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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Bonding with Baltes over tall cool one

March 24, 2015, 4:43 pm

After Bob Pierce heard the sad news that Eldora Speedway founder Earl Baltes had passed away on Monday morning, the former Dirt Late Model star and current chassis builder thought back to the first time he had a one-on-one meeting with the legendary Ohio track owner and promoter whom he considered a friend.

It came, the 60-year-old Pierce recalled Monday afternoon in a telephone conversation from his shop in Oakwood, Ill., in decidedly unorthodox fashion.

According to Pierce, he was leading the 1985 Johnny Appleseed race at Eldora driving a car owned by Rick Ren — a native of Danville, Ill., who later moved south and in recent years has worked as Ron Hornaday Jr.’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series crew chief and the competition director at Kyle Busch Motorsports — when things got a bit crazy.

“On the last lap they actually threw the white flag behind me,” Pierce said. “I was trying to be cool because I saw (lapped) traffic, I didn’t know how much of a lead I had (on second-place Kris Patterson) and I hadn’t seen the white flag yet. Then, all of a sudden, (Patterson) blows through there on the backstretch and about runs over half the lapped traffic and I’m like, ‘Wow!’ But I figure I’ve still got about a lap or so to get him back if he doesn’t wreck himself anyway the way he was driving, so I wasn’t worried.

“Then we come off of (turn) four and the checkered flag was waving, so I’m like, ‘Wait a minute … I never saw the white flag!’ I came in (after settling for runner-up money) and said to Rick, ‘Did I fall asleep? Where was the white flag at?’ He was all mad, and he said, ‘No, you didn’t miss it … they threw it behind you.’ So now I get mad, and I fly across the racetrack to go yell at the flagman.”

Pierce never made it all the way to the track’s starter. The man who ruled Eldora with an iron fist made sure of that.

“I’m climbing up the flagstand and somebody grabs me by the foot,” Pierce said. “I look down and it’s Earl. He basically pulls me down, and then I’m there yelling and screaming. Earl just says, ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ and he grabs my hand and starts walking up the grandstand. Of course, all these people are in the stands, and they’re like, 'Oh, ----, what’s gonna happen?’

“I’m trying to plead my case and he ain’t letting me talk. He just keeps telling me, ’Shut up!’ We go all the way up to the beer deal (Eldora’s famed bar at the top of the covered grandstand) and he asks for two Budweisers. He still ain’t letting me talk, and he hands a beer to me and he grabs a beer, and he walks me back out to the stands and he moves two people over so we can sit down in the front row right there. Then he says, ‘OK now, take a drink.’ So I took a drink, he took a drink, and he said, ‘I’m gonna ask you one question.’ I started to say something about it, and he said, ‘No, no, no … I’m gonna ask you one question: Do you wanna race here again?’ I go, ‘Well, yeah.’ He goes, 'Alright, then listen. I’m only gonna say this one time: I hire my people to do the best they can. If they make a mistake, they make a mistake, and it’s over.’ Then he said, ‘Now let’s drink this beer.’ ”

Pierce sat processing the turn of events for a moment. Then he realized that arguing with Baltes would be futile, so the controversy was over and a friendship was born.

“He didn’t want to listen to nothing else, didn’t want to listen to no stories,” Pierce said. “That was it, the end of it. We sat there and drank the beers, and we pretty much became friends right after that. He knew who I was every time I came back and we always talked.”

Pierce became one of the drivers Baltes called on often. Baltes was careful to keep his distance from the majority of drivers, but there were a few whom he spoke with and hung out with a little more.

“He would talk to me, Larry Moore, Jack Hewitt,” Pierce detailed. “He had his handful of drivers he was friends with but didn’t want everybody to know he was friends with; that way people wouldn’t think he was siding with somebody or giving Bob a break or Moore a break or Billy Moyer a break.”

Over the years, during Pierce’s annual visits to Eldora’s specials or at UMP DIRTcar awards banquets or at trade shows, Pierce would end up chatting with the famed promoter. Baltes took a definite liking to Pierce, who couldn’t help noticing that he was lucky enough to regularly command a bit more of Baltes’s attention than most of his rivals in the pit area.

