Through the lens: A summer of Midwest circle track racing

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Cameron Neveu

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.

hoosier hundred dirt track dynamic racing action
Ten days after my trip to Eldora, I drove to the Indiana State Fairgrounds for USAC’s Hoosier Hundred. This event once teemed with Indianapolis 500 competitors, but today, the lineup is exclusively specialized dirt racers campaigning a long-distance version of the sprint car called Silver Crown cars. The old horse track is a time capsule, and it’s easy to imagine a day when star drivers like Foyt and Unser ran both races. Cameron Neveu
racing patches on jacket
A fan’s jacket proves I wasn’t the only guy following the racing action across the heartland. Most summers, I’ve been too busy pursuing love interests, pleasing love interests, and breaking up with love interests to drive to a track every weekend, but last summer was different. I was single. I chased racetracks, not romance. Cameron Neveu
crew work on racecar during pit stop
The 500-lapper in Anderson, Indiana, is one of the few short track races with live pit stops. Most weekend races are too short to necessitate service, but not the Little 500, which runs 900-hp cars weighing less than 1400 pounds. The pit stops are completed inside the quarter-mile oval, mere feet from the action. Watch your toes. Cameron Neveu
sprint car gear change work action
A sprint car gets new rear gears at Bloomington Speedway in Indiana. “I feel strange in a sprint car,” Jackie Stewart once told ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “I’m sitting up as if I’m eating my bread at the table. The steering wheel is too big for me. My right foot is on the accelerator pedal, and I’m frightened to touch it.” Cameron Neveu
driver cj leary dynamic drifting race action
C.J. Leary, 24, is a second-generation driver who’s cutting his teeth in sprint cars and aspires to auto racing’s big leagues. When he’s not kicking up dirt, the Greenfield, Indiana, native is either in his shop building shocks for fellow competitors or 200 feet in the air repairing water towers, all to finance his next race. His hard work paid off in 2019, when he won the USAC National Sprint Car championship. Cameron Neveu
driver tyler courtney waves checkered flat at eldora speedway
Tyler Courtney celebrates a win at Eldora Speedway during the 4-Crown Nationals, a four-feature bout with a big purse. In 2004, Tony Stewart purchased Eldora, the crown jewel of American dirt ovals, and invested heavily in the facility—pyrotechnics included. Cameron Neveu
two men in black rolling thick hoosier tires
A pair of crew members roll mismatched Hoosiers down pit lane. Circle track teams use different-size left and right rear tires to help the car turn. Think of a red Solo cup lying on its side. Crew members carve additional grooves into the giant meats for more traction on the snot-slick clay. Cameron Neveu
fans watch summer nationals hell tour
Summer Nationals, also known as “Hell Tour,” is a grueling 28-race schedule at more than 20 tracks, crammed into 32 days in June and July, with nearly $800,000 in total winnings. With custom tube-frame chassis and high-powered small-blocks, the wedge-shaped “late model” race cars are not cheap to run. Cameron Neveu
racecar dynamic rear three-quarter action on track
Racetrack nicknames—the Action Track, the Big “E,” the World’s Fastest Half-Mile—are part of the pageantry. The Dirty “O,” otherwise known as Route 66 Raceway, hosts weekly racing 200 yards from the Joliet, Illinois, NASCAR circuit. On a humid July afternoon, I pointed my Canon 5D at USAC National Midgets ripping around the 3/8-mile clay oval. Cameron Neveu
racecar driver simpson ready in cockpit near cigarette pit hand
Seeing smoke: A crew member leaned in while a driver sat patiently on the grid at Winchester Speedway, the second-oldest purpose-built track in America. With the same power-to-weight ratio as Lewis Hamilton’s F1 racer, this pavement sprint car is white-hot speed wrapped in Styrofoam and duct tape. Cameron Neveu
circle track racecar congestion action
Kalamazoo, Joliet, Brownstown, Flint, Winchester, Waynesfield, Wauseon, Gas City, what a pity—my summer schedule sounded like that Johnny Cash song. Every Friday, around quitting time, I packed my camera bag, loaded up my 2012 Impala, and took off from my home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, hellbent for some back-country racetrack. No editorial assignment, no direction from my Hagerty bosses—just personal interest and a steady diet of gas-station egg salad sandwiches to keep me going. Cameron Neveu
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