Earl stopped his tractor and yelled at me to get off his wall. I never got on that wall again.
Matt Miller, Waterville, Ohio, driver and winner of the 2005 Dream at Eldora:
I still remember he came into our hauler one night and sat down just out of the blue and just started talking. He’s one of those characters you just don’t see every day. He knew who everybody was. Him and his wife, they thoroughly enjoyed racing. You could tell.
You’d never know, when you were sitting there working on your race car, he might come up and put his arm around you and call you “Young man.” He secretly would tell certain drivers who his favorites were. He liked all the drivers, but he always would kind of give you a wink or a just a little nudge or something like that. Those are the things I remember. Those little things.
Kevin Kovac, long-time motorsports journalist and DirtonDirt.com senior writer:
The first time I caught a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Earl Baltes and his special touch with the fans was back in, I think, 1988, when I was a teenager walking around Eldora Speedway during a Kings Royal weekend with my father. I saw him saunter up to a group of fans hanging out after the races, open a beer and just start chatting with them — the look of awe in everyone’s face to have the famed track promoter just hanging out with them was something I won’t forget.
Fourteen years later, when I was in the track’s upper tower room covering the first-ever DIRTcar big-block modified event at Eldora for Area Auto Racing News, I got a look at Earl Baltes the race lover. After the 100-lap feature that saw Brett Hearn pit at mid-race and charge back through the field to win in dramatic fashion, I asked Earl what he thought of the modified division’s debut at his speedway. Sitting on the director’s chair he used to watch from upstairs, he said he was “so excited” watching the action that he could have … well, let’s just say he threw out a slightly off-color self-pleasuring joke sometimes shared among men. I thought it was classic Earl — disarming, down-home, funny, and, of course, a clear display of his love of the game.
Steve Francis, Ashland, Ky., driver and winner of the 1999 World 100 at Eldora:
We didn’t get checks (for payment) back then. I had to go up to the press box and sitting there was like a big, flat crate box that you’d buy a case of Pepsi in, and there were $10s and $20s and $50s and $100s. I think it was $30,000 or $31,000 at the time, and Earl said, “OK son, the first thing you gotta do here is, you gotta leave a voicemail that says, “This is Steve Francis and I just won the World 100” for everybody who’s calling for results that wasn’t here.
He made me do that, and then he sat down there and said, “OK, sit there and count this.” So he sat there while I counted it all, and then he said, “Here’s two popcorn boxes. We’re gonna put this money in these popcorn boxes, and I’m gonna have my security guard take you to your truck. After that, you’re on your own. I would suggest you don’t hang out here all night because there’s 20,000 people who probably know you have this cash, so I would suggest you leave.” That was kind of a neat conversation to have with the guy after winning the race.