“I think one thing that helped us hit it off was when he found out I used to play in a band when I was a teenager,” said Pierce, who recalls periodically stepping in with bands that appeared at UMP banquets to play some drums. “You know, that building in front of the track was his dance hall (the Eldora Ballroom) and that’s where it all started for him, so he liked his music. Once he found out I was in a band, he used to come up and always want to talk to me about it.”

Eventually, Pierce saw a side of Baltes that the gruff, tough racetrack enforcer didn’t often display.

“He was always worried about being seen as the stern guy — you know, from saying, ‘Look, this is the way it’s gonna be, you can like it, you can leave, I don’t care,’ ” Pierce said. “When he would say that it bothered him, and a lot of people didn’t know that.

“Well, the more we got to know each other, he’d always come around … he could be on his tractor on the racetrack and if he’d see me, he’d stop. He’d motion me over and he’d get off, walk down to the edge of the wall, and he’d always ask me, ‘Bob, does everybody like me?’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ Then he says, ‘Well, you know, I gotta make these rules and stick to these rules, but I hate that. I don’t want to make anybody mad.’ I said, ‘Earl, if you’re making everybody mad, why are we all here? We’re here because you do do that. You don’t care who’s Jeff Purvis, who’s Larry Moore, who’s Bob Pierce. You are you, and that’s why we’re here. We know we’re gonna get a fair shake — we might not like it, but we know it’s gonna be right.’ He’d say, ‘OK, alright,’ and away he’d go.”

Two moments from the many interactions Pierce had with Baltes over three decades stick out in his mind most of all. The first came via long-distance in 1997, the other after he finished fifth in the 1999 World 100.

“He sent me a letter on his 50th anniversary (in ’97) and wanted me and (wife) Angie to come to his anniversary party,” Pierce said. “We couldn’t do it because we had something going on, but it meant a lot to me that that guy sent me a letter saying, ‘I want you to come to my 50th anniversary party.’ ”

Two years later Pierce was picking up his World 100 purse winnings at the payoff window underneath the covered grandstand when he received an unexpected invitation to a postrace audience with Baltes.

“He was in the window behind where they were paying and he saw me,” Pierce said of Baltes. “He just kind of waved at me, and he motioned me inside. I looked at him, and he said, ‘Come in here.’ I didn’t even know how to get in there, so he walked over and opens that door — and there ain’t nobody but a cop and him getting in that door when they’re paying the money out — and he says, ‘Where’s your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s standing right there.’ Now, this is when my kids (daughter Ciara and son Bobby) were little, and they were in my truck with one of our crew guys out in the parking lot waiting for me to come with the money, but Earl says, ‘Let’s go talk a minute’ so the two of us went inside with him.

“We go upstairs in the tower to the very, very top, where you can see half of Ohio. We go up there — this is like 1 o’clock in the morning — and Earl says to his security guy, ‘Go down and get us some beers.’ He goes down and comes back with three Budweisers … and to make a long story short, he sends that guy down I don’t know how many times for three beers at a time, and we sit there till 4 o’clock in the morning, looking over all them trees and talking. You could see where his house was, where he was gonna cut that mile dirt track at one time, and we just talked about the place the whole night.

“Now, you don’t get invited to the very, very top that late at night with Earl Baltes unless he thinks you’re OK,” he added. “That meant a lot to me right there.”

Pierce never had the opportunity to celebrate a crown-jewel victory at Eldora with Baltes — and for that, he will always feel a void in his sparkling career that ended in 2004. Lord knows how long he would have partied with the Big E’s boss if he had captured the World 100 or the Dream.

“Earl wanted me to win the World so bad,” said Pierce, whose career-best finish in 13 World 100 feature starts was third, in 1984 when he transferred to the century grind for the first time (his top finish in six Dream starts was fifth, in ’98). “He said me and him were gonna sit on the frontstretch and drink beer till daylight if it happened. He said, ‘I’m bringing the beer truck on the front stretch and we’re gonna get drunk.’ It never did happen, but …”

For a spell in the 2013 World 100, though, it appeared that Pierce’s supremely talented teenage son, Bobby, might grab the event’s coveted globe trophy — in his first World 100 feature start, no less — to give Bob his long-awaited celebration with Baltes. But Bobby, then just 16 years old, fell short, finishing fourth, and last year he placed 25th.

