As I arrived to Eldora Speedway on Tuesday night during the Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby weekend I pulled up to the usual scene of a big race.
There were campers everywhere. Dust was flying and a roar of cars was coming from the track. I was running a little behind as I had to work my 9-to-5 job that day. As a result, I had trouble getting on the road on time.
Of course this wasn’t a regular big race; it was a middle of the week event with the Super DIRTcar Series Big Block Modifieds and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
The sound of engines on this night was singing a different tune. It was the sound of the 2400-pound, Big Block Modifieds qualifying on the famous Eldora surface, making their long awaited return after 10 years. A strong field of 58 cars had shown up to make their rounds at the beloved high-banked oval.
The best of the best showed up for the event. Drivers such as Blaney, Hearn, Sheppard and Fuller were on hand for the long-awaited race.
There were six heat races on the slate for the night. Heat race #5 was truly stacked and stood out from the rest as it featured Dave Blaney, Brett Hearn and Matt Sheppard – who started back in the 7th position – on a slick track which made passing a challenge.
Brett Hearn would get in trouble early spinning as he entered turn one in the opening laps of the heat race. Matt Sheppard had different luck, working his way to the 2nd-position behind Dave Blaney, who had control from the drop of the green flag. Hearn would eventually fail to qualify through his B-main, finishing 5th in the final B-main. As a result, he used a provisional to start the 100 lap, A-main.
After the second NCWTS practice the decision was made to rework the entire track. Tony Stewart and his crew dug in for a long period of rework, leaving the feature starting at 11:54pm,. After the nearly two-hour delay the fans saw the big red tractor pull into the infield. The grandstands instantly erupted with cheers.
The next item on the list was the finale for the Super DIRTcar Series, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.
We would see Tim Fuller take the victory from the 12th-starting position with Blaney, Horton, Tomkins and Billy Decker round out the Top 5. Brett Hearn, who started from the 28th position would end up finishing strong in the 7th position. The race had plenty of drivers changing position throughout the event. The late night was the furthest thing from the fan’s mind after watching Dave Blaney furiously battle Fuller on a few late race restarts. The product was truly stellar.
For decades the Super DIRTcar Series has been known as one of the premier series in the northeastern United States. To the Midwest they may be the best kept secret in all of dirt racing. While the closest driver to Eldora Speedway may be 4 hours away, the drivers wasted no time in coming to one of the most prestigious tracks in the country.
In fact, close to 60 drivers made the long tow to converge on the famed, ½-mile oval.
I was able to talk to some of the heavy hitters of the mid-week show and get their perspective on what it means to race at Eldora. I also had them weigh in on their first night of competition, which left drivers giving answers from both ends of the spectrum.
“Super” Matt Sheppard had a rough Tuesday night to say the least. The 4-time Super DIRTcar Series champion says while Eldora may not fit his driving style it was still a no brainier to make the 8-hour drive when they first heard the news that the Ohio oval would be on the schedule.
“We were excited about it – this is one of the most famous tracks in the country and any time we get to come here it’s definitely a plus for us,” said Sheppard. “It’s probably not my driving style of track, but it’s fun to race at. We kind of battled dust issues because it was a little tough to see last night [Tuesday] but it is what it is. You still have to just love this place.”
Even though Sheppard may not have had the Tuesday night he wanted, his season so far has been anything but disappointing.
“Our year has been pretty good right up until last night. It was just one of those nights that were brutal. We’ve been running really good with the series, and last night was the first night we finished out of the Top 4 in like nine races. It looked like we could have been up there again last night but luck just wasn’t on our side. Anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.”
Sheppard’s bad luck Tuesday night would be spun around 180 degrees on Wednesday night as he would go on to dominate the 25-lap exhibition race in front the Eldora Speedway faithful.
Brett Hearn’s night would start about the same as Sheppard’s ended. Hearn would end up taking a provisional but rebounded for a 7th place finish. Hearn was one of the former victors at Eldora Speedway in the Super DIRTcar Series past visits, but still embraces the prestige.
“From where we come from, we race a lot of different tracks, but this is still that one track that has that mystique, and it’s so different from other tracks we see for the most part. It’s really cool to be back here, it seems like the race fans that come here are just hardcore, really hardcore. This will be interesting tonight because the stands will be full; it’s going to be real interesting for us.”
Staring 28th and finishing 7th would be great for any race car driver, but when you’re an 8-time Super DIRTcar champion anything less than winning is understandably disappointing.
“Considering we put out self in a compromising position in the heat race and got pinched in the wall there, then coming from 28th in the feature to get a top ten, I was reasonably happy. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I can live with it.”
