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NASCAR Summit sheds light on Eldora transformation

January 17, 2014, Zack Albert,

Those involved still marvel at July race, look forward to more

Seven full-time employees. It was a refrain that track owner Tony Stewart recited more than once during the inaugural Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway, his half-mile dirt oval in western Ohio.

Having so few people on the payroll didn't pose any hurdle to what was arguably one of the most novel races on the NASCAR calendar last season. Instead, Stewart's "little track that could" thrived in the spotlight while hosting the first NASCAR national series event on dirt in 43 years.

The sense of accomplishment from that picture-perfect night last July returned last week for Roger Slack, Eldora's general manager and promoter, at the annual NASCAR Summit, a gathering for more than 700 representatives from tracks that host NASCAR and IMSA events to share best practices in track services, safety and security. Eldora Speedway was honored twice, once as a co-recipient of the Track Services Mission Award and again with the Teamwork Award presented by NASCAR's Medical Liaison staff.

The accolades were an affirmation not only of Stewart's vision, but of the tremendous undertaking to bring one of NASCAR's top three series to the historic facility. 

"I liken it to ... it was really similar to what I think would be putting on a temporary street course event at your own race track," Slack said last week after the three-day meeting. "I say that because you're looking at the infrastructure changes we had to make, whether they were gates, pit road, the redesigned walls, mobile infield care center, mobile infield media center, the credential office, all the different phone lines, high-speed internet, all the way down to making sure we had the right tow straps for the wreckers because the trucks are so much heavier than anything we run there. 

"It's still a feat we marvel at every once in a while up at the track."

"It's still a feat we marvel at every once in a while up at the track."

-- Roger Slack, Eldora general manager and promoter

The preparation

Eldora is no stranger to big events, with a rich history of hosting the nation's most prestigious and lucrative races for sprint cars and dirt late models. But this, the first visit by the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, was a different beast.

With NASCAR's Research & Development team keeping close watch on Oct. 15, 2012, Austin Dillon completed a successful feasibility study by testing a plain black truck on Eldora's high banks, setting the wheels in motion. Six weeks later, the series schedule was released with Stewart's track in the heart of it.

"After the test that we did in October, when we knew that it looked pretty good that it was happening, that was when we really got after trying to figure out who we could partner up without revealing everything to them," Slack said, "... letting them know we might need some assistance on a possible future event. It really started in earnest in October, and it went all the way through." 

Among the preparations were the speedway staff's first visit to the NASCAR Summit, where Slack met with noted North Carolina neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. From that conversation about a personal health issue for Slack, an agreement was eventually hatched to use the Carolinas MED-1 mobile emergency medical unit from the Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte for the inaugural race.

The agreement gave tiny Eldora a surgically capable infield care center that was deployed to treat more than 7,500 people in a 49-day span in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. 

"I would use that as a good example of the lengths they went to, to make sure they were at or above the standards of any other track that our national series travel to," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations. "The temporary care center that they brought in was not only great for that venue, but I'm sure for any short tracks that don't have a facility like that, that opened their eyes to 'Hey, are there possibilities of our venue hosting such an event?' They showed a lot of other tracks out there what the art of the possible is, and did it in a smart way." 

But the medical piece was only part of the preparation. A helipad was constructed for medical choppers and accommodations were made for television, radio and other coverage. The communication with NASCAR officials was near constant: Several site visits, plus advance calls and meetings took place to discuss event management, logistics, safety and security. 

The dizzying nature of the behind-the-scenes legwork was an eye-opener for Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion who has lived and breathed dirt-track racing for virtually all of his life.

"Getting first-hand knowledge of how NASCAR's safety elements are managed was huge," Stewart said. "We as drivers don't realize what goes into putting on a NASCAR event, especially from the track services, medical and safety side. We just show up, put on our safety gear and go race. I got a chance to see just how prepared NASCAR is and what they do to get there. It's just one more important parameter that I got to see as a track promoter. 

"I'm that much more confident in NASCAR's safety initiatives and the processes we have in place. We're in better hands than we even realize. I think it would be an asset for every driver to learn the system like I did, maybe sit in on some of meetings, to get a better understanding of just what goes into all of this." 

More than 700 representatives from tracks that host NASCAR and IMSA events attended the NASCAR Summit. Eldora Speedway was honored twice at the event. (Photo by Scott Hunter)

The race

The on-track portion of the Mudsummer Classic made for one of NASCAR's most enticing events of the year. Dillon eventually prevailed, 58-year-old Ken Schrader ruled qualifying, rookie hotshot Kyle Larson dazzled, and last-chance qualifier Norm Benning captivated fans and fellow drivers with his pedal-down move to transfer into the main event. Special touches abounded to give the race a true dirt-track feel, including the four-wide salute to fans during the formation laps. 

The Eldora debut also featured a pre-race pyrotechnic display to rival any major-league event, seemingly detonating a significant portion of the Ohio countryside. The conflagration was a definite nod to Slack's years working in Charlotte Motor Speedway's event management team. 

"Working for Humpy Wheeler for 15 years, you've definitely got an appreciation for blowing stuff up," Slack said of his former boss, the legendary Charlotte track promoter renowned for his pre-race stunts. 

While Stewart shook hands and participated in the pre-race driver introduction ceremonies, Slack was managing two issues. The first was acting as air traffic control for medical and television helicopters; the second, and perhaps larger, issue was merely keeping the lights on. 

"We had a poor squirrel that hopped on the (electrical) transformer down in Rossburg and caused our lights to go out," Slack said. "So a lot of people don't even know that we ran our track lights for the 150-lap main event on our redundant generators that we had brought in for the race because the power just blipped on and off."

Eventually, Slack was able to enjoy the rest of the night, and Stewart was able to exhale. With all the variables, the uncertainty and potential pitfalls, the event went off without a major snag -- a tribute to the advance work to make sure everything went smoothly. 

"Eldora took the task as seriously as any other track has, and I think you saw the results," Cassidy said. "They were buttoned up and ready to go. We had a great time working with them and can't wait to go back there." 

The future

The Camping World Truck Series will return to Eldora on July 23. This time around, many of the track's one-time expenditures will already be in place, helping to ease some of the burden of preparation for the second-annual Classic.

But Slack and company aren't resting on laurels -- staffers with Eldora Speedway logo shirts were back in North Carolina at the NASCAR Summit this year, aiming to learn more and exchange ideas with representatives from other tracks. The rotation of safety and security seminars, plus a showcase of racing-industry products and services, hinted at the preparation for on-track action to come, even against the backdrop of frigid January days.

"The summit is a great opportunity to get everybody together, but it's really part of an overall process that engages the tracks really on a year-round basis," Cassidy said. "The summit's a great way to kick it off, but there is ongoing dialogue with each of the tracks in each of the different disciplines, whether it's track logistics, security, track services or medical, it's an ongoing process. ... 

"While in many instances, our group only sees some of these folks once or twice a year, the relationship and the bond they have is quite remarkable. They all share the same passion for the never-ending focus on safety." 

For Slack and Stewart, their first-year effort is being rewarded with brisk ticket sales for the second running of the truck race at their unique, historic track. Slack already has what he calls a "long list" of new wrinkles for this season, plus a late model feature scheduled on the eve of the 2014 Mudsummer Classic to assist with grooming the track surface. 

It's just the next challenge ahead for Eldora's spirited staff of seven.

"People definitely remember the great time they had there," Slack said, "and even if they're not coming back to the truck race, they're coming back to one of our other major events to experience Eldora in a different way."


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