“I was hoping Earl would be around to see Bobby win it someday,” Pierce said. “I know (in ’13) when Bobby ran fourth that Earl was watching, though, so that was pretty good.”

Bates did witness the younger Pierce’s victory in last year’s season opener at Eldora, a Sunoco American Late Model Series event on April 12. Unfortunately, Baltes wasn’t there for Bobby’s season-ending Eldora triumph in the UMP DIRTcar Fall Nationals because, at 93, he was battling his failing health.

“I knew he wasn’t feeling good most of the year and I had a feeling he might be getting a little worse because he wasn’t at the Fall Nationals at the end of the year,” Pierce said. “I asked his boy if he was up in the tower after Bobby won because he was gonna wave at him — he was up there after the earlier race that Bobby won and we waved up to the tower to him and I saw him and Berneice wave back — but he wasn’t there.

“I guess I knew it was coming,” he continued, considering Baltes’s passing again, “but I still didn’t want to hear about it.”

Once the disturbing news reached Pierce — his more social-media savvy son informed him of Baltes’s passing Monday — all he could do was reflect on his many talks with Baltes and the legendary figure’s spectacular legacy.

“The very last thing we had any conversation about was last year, I think at the Dream,” Pierce recalled. “We went up top and I saw him. He motioned me over to bend down, so I bend down and I said, ‘What’s up Earl?’ He just said, ‘I wished I wouldn’t have sold this damn place (to NASCAR star Tony Stewart in 2004).’ I said, ‘Earl, I know, but you sold it to the right guy and things are going OK.’

“He smiled, because he knows he sold it to the right guy, but you know, that was his life. He lived for that place.”

And Baltes made Eldora was it is to this day. As Pierce asserted, there won’t ever be another promoter, another man, quite like him.

“There’s only a few out there who are one of a kind,” Pierce said, “and he’s one of them.”

Ten things worth mentioning

1. Jason Papich’s choice of racing venue last weekend — USA Raceway in Tucson, Ariz., where he emerged victorious in Saturday night’s Copper World Classic finale that closed a West Coast Late Model Shootout doubleheader — made his plans for the remainder of 2015 abundantly clear. After chasing the entire ’15 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series as a Rookie of the Year candidate and entering the national tour’s season-opening events last month in Georgia and Florida, the 36-year-old driver from Nipomo, Calif., won’t continue as a regular on the circuit for a second straight year. Busy with a new business venture on top of his already bustling construction firm, Papich said he simply doesn’t have enough time to get away and follow the far-flung series this season.

2. While Papich has recalled his hauler and crew members from his team’s Midwest base of operations — World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion Darrell Lanigan’s shop in Union, Ky. — he won’t completely disappear from national events this season. He said he plans to send his team and Club 29 cars back to Lanigan’s in May and “run as many races in the Midwest as possible this summer.” Papich, who has flashed great improvement in his early-season starts, added that in 2016 he would like to run at least the Lucas Oil Midwest LateModel Association (MLRA) schedule if he doesn’t return to the national Lucas Oil Series.

3. Earl Pearson Jr. of Jacksonville, Fla., picked a good night to collect his second Lucas Oil Series victory of the young season. His triumph in last Saturday night’s Icebreaker 50 at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway came on the 44th birthday of Kemp Lamm, the co-owner of the Dunn-Benson Ford team that Pearson has rejoined in 2015. Kemp and his father, Carlton, were both at the quarter-mile oval to enjoy the postrace ceremonies with Pearson.

4. Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., used his interview with DirtonDirt.com’s Derek Kessinger after finishing second last Saturday night at Brownstown to effectively place a Help Wanted ad for his racing effort. He made it clear he has some exacting standards for applicants, however. “I’m looking for another employee,” Bloomquist said. “Just kind of openly looking, so if anybody watching this thinks they can do it all, I need somebody who can do it all.”

