Driving south down Ohio State Route 118, in a sea of corn sprouts, I never would have guessed that the small knot of color on the horizon was a mecca of speed and mechanical drama. Until that point, nothing gave Darke County’s secret away. No signs for the racetrack ahead—just wide tractors straddling the centerline of a two-lane, grain silos at every farm. This county is, after all, Ohio’s top producer of corn and soybeans. As the knot out my windshield grew into distinguishable shapes and buildings, the traffic on the road thickened, eventually halting in front of the main gate. I had arrived at Eldora Speedway, the fastest half-mile dirt track in the world.
It seemed like all of Darke County’s 53,000 residents were converging on this racetrack, though varying state license plates indicated that many of the fans weren’t even from Ohio. Rows of corn were replaced by rows of campers, motorhomes, and race car trailers, and grandstands sprang from the topsoil. I pulled into the gravel lot adjacent to the ticket gate. It was an idyllic spring evening and the track was bustling.
Through the ticket line, past the concessions, I walked under a pavilion to the grandstands. At ground level, I was looking down at the dirt track, like the top row of an amphitheater. It was loud. Cars were already practicing for that night’s big race, sliding sideways around the big clay bowl, straight exhaust echoing off the canyon walls. Then I noticed the lifesize, gold statue of Earl Baltes and his wife, Berneice, enshrined in a glass case.
In the early 1940s, dance-band leader Earl Baltes purchased a condemned ballroom from a retired bootlegger in New Weston, about two hours west of Columbus. He found a sign in the building with the name Eldora painted across it and renamed his dance hall the Eldora Ballroom. A few years later, after an inspiring visit to nearby New Bremen Speedway, Baltes decided to build his own racetrack in the gravel pit between the ballroom and the Wabash River. An excellent promoter, he held the inaugural race in 1954, and Eldora Speedway became a summer staple for dirt track ringers.
A unique story, a unique venue, yes, but not a premise unique to Darke County. Hundreds of small oval racetracks dot the American Midwest. They’re well-kept secrets off the beaten path, like a dilapidated diner that serves the world’s best cheeseburger. We’re not talking about the palaces of speed—facilities with paved parking lots, aluminum seatbacks, and bathroom sinks with hot water. No, we’re talking dirt circles plowed in farm fields and paved bullrings on the outskirts of town.
I spent summer 2019 visiting tracks like Eldora. And Bloomington. And Flat Rock. And Terre Haute. Along the way, I discovered that grassroots racing is alive and well, with die-hard fans and promising prospects.