Hearn also shared his enthusiasm of the high car count. It’s safe to say that 58 Super DIRTcar machines blew any fans expectations out of the water. Hearn shared his view on the competition and put the car count in perspective.
“I was astounded we had 58 cars show up – it’s crazy. I just promoted one of the bigger races of the summer, and it only had 45 for $10,000-to-win. I guess everybody wanted to be here for the big stage, but I’m sure a lot of guys are disappointed on the way home today.”
Winning at a track leaves no guarantee of a repeat victory, especially after a 10-year hiatus. Hearn explained how he prepared for a race track that was a decade removed from the series schedule as well as how it fits his style of driving.
“We had some notes from when we were here the first time so that helped. We can draw some comparison between this track and other tracks, like Volusia but only some comparison. Other than that you just bring your A -game. Eldora fits my style pretty well – it’s fast but slippery and kind of that middle of the road. It’s got some grip in spots. Usually this would be right where I want to be.”
The second place finisher Dave Blaney, is no stranger to Eldora. The 1995 World of Outlaws Sprint Car champion has only limited time in the Big Block Modified ranks, but going to tracks like Eldora make the Ohio racing legend more at home.
“I was excited to put together a schedule with Al Heinke and Mohawk for a number of races this year. I was real excited to run – especially on tracks like Eldora and Williams Grove where I don’t feel like I’m at a track disadvantage like if I go to a track where these guys race every week. I just feel like I got more of a shot when I come to these tracks.”
Blaney had Tim Fuller in his sights on some late-race restarts but wasn’t able to make the pass and had to settle for a 2nd-place finish. Blaney shared that a crowd-pleasing, slide job would have been the only trick left in the bag at a chance for a win.
“If I had to do it over again we would probably tighten the car up a little more. I don’t run these quite enough to make any educated guesses on what to do. I felt like in turns 1 and 2 on a restart was my only shot to pass, if I could get a big run down the back straight away and maybe slide up in front of him. After that he was just a little better than I was, and I wasn’t going to be able to pass him in the open, maybe in traffic but we kept getting cautions.”
The eventual victor of the night was the always entertaining Tim Fuller. Fuller has a previous win at Eldora in the Big Block Modifieds as well as many laps at the facility in the Super Late Model ranks. He shared his mixed emotions, when he first heard the news but ultimately says it’s good for the series as a whole.
“I had mixed feeling about it; it’s good to come down here even though we are the undercard to the truck guys. But it’s good the Modified guys get to experience this – it’s good racing. Every little bit of experience around this place helps I think, and it’s good. It’s always good to come this far away and do good.”
Fuller’s emotions may have been mixed when first hearing the news, but in victory lane the emotion from the Big Block veteran was shear happiness.
“We’re really happy, especially when they went out and tore the track up; it became a tire pick at that point. We still had to conserve and take care of the tires. Any time you can come to a place like this that has so much history and win, it’s awesome.”
The grueling 100-lap race would come down to late race restarts which would leave Fuller a bit on the nervous side, but would eventually benefit the Watertown New York driver.
“I started getting nervous about gas and weight. In the beginning we were tanking these engines; we were wide open all the way around here. We sucked a lot of fuel and then we started getting past lap 76 and caution laps don’t count and I’m thinking ‘I didn’t put any weight on’. I didn’t think I’d go through that much fuel and then I was starting to worry. But the restarts were good for me. It cooled the right-rear tire down so that I could charge into the corner. But all in all it was a good night.”
On the victory stage Fuller was also adamant about how talented the Big Block Modified drivers truly are and what he thought about being an under card to the NASCAR Camping World Truck series.
“I don’t care, Modifieds still put on a great race and a lot of people saw that here tonight. I mean, yeah I got out to the lead and everything, but it was a battle to the lead. Then getting into lap traffic and everything, it’s good racing, that’s all there is to it.”
Even after ten years the Big Block Modifieds seem to have picked up right where they left off, leaving fans wanting more.
The Northeast contingent may have been hidden right in front of our eyes for years. With the division only in the national spot light for a handful of Florida races and the October Super Dirt Week it’s easy for the rest of the country to lose focus on just how awesome this class truly is.
However, the return to Eldora marks a return of not just a series but a whole region of racing that the Midwest is missing out on. Looking at a Super DIRTcar Modified may leave you wondering if it is closer to a Late Model or a Sprint Car.
My advice to you would be to make a trip to see them in person. I can confidently say that that you won’t be disappointed.