It's a Saturday night at Eldora Speedway, and under the lights the rumble of raw horsepower is thumping in the chests of 5,000 fans. They're all on their feet, most with arms raised in excitement, as winged sprint cars thunder around the banked half-mile dirt track located amid the cornfields outside the little town of Rossburg in western Ohio. Many of the fans are wearing goggles to shield their eyes from the dust that is kicked up by the cars and swirls in the cool spring breeze. By the time the checkered flag waves to end the first of the evening's dozen races, the speed junkies are in full-throated rapture and the old wooden bleachers are shaking as if it's Daytona and the Indy 500 rolled into one.
You want to find the beating heart of American racing? Where future NASCAR and open-wheel racing stars--drivers like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Jeff Gordon and Johnny Rutherford--first made a name for themselves? Head to fabled Eldora, the fastest of the hundreds of small dirt tracks throughout the country that operate from late March through early October.
Racing on dirt--the surface that causes the most sliding, spinning and banging--develops a driver's most essential racing skill: car control. The weekend warriors competing at Eldora on this night slide sideways through the turns at up to 130 mph. Those who lose control smash into concrete walls, their cars scrunching like accordions. The more skilled racers hug "the cushion," the ridge of dirt that steadily builds along the outside edge of the racing line with each lap. As race after race is run, the cushion is pushed farther and farther up the banking; the difference between getting through the turn and hitting the wall becomes a matter of inches for even the best drivers.
"Dirt-track racing is so valuable because you have to learn how to read the track conditions and adjust, because the conditions change every 10 laps," says Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 winner and '78 world driving champion, who raced at Eldora in the early '60s. "Racing at Eldora teaches you to be resourceful--you're always looking for grip--and that's one of the reasons dirt-track racers can go on to NASCAR and the Indy Racing League and be successful."
"Everyone wants to test themselves here," says Earl Baltes, 84, who built the track more than 50 years ago and owned it until last November. "I'm a little biased, but I think all serious race fans should come to Eldora. It's what grassroots racing is all about."
The speedway hosts more than two dozen racing events each season, and the cars run the gamut from midgets to Late Model stock cars to the 700-horsepower winged sprint cars. What makes Eldora unique among dirt tracks is that every kind of driver--weekend warriors, teenagers with little experience but big ambitions, and even the big dogs from the Nextel Cup and IRL--can be found racing at Eldora on a given night. On June 8, for example, a dozen current and former Cup drivers are slated to pilot Super Late Models in an event dubbed the Nextel Prelude to the Dream.
"I'd honestly rather be racing here than at the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, or any other big event," says Tony Stewart, the 2002 Winston Cup champ who bought Eldora from Baltes. "A Saturday night under the lights where you're just trying to go faster than everybody else. It's simple, it's raw--and, man, it's awesome."
A tour of Eldora begins on the grass-covered knoll above Turn 2, where several middle-aged men, all flush with liquid courage, are sitting just a few feet beyond the track wall. When the sprint cars roar by--and sitting there sober, you swear it's going to take divine intervention to save you from becoming roadkill--the men are pelted with clumps of mud that fly up from the track and over the 12-foot-high fence, prompting them to whoop and high-five one another. These are the true fans of the dirt; if they don't go home wearing part of the track, it hasn't been a satisfying night.
Over in the bleachers above Turn 3 several part-time mechanics are watching the race and jawing about their full-time dreams: getting the Late Model cars they work on in backyard sheds into shape and onto the track. "We got bit by that damn racing bug," says one of the men. "Can't get rid of the itch."
In the infield, standing next to pit road, is NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne, last year's Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year, who was yet another up-and-comer discovered while racing on dirt in the Midwest. (In 1999 Kahne was signed by open-wheel owner Steve Lewis--whose roster of drivers has included Gordon, Stewart and Nextel Cup star Ryan Newman--and moved up to the USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown Series.) Kahne pirouettes as he watches the action on the track with the intensity of someone following a high-speed police chase. "This right here is the best racing in the country," shouts a grinning Kahne above the engine noise. "Most dirt tracks are flat, but with these banked turns you go so fast in such a small space that you have to be ready for anything. That's why I love racing here and why I come back just to watch."
