Earl Baltes, the founder and longtime promoter of Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, passed away this morning at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 93.
Baltes is survived by his wife of 67 years, Berneice; daughter Starr and her husband, Joe Schmitmeyer; son Terry and his wife, Dee; one sister, Susie Barga, six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Born in Versailles, Ohio, Baltes served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Before getting his start in racing, he was heavily involved in the music business. Prior to WWII, he formed and led the Melody Makers, a 16-piece band that rose to regional prominence. In the late 1940s, he built and operated the Crystal Ballroom near Versailles, while still continuing to perform.
He eventually purchased the Ma Shoe’s Dance Hall, and one day attended an auto race at the nearby New Bremen Speedway. Despite having no prior knowledge of the sport, Baltes decided to build a track of his own in the natural amphitheatre that separated his dance hall from the Wabash River. The Dance Hall -- now known as the Eldora Ballroom -- is still there, while the racetrack has grown into a national treasure.
|Earle and Berneice Baltes|
Baltes built Eldora in 1954 as a quarter-mile dirt oval, before reshaping the track into its current high-banked, half-mile oval configuration in 1958. Since then, it has become the premier dirt track in the United States. Under Baltes, the facility hosted the highly successful World 100 for dirt Late Models, now the largest dirt race in the world. He also created the Dirt Late Model Dream, the richest dirt Late Model race in the world. A fan of Sprint Car racing, Baltes took great pride in his fabled Kings Royal Weekend for World of Outlaws Sprint Cars and many United States Auto Club (USAC) events, including the Four Crown Nationals.
Races at Eldora were shown on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” with Keith Jackson and Al Michaels as broadcasters. ESPN, CBS and TNN also televised events that helped put Eldora on the map. Despite the track’s growing popularity, Baltes kept ticket prices affordable and concessions costs low, which continued to attract fans from around the world.
Baltes built the track, nestled in rural west-central Ohio off Route 118, into a showplace for dirt motorsports, increasing the seating capacity to more than 20,000. He was beloved by many fans and seemed to know everyone by name. He also was a great storyteller, who always had a joke to tell.
|Baltes with a young Steve Kinser|
Fond of saying, “If we could sell just one more hot dog, we’d break even,” Baltes also promoted other speedways in Ohio, including Dayton, New Bremen, Limaland, Millstream, Mansfield, Pleasant Hill and Powell, while also promoting one in Salem, Indiana. He promoted World of Outlaws events in Florida and founded Ohio Sprint Speedweek for the All Star Circuit of Champions.
A steady stream of innovative (and often wild) ideas kept observers wondering, “What will Earl do next?” He hosted a trio of 500-lap Sprint Car races in the 1960s that featured 33 cars in each event. He also presented a season-long series of skits featuring a family of apes, who eventually were married in a ceremony presided over by legendary driver Duane “Pancho” Carter.
In 2001, Baltes posted a remarkable $1 million payout to the winner of the “Eldora Million” Dirt Late Model race. He followed that with the “Mopar Million” in 2003, which had a purse of $1 million and paid $200,000 to the winner of a non-winged Sprint Car race.
The legendary promoter developed a relationship with the late Bill France Sr., assisting the founder of NASCAR with recruiting cars for the inaugural event at Talladega Superspeedway. Baltes and Eldora also maintained close ties with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indy Car legends, whose barnstorming schedules at fearsome tracks like Eldora earned them their shot at the Brickyard, and Tony George, former Speedway president and CEO, were frequent visitors during Baltes’ tenure.
He was inducted into many Halls of Fame, including National Sprint Car, National Dirt Late Model, USAC, Dayton Auto Racing Fans and Hoosier Auto Racing Fans, and was named USAC Race Organizer of the Year in 1984 and 1997. He was named Auto Racing Promoter of the Year in 1993, and fellow iconic promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler recognized him with the Charlotte Motor Speedway Promoter of the Year Award in 2001. The state of Ohio named Route 118 “Earl Baltes Highway” from Ansonia to the south to St. Henry to the north.
|Stewart has maintained Eldora's luster|
In 2004, Baltes sold his legendary Eldora oval to three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion -- and former Eldora driver -- Tony Stewart. He continued attending Eldora events with Berneice, often receiving the loudest ovation of the evening when introduced to the crowd. Thanks to Stewart, there is a life-size statue of the two founders at the entrance of the facility.
“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. 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 and author Dave Argabright published his autobiography, “Earl!” in 2004.