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Success of Eldora return goes through the roof

NASCAR.com

As far as post-race news conferences go, Wednesday's late-night benediction at Eldora Speedway was as informal as it gets. It culminated with track owner Tony Stewart and promotor Roger Slack each popping the top on a cold beer and toasting another successful night of NASCAR racing on the dirt.

As the meandering conversation with reporters neared the end, Slack turned to Stewart. "Can we tell them about the dome?"

To which Stewart let loose: "Yeah, if we can raise $25 million, we will put a dome and a roof over top of Eldora Speedway. ... This is not a joke. We have a fellow competitor who is a large engineer and he's figured out what it would actually take to put a roof over Eldora, so it's about a $25 million project to do if we were able to get an event like a (NASCAR Sprint) Cup race. That would definitely be a lot easier to justify spending $25 million. If not, I don't know how many $1.50 hot dogs we'd have to sell to raise $25 million."

At first mention, the idea of somehow enclosing or providing shelter over a half-mile race track seems out of the question. But didn't the idea of gridding a NASCAR series on dirt for the first time in 43 years seem just as outlandish before it happened?

Stewart and Slack's blue-sky sort of idea that would keep racing schedules intact even when the sky wasn't blue may not come to fruition, but with the track's long-running reputation for breaking barriers and pioneering new concepts, it would be unwise to dismiss a massive roof project as mere folly. Considering that overtures toward NASCAR to bring its premier series to the Western Ohio soil have already been made public, more history is yet to be written.

Eldora celebrated another chapter in that rich heritage Wednesday night with a packed house and brilliant racing in the second annual 1-800-CarCash Mudsummer Classic, NASCAR's only national series event held on dirt. The novelty may have carried the torch for the success of the inaugural running, but the quality of the competition cemented the second episode's place in racing lore.

In both instances, the connection with NASCAR's home-grown short track roots was palpable. 

"I'm going to sum this up really short and really easy," Stewart said. "If you didn't like that race, you don't know what racing is all about, because when you have a half-mile dirt track and you've got trucks four-wide -- legitimately four-wide -- and three-wide for a bunch of the race ... we don't even have that at any of our big races, that kind of four-wide and three-wide action. As good as it was last year, this definitely topped it." 

Owe a good chunk of that credit to Slack and his staff of seven full-time employees, and the vision to revamp the track's banking to open up more racing grooves. After an especially harsh winter that delayed the project until spring, the Eldora staff removed significant portions of the upper end of the surface in hopes that the highline would not be such an overwhelming preference.

After subsequent races on the half-mile dirt track, Stewart knew they had something. 

"The dirt-late model Dream that we had a month ago and then two weeks ago, the King's Royal, the racing was the best I'd ever seen at Eldora," Stewart said. "To me, I knew that what they had done in the spring was the right thing." 

But Stewart was also quick to commend the drivers, some of whom had a deep dirt-track portfolio and others who had practically zero. As he watched the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event from a perch high atop the infield concession stand while tuned into his scanner, Stewart said he watched the field fan out in tightly woven packs on restarts, bracing for the NASCAR Official channel on his radio to crackle and issue the yellow flag. Each time, the chaos remained largely under control. 

"Guys that aren't used to doing this learned to throw slide jobs and learned how to do crossover moves -- stuff that it takes guys a long time to learn," Stewart said, "and it shows why these guys got to where they are in NASCAR because how quick they adapt, how quick they learn." 

Slack agreed: "Hard to express in words. ... I always watch the features from the roof outside so that if it's one of those nights where you have airborne (particles), I have to suffer just as much as the fans might if the wind's blowing the wrong way. It was just a whale of a show. In the end, it was fun. Kept wondering how it was going to keep getting better, but it just kept on doing it." 

Stewart's attention was soon to turn toward this weekend's racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Sunday's John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), but for a while Wednesday night, the three-time Sprint Cup champ was able to reflect on the moment and contemplate the future. Earlier in the day, Stewart and Co. had already revealed plans for an all-new concessions and restrooms facility in the infield with medical and media center components added on. 

Whether those will all be under an enormous roof one day, who knows.

"There's no dirt track in the country that's ever pulled anything like this off," Stewart said. "We've been lucky to have great weather, great events two years in a row and you sit here then go home at night, shake our heads and go, 'now what are we going to do?' "

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