5. Monday’s weather-related shuffling of the scheduled March 27-28 Lucas Oil Series weekend at Jackson Motor Speedway in Byram, Miss., and ArkLaTex Speedway in Vivian, La. —  Jackson’s program was moved to April 11 and increased to $12,000-to-win while ArkLaTex’s show was canceled — was a disappointed to rising star Devin Moran of Dresden, Ohio. Coming off a third-place finish at Brownstown that left him fourth in the tour’s points standings, the 20-year-old talent was planning to head south for the pair of events. The new Jackson date makes a Gulf Coast excursion much more uncertain for Moran. While he’ll still be eligible to collect $700 in Lucas Oil Series appearance money thanks to his position in the standings, Moran and his father, legendary driver Donnie Moran, will have to determine if they want to make the 850-mile haul to Jackson for a single race; stay on the road for a week and run the April 17-18 Lucas Oil Series weekend at Batesville Motor Speedway in Locust Grove, Ark., as well; or find some races closer to home.

6. No one was happier about Monday’s announcement that the March 27-28 WoO Illini 100 weekend at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway has been postponed to April 17-18 than tour veteran Chub Frank of Bear Lake, Pa., who would have been far from 100 percent physically if the races were run. With Frank, 53, still recovering from the left knee replacement surgery he underwent on Feb. 23, he welcomed the luxury of another two weeks to heal before climbing back in the cockpit for the circuit’s April 10-11 doubleheader at Duck River Raceway Park in Wheel, Tenn., and Tazewell (Tenn.) Speedway. “I have to get my knee to bend 90 degrees to get in the car comfortably and I’m not there yet,” said Frank, who continues to take physical therapy to regain his knee’s range of motion. “Two more weeks will make six weeks (since the operation), and that’s the recovery time.” Frank’s cousin and fellow WoO traveler, Boom Briggs of Bear Lake, Pa., provided a tongue-in-cheek assessment of Chub’s post-surgery luck: “Does he have a golden horseshoe up his ass or what?” cracked Briggs, referring to the back-to-back weekends of WoO action wiped out by inclement weather, allowing Frank more time to rehab.

7. The Illini 100 postponement produced an unexpected travel wrinkle for Rocket Chassis house car owner Mark Richards. After entering last weekend’s Lucas Oil Series events with his son Josh, the elder Richards decided to save fuel expenses by having his crew stay at NASCAR star Tony Stewart’s Indiana home base with the hauler in advance of the Farmer City weekend. Mark rented a car and drove back to Rocket headquarters in Shinnston, W.Va., so he could get in a few days of work before returning to the Midwest in the vehicle on Wednesday night; following the announcement of the postponement, however, he had to head back to meet up with his team on Monday because he had to return the car in Indiana.

8. Todd Neuendorf has a big 2015 ahead of him as he takes over the promotion of the WISSOTA-sanctioned Brown County Speedway in Aberdeen, S.D. His year already has a major highlight, however, after he coached the boy’s basketball team at Aberdeen’s Roncalli High School to its first South Dakota Class A high school championship since 1975 last Saturday night in Rapid City, S.D. Neuendorf serves as the athletic director and head boy’s basketball coach at the school.

9. A triumph in last Saturday night’s 25-lap Dirt Late Model feature at Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway was a giant relief for Jamie Lathroum of Mechanicsville, Md. After struggling through a uncharacteristically winless 2014 season in the wake of a personal loss — the April death of his crew chief Huey Wilcoxon of MBH Race Cars — Lathroum finally returned to victory with a powerful performance, winning by a margin of over 10 seconds. It was his first win at Hagerstown since June 21, 2013, and his first checkered flag period since July 20, 2013, at Potomac Speedway in Budds Creek, Md. “It felt good,” said Lathroum, who plans to compete in a pair of $3,000-to-win events this weekend at Potomac and Winchester (Va.) Speedway. “Things are starting off better this year than I ever have.”

10. If the weather cooperates, I might go racing close to home this Friday night when the famed Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa., hosts a rare Super Late Model event alongside its season-opening 410 sprint car program. The $2,000-to-win full-fender feature is the opening leg of the Williams Grove-Hagerstown Challenge; both races are qualifiers for Loco-Motives Appalachian Mountain Speedweek events later this year.  The Grove’s winner will be awarded a guaranteed starting position in the May 29 AMS show at Bedford (Pa.) Speedway while Hagerstown’s victor is assured a spot in the half-mile oval’s AMS-ending race on June 6.

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