Just east of the Indiana state line and an hour northwest of Dayton, the “Big E” — Eldora Speedway — rises out of the cornfields.
Founder Earl Baltes knew 55 years ago that despite the remote locale, if he built it they would come. And for more than a half-century the top names in motorsports have flocked to racing’s field of dreams.
Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Gary Bettenhausen and Pancho Carter were some of the superstars from yesteryear that tackled the famed dirt track. On Wednesday, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, current owner Tony Stewart, and many others will continue the tradition in Late Models for the fifth annual Gillette Young Guns Prelude to the Dream.
For Stewart, who purchased the property from Baltes in 2004, “the atmosphere and the aura around the place just continue to grow every year.”
“There’s nights that we left, got to the airport and taken off in the plane and it looks just like the last scene in Field of Dreams,” Stewart said. “You see cars leaving the racetrack versus coming, but realize that out in the middle of the country is a perfect place for a racetrack.
“Hopefully, there will never be the treat of housing developments built up around it and have neighbors that don’t understand the importance of having a facility like that.”
The race fans and competitors certainly are grateful for the opportunity to participate on the half-mile that starts at eight-degrees in the straight-aways and graduates to 24-degree banking through the corners.
So appreciative that they are willing to come back when rain reschedules the event, as it did this year when rain wiped out the original June 3 race.
“There was just no place like it,” said Stewart, who is the defending winner of the Prelude. “You don’t run a lot of half-miles anyway but if you do, they’re not usually shaped like Eldora. They don’t have that kind of banking to it.
Wednesday night’s roster for the Prelude to the Dream features 23 racers including three Sprint Cup champions, one NHRA champion and four Daytona 500 winners. There are racers that grew up on dirt such as Jimmie Johnson during his motorcycle and truck days, and there are novices such as Kevin Harvick, who had never raced on dirt before joining Stewart at Eldora three years ago and last year’s top rookie Robby Gordon, who finished second to Stewart last year in his first Late Model dirt attempt.
Harvick has earned the “Most Improved” award the last two years.
“My strategy coming into the Prelude every year is to not wreck because I’m kind of a hazard on the racetrack — the dirt track,” Harvick said. “We got Shell and Pennzoil some TV time leading everybody to the green last year, but it didn’t last long. Stewart passed me one lap into the race.”
Kenny Wallace won the inaugural event in 2005. Fellow Missourian Carl Edwards took the trophy in 2007. But as Harvick mentioned, Stewart — with titles in 2006 and 2008 — is the racer with the target on his car.
“I’m dumping Stewart this year, that’s pretty much the bottom line,” Harvick joked. “I figure as fast as he was last year, he’ll probably be better than that this year. So I’m just going to dump him right off the bat.”
Although four drivers had to pull out from the original roster because of injuries or personal commitments — Carl Edwards, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and Dave Blaney — the race features a who’s who in racing.
“We’ve had all the big names — but Dale Jr.,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty flattering to have all the guys that have supported it the way they have, that want to be a part of it and want to help. It’s been extremely flattering to me and makes me feel like if I didn’t have their respect, they wouldn’t do it.
“To have your buddies there, you want to make it as much fun as you possibly can for them. Every year we get them in better and better cars — they’re in great cars this year. There’s not a bad car in the race. And now guys are building their own cars, buying their own cars, it’s really become a bragging rights event for a lot of people.”
For Stewart, and his fellow competitors, the Prelude for the Dream — In Support of Our Injured & Fallen Heroes also offers the perfect platform to raise awareness for philanthropic causes. In the last four years, Stewart has raised more than $2 million for Victory Junction Camp and the Tony Stewart Foundation. This year’s event will benefit Wounded Warrior Project, Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Operation Homefront and Fisher House.