Taking it all in from atop the dilapidated press box is the track's proud owner, Stewart, who's leaning against a wooden railing. Below him vehicles that look like souped-up go-karts with tilted wings on top (those huge spoilers provide downforce on sprint cars and improve grip) are speeding through the final event of the night. They're turning faster lap times than Nextel Cup cars do at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is the same size as Eldora but is paved and has steeper banking in the turns--two factors that should make Bristol a faster track. But Eldora, because of its wide, sweeping turns, is the rare dirt track on which drivers can stay on the throttle all the way around the oval, making it one of the more perilous places to race in the country. Earlier that evening, for instance, one of the sprint cars hit a rut in Turn 1, somersaulted end over end and bounced over the 12-foot-high catch fence. It landed upside down about 100 feet from a group of picnicking fans, who immediately rushed over to check on the driver, who, amazingly, was unhurt.
In 1954 Earl Baltes was the 32-year-old leader of a traveling 16-piece band, the Melody Makers. He was also the owner of a dance hall called the Eldora Ballroom, which sat on some 20 acres of farmland north of Rossburg that he had bought in the 1940s for $1,000 cash. After seeing his first auto race, at a nearby track, Baltes became a fan of the sport. One day, looking down into the valley below the ballroom, he had a thought: This would be a great view of a racetrack.
A few months later Baltes hired a construction company to carve a half-mile oval into the black soil. The first race, for stock cars on June 6, 1954, attracted about 1,000 fans. Taverns and restaurants in nearby towns shut down for the afternoon. Baltes put up a $700 purse, and more than 70 contestants brought their cars to the track. There were few places to sit, so most spectators simply stood next to the track. "That didn't last too long," recalls Baltes. "They started jumping behind trees when the cars came sliding along." There was also no scorer's platform, so Baltes stood on a rusted farm wagon beside the track and tried to keep count of which cars were on the lead lap. He failed miserably and wound up splitting the purse equally among all the competitors.
However, within days word of the new track spread across western Ohio, and farmers began showing up each week at Eldora with old cars that they had been tinkering with in their barns. Filling-station mechanics and junkyard jockeys began piecing together race cars and bringing them to Eldora. In 1962, with the track's reputation growing, Baltes persuaded the United States Auto Club, then the most powerful organization in American racing, to hold a sprint car race at Eldora. One of the early USAC regulars to race there was a young driver from Nazareth, Penn., who, upon meeting Baltes, told the track owner that he was one day going to win the Indianapolis 500. That was Andretti.
"Eldora was very important to my career," he says, referring to a sprint car victory there in 1965 over a field that included Foyt and Indy Car standout Roger McCluskey. "It was usually a Who's Who of the big-name drivers competing there. I won at Eldora in 1965, and it really propelled my career. The reason the track is so special is because of Earl. I'll never forget seeing him riding the grader or watering the track. He did all of that himself, and the track was always in beautiful condition."
At Eldora in '66 Andretti played a role in what is still regarded as one of the most spectacular crashes in the history of American motor sports. During a USAC sprint car race, Andretti and Rutherford, who was the defending series champion and would go on to become a three-time Indy 500 winner, were battling for the lead. After Andretti pulled in front of Rutherford, Andretti's car kicked up a clod of dirt that hit Rutherford squarely between the eyes. Rutherford was wearing goggles, but the impact knocked him out. His car, traveling at about 120 mph, hit a rut coming out of Turn 2 and started cartwheeling down the backstretch. Then it bounded 20 feet into the air, soared over the backstretch wall, rolled down an embankment and stopped in a cloud of smoke right-side up in the shallow water of the Wabash River about 100 feet outside the track. Both of Rutherford's arms were broken and the whites of his eyes had turned red; the g-forces brought on by the car's spinning through the air were so great that the surface blood vessels in his eyes had burst.
"After that crash I looked like I'd been in a shovel fight and lost my shovel," says Rutherford, who lost his eyesight for two weeks as a result of the crash. "But that can happen at Eldora, because you can go as fast as you want there. That place nearly snuffed me out, but I guess you could say it was good to me because it didn't kill me."
Two weeks later LIFE magazine ran a photo of Rutherford's car in midair. The spectacular crash nearly killed him, but Rutherford had put Eldora Speedway on the national map.
After the checkered flag has waved on the final race at Eldora on this late-March night, Baltes and Stewart sit side by side in the small wooden press box. In less than 13 hours Stewart will be driving 500 miles in a Nextel Cup race two states away, but he lingers at the track to hear Baltes tell stories about the old days. Tales about gritty guys who showed up at Eldora with packs of Lucky Strikes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, hell-bent on becoming the speed king for one Saturday night.
"People don't understand what this kind of racing and what this track means to us in this part of the country," says Baltes. "It's a way of life to us."
"Once I retire from the Cup car," says Stewart, "there's only one place you'll ever find me on Saturday nights."
"Where?" asks Baltes.
"The perfect racetrack," says Stewart. "Right here at Eldora."
• For more information on Eldora, go to SI.com/Eldora.