Tony Stewart makes final preparations for Eldora
July 22, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Last year's experience in hosting NASCAR's first national series race on dirt with a full-time staff numbering in the single digits qualified as an eye-opener for Eldora Speedway owner Tony Stewart. Even though the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ has the benefit of playing host once before, he says it doesn't make the second time around a breeze.
For all the effort and the hard work from his capable employees, Stewart says his own role is clearly defined.
"My job is to show up and worry and get in their way," Stewart joked Monday, deftly handling NASCAR's weekly teleconference as he drove through his boyhood stomping grounds of Rushville, Indiana, on the way to the half-mile track in Western Ohio. "So I'm a couple hours from there now, and I'll get there and be a pain in their butt when I get there. I'll act normal, I'm sure."
Stewart and company will welcome the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series back to the historic bullring Wednesday for the second annual 1-800-CarCash Mudsummer Classic (9 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), the 10th of 22 races this season, and still the only national series event that veers off the more conventional paved surfaces.
The novelty of racing on dirt was just part of what made the inaugural race a rousing success. Perhaps a larger factor was the connection fans made with stock-car racing's roots before the so-called modern era. Whatever the reason, it's what had the track's patrons yelling their thank-yous to Stewart from behind the catch fencing last year, long after Austin Dillon had hoisted the golden shovel as the first Eldora winner.
Though he purchased the track from legendary owner Earl Baltes in late 2004 and is credited with planting the seed for the dirt-track racing concept with NASCAR's brass, Stewart insists that he's simply carrying on Eldora's tradition of hosting headline-grabbing, big-money events for sprint cars and late models alike.
"The success of Eldora isn't at all due to what I've done with it, it's due to what Earl and Berniece Baltes had done for the first 50 years of the race track," Stewart said. "He was always a promoter that was able to take ‑‑ he was willing to take -- big risks and big gambles and promote big events. He didn't promote races; he promoted big events. Basically, all we've had to do was follow that blueprint and that vision that Earl has always had, and that is something that's been important to us from day one. We've tried to run the racetrack the way he would want to run it and he would want us to run it."
As proof, Stewart said he still consults with the 93-year-old Baltes on a regular basis.
"He's still as big a part of Eldora as anybody. It's one of those places that's always been successful because of the way he ran it. I think a lot of promoters across the country, if they'd had the opportunity to be around him very much, would realize that blueprint for success."
For now, the promotion and planning remain a balancing act. The inaugural race required several one-time expenditures and improvements to bring the rural facility up to the standards mandatory for initially hosting a NASCAR national series race.
While those plans didn't need repeating this year, it didn't make the task at hand any less daunting.
"Anybody that thinks that putting on a single NASCAR event is easy, let's just open the gates," Stewart said. "People think you start working I think a week ahead of time to get ready for stuff like this, and it's been a very large, eye‑opening experience for me to see what the Eddie Gossages and ... everybody at (track ownership groups) ISC and SMI and everything has to do to put on an event each week. It takes months and months of work, and so many details."
With NASCAR's traveling circus about to descend on his Field of Dreams, Stewart says his prime concerns are the same as any track owner -- weather and making sure the event goes off without a hitch. Ticket sales have been brisk, with just under 1,000 reserved seats remaining and a lawn area available for Wednesday's walk-up crowds.
Thus far, ticket-buyers have come from 45 states, five Canadian provinces, Australia, Great Britain and Sweden to partake in the Mudsummer Classic's second running. When Stewart isn't worrying or, as he puts it, getting in the way, he's able to enjoy watching another big Eldora event come together much in the way Baltes did before him.
"It's about as close to being a proud father as I can imagine being."