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."