June 2006 Issue
From drag strips to road courses, Ohio has a motorsport venue for anyone with a need for speed.
Darkness begins to fall over Eldora Speedway in Rossburg. Huge stadium lights flicker on, flooding the half-mile clay oval track in Darke County and illuminating the way for the evening's sprint cars. From high atop the bleachers, fans watch the pit area inside the track begin to glow. It looks like a small city viewed from a hillside, as the lighted trailers that brought the race cars to the track open their back doors to free their screaming machines.
Eldora Speedway can seat 24,000 people, representing a cross section of Ohio racing fans. The preferred apparel of the night has a definite racing theme. A couple wearing matching expensive leather Indy Racing League jackets walks past the grandstand. NASCAR caps on the heads of young and old are a given. One spectator wears a Team Fenner Racing jacket. A family proudly dons others that say "Jr. and Sons Motorsports" on the backs. Mom is pulling a baby in a little red wagon equipped with a steering wheel.
The evening's time trials start. The neon-colored sprint cars from Ohio, Indiana and California roar to life and attack the track. They skid sideways around the curves on two wheels, the only way to not lose time.
One car doesn't make it, hits the wall and sends a mushroom cloud of smoke billowing into the night air. Fans hold their collective breath and then cheer - partly because the driver is OK and partly because, well, it was a darn good wreck.
Welcome to motorsports in Ohio. A similar scene is repeated every weekend from March through October at approximately 100 racetracks across the state. Automobile racing in Ohio has a long and colorful tradition. Some tracks have been around for 50 years. A number are family-owned (think of the respected Nuckles family of the Columbus Motor Speedway and the Ford family of the Fremont Speedway). Some are small, local tracks and others are huge operations that attract thousands of fans and the biggest race names in the country.
Basically, there are four types of spectator racetracks in Ohio: asphalt ovals (including Painesville Speedway, Sandusky Speedway and Barberton Speedway); dirt ovals (such as Wayne County Speedway, Attica Raceway Park and Deerfield Raceway); drag strips (Quaker City Raceway and Thompson Drag Raceway, etc.); and road courses (Nelson Ledges Road Course, Burke Lakefront Airport and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course). If you feel like taking the wheel yourself, there are also off-road courses, dirt bike trails and rally excursions.
If it has tires, someone in Ohio will race it and someone else will pay to watch. The list of racing vehicles is impressive and includes winged and non-winged sprint cars, stock and modified cars, late models, sports cars, off-road vehicles, motorcycles, jet dragsters, trucks, go-karts, school buses and super-sized tractors that will never see a field. And if you really want the unusual, how about a jet-powered outhouse at Norwalk Raceway Park?
Two-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. burned rubber and kicked up dirt on many Ohio racetracks on his way to national fame. Hornish, 27, was born in Bryan, Ohio, and currently lives in Defiance. When he gets a chance, Hornish still catches local dirt bike and kart races, as well as events at Mid-Ohio, and says the state has "a wealth of tracks."
"You can watch some races on television, but you really have to get to a track for the whole experience. You need to go and get dirt in your eye," says Hornish, a member of Marlboro Team Penske who races for the Indy Racing League (IRL).
Hornish is proud of his team's Ohio connection, which includes owner Roger Penske from Shaker Heights and engineer Tom German from Akron.
Motorsports provide great entertainment for anyone who likes smokin' tires, the smell of jet fuel or the need for speed, as they say. But auto racing - the fastest-growing spectator sport in the United States - also provides something else: money.
Tammy Brown of the Ohio Department of Development, Division of Travel and Tourism, says it is extremely difficult to estimate the statewide economic impact of motorsports in Ohio. But Brown says to look at individual tracks and their income-generating ability for an idea. The crown jewel is the annual Grand Prix of Cleveland, which generates almost $30 million for the city and Cuyahoga County.
According to Dave Roush, a professional race-car driver and driving school instructor with the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, the motorsports spectator base has grown impressively in the past five years, and "Ohio is as strong as anywhere in the country." Roush points to racing events at Mid-Ohio that bring $10 million to Richland County, which he says is "the largest tourist draw" in the area.
Larry Boos, director of operations for Eldora Speedway in southwestern Ohio, has tracked ticket sales from 39 states and four countries. Ohio is fortunate, he says, to have racing facilities that pump money into a region.
Every racetrack in Ohio has its own personality, history and fans. Here are four standouts:
Grand Prix of Cleveland, Burke Lakefront Airport
On race day, small pleasure boats bob up and down on Lake Erie as their passengers use binoculars to watch the racing action on the shoreline. Lake gulls fly overhead, not sure what to make of all the excitement.
The Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland celebrates its 25th anniversary at Burke Lakefront Airport when the high-speed, open-wheel cars attack the 2.106-mile road course June 23-25. The Grand Prix of Cleveland has the longest tenure of any temporary racing venue on the Champ Car circuit and will celebrate with a number of special events.
Invitations have been extended to past winners to attend, so don't be surprised to see Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy or Danny Sullivan in attendance.
A celebrity go-kart race for charity is also planned, with actor and racecar owner Paul Newman one of the first to sign on.
Rena Shanaman, managing director of the Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank, says race weekend is really a festival with activities for families and casual fans, as well as "hard-core racing enthusiasts." On tap: vintage racecar exhibits, nationally known musical acts, a Health and Lifestyles Expo and a Family Fun Zone for kids.
A variety of ticket options will be offered. Continuous shuttles to the airport and within the course will be running and there is free access to the paddock for all spectators for that up-close and personal experience with the drivers and their teams.
Shanaman is especially proud of Race Event Volunteers (REV), who have been a big part of the race since 1994. Volunteers check passes, work as ushers in the stands and even help build and repair the track.
