Earl Baltes figured it out a long time ago. In his words as a promoter, “To really attract attention, you’ve got to be bold and shake things up. Go Big!”
Somewhere, packing a dirt track in that old blue Ford pickup in the great beyond, Earl must be smiling, because the latest news out of Eldora Speedway is, in a word — Big.
The winner of the July 20 Kings Royal at Eldora will take home a cool $175,000.
It was 35 years ago that Baltes stunned the sport with the announcement that the inaugural Kings Royal — run on July 28, 1984 — would pay $50,000 to the winner. It’s difficult to express how outrageous a $50,000 payoff was at that time; suffice to say most people thought Baltes had lost his mind.
Quite the contrary. The Kings Royal captured people’s imagination and the stands were packed. Over the decades that followed the Kings Royal has continued to draw an enormous audience and has become a mainstay in the sprint car community. Until the recent announcement, the $50,000 first-place money had remained unchanged.
Eldora officials sensed the time had come to shake things up once again by boosting the race purse. Not just the winner’s purse; the three-day event purse is bumped to almost $600,000, up from $181,000 just a few years ago. But the big news is the up-front jump.
From the beginning, Baltes felt some pushback on his purse structure. The Kings Royal money was clearly front-loaded, leading some to protest that more dollars should be spread back through the field. That’s more practical, right? But Baltes had a clear sense that being practical sometimes isn’t the key, because from the standpoint of showmanship race fans want excitement.
A first-place prize of $50,000-to-win was exciting in 1984; $175,000 to win is exciting in 2019.
When Baltes sold Eldora Speedway in 2004, it was naturally a challenging proposition to follow in his footsteps. Not only was Earl successful; he was enormously popular. To some, no promoter alive could measure up to Baltes. In many ways Eldora has been under a microscope these past 15 years because at every turn somebody was quick to say, “That’s not how Earl would have done it.”
That’s not fair, of course. But it’s reality.
With the recent announcement, however, it isn’t a stretch to think Baltes would approve of what’s become of his beloved Eldora (Baltes died in 2015). The track continues to be one of the most dynamic racing venues in America, luring spectators from around the globe.
A significant number of major upgrades have been undertaken, yet there is clearly an attempt to maintain the unique character of the place.
For that, the key people at Eldora — owner Tony Stewart, general manager Roger Slack and longtime manager Larry Boos — should take a bow. You can nitpick all you want, but these guys are getting it done. Things are bigger and, yes, better in many ways.
Sure, your mileage may vary. You might not like something-or-other and that’s your prerogative. In the meantime, Eldora continues to successfully attract hard-core racing people from far and wide, and —if you look around — they appear to be having quite a good time while there.
Earl Baltes was not shy about speaking his mind. He was brash, loved the limelight and as a promoter he wasn’t afraid to take big risks. Paying $175,000 to win a sprint car race is Big!
Earl would like that idea — a lot.