"You don't have to know a lot about racing to be a volunteer. But you get a different perspective when you work behind the scenes as compared to someone who just buys a ticket. Once you have had the experience, it's pretty hard to just go sit in the grandstands," says Shanaman.
Fun Facts About the Grand Prix of Cleveland
Airplanes land at Burke Lakefront Airport right up to 6 a.m. on the Friday of race weekend. Then workers at the Grand Prix of Cleveland take over to create the temporary track, and with quick, military-like precision install:
more than 3.6 miles of fencing
more than 2.9 miles of cable
more than 700 concrete barriers (equal to 1.6 miles of block), each weighing 8,000 pounds or a total of 2,800 tons
During the four hours before race time, workers:
use six heavy-duty forklifts to put the blocks in place
put 5,000 tires in place
place more than 200 signs on the track and on barriers.
(Source: Grand Prix of Cleveland)
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington
You know you are entering race country when you get to the outskirts of Lexington, home of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Large signs in convenience store windows say, "Welcome racers and fans!" You pass touring motorcycles with out-of-state license plates, loaded with rain gear and duffel bags and parked in front of roadside restaurants where their riders have stopped on the way to the course. Homes along the main arteries into the track proudly fly black-and-white checkered flags from porches and flagpoles.
Located 7 miles southwest of downtown Mansfield, the 330-acre Mid-Ohio course celebrates its 45th year of racing in 2006. The track, owned by the James R. Trueman family, operating as TrueSports, Inc., is expecting more than 500,000 race fans this season.
Perhaps no other course in Ohio is a more complete reflection of the state's rural and urban personalities. Mid-Ohio has retained the comfortable "hometown" track feeling where families camp over weekends and novice drivers dream of becoming stars. But the road course is also considered to be one of the most competitive in the country. Top-notch racers either drive high-tech, state-of-the-art vehicles or respected vintage cars and motorcycles around the 40-foot-wide, 2.4-mile track during the American Le Mans at Mid-Ohio, AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days or the National Auto Sport Association Championships, as well as for other competitions.
Mid-Ohio's most popular event is the Honda Super Cycle Weekend, the country's biggest American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Superbike race. Think big, loud and really fast two-wheeled machines in a blur of bright colors.
But this year Mid-Ohio is also adding the AMA Roadrace Grand Championship and AMA Motocross Manufacturers Cup, bringing the country's best amateur motorcycle racing to Ohio. The new events will be showcased at Mid-Ohio's new and expanded motocross track, debuting this year.
"The track designer is Marc Peters, track builder to the stars, who creates all kinds of factory test tracks for companies, including Kawaski and Suzuki. He also built a track for a king who lives in the Middle East," says Rebecca Ackford, media and communications coordinator for Mid-Ohio.
Race fans will notice other improvements at Mid-Ohio in 2006. The track has been completely repaved and crossover connector loops have been installed, allowing for three different road race configurations. Also, Turn One has been redesigned and fencing and guardrails updated.
Season ticket holder Sean Burns of Mansfield attended his first race at Mid-Ohio in 1979. It took him "just a couple hours to get hooked on motorsports." Growing up in Cleveland, Burns was "a stick-and-ball sports guy, cheering for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns," and experiencing the ups and downs of winning and losing seasons.
A motorsport fan can have a favorite car, race team or driver, says Burns. But even more satisfying, he believes, is watching passionate athletes drive amazing vehicles and feeling like a winner every time he leaves the track no matter who takes the checkered flag.
"Going to Mid-Ohio is like watching a race from your own back yard. I take a lawn chair and sit on the hillside," says Burns, a supervisor with J.P. Morgan Chase Mutual Funds. "Go early and stay late to get a full appreciation of the event. I like the anticipation and excitement. I tell first-timers to wear comfortable clothing for a variety of weather conditions and to take a cooler with food and beverages, although food is available at the track. Mid-Ohio is a family-friendly environment."
Norwalk Raceway Park
Nobody understands the value of motorsports as entertainment better than the Bader Family, owners of Norwalk Raceway Park in Norwalk.
In 1974, Bill Bader Sr. bought the 100-acre Norwalk Dragway, which looked more like a neglected county fair parking lot than a sophisticated track. With savvy business sense, a fierce personal commitment and an uncanny ability to know what race fans want, Bader and his son, Bill Bader, Jr., now the president of Norwalk Raceway Park, have created one of the most successful drag strips in the United States.
The Blue Suede Cruise, now in its fifth year and held this year July 28-30, transforms the raceway into a giant 1950s sock hop. Think nostalgic drag racing and even a dance where fans wear their high school letter jackets (the ones that still fit) and poodle skirts. The Halloween Classic (October 24-29) is billed as the "largest sportsman drag race in the world." More than 1,500 cars are expected to participate this year. The raceway encourages costumes (look for cars in costume, too!) and holds a Trick-or-Treat Night just for kids when all action on the strip stops for safety reasons.
The Baders are unapologetically sentimental. They surround their races in a flag-waving, mother-loving, apple-pie environment, and the crowd responds with cheers and tears. Fans roar with approval when Akron resident Bob Motz fires up his jet-powered Kenworth and rockets the huge truck down the strip at more than 200 miles an hour. They're also on their feet for their favorite nitro funny car or wheelstander.
But even the Baders could not have planned the feel-good ending at a race in 2003 when then-unknown, 19-year-old Jessie Harris from Rome, New York, competed against veteran jet dragster drivers in an event called Jet Warz. Harris, a gutsy young woman, was strapped into the Queen of Diamonds Jet Car, owned by Hanna Motorsports. It was her first competitive race in front of fans and her first night run. She blew away the competition by going faster than 300 miles an hour and won the hearts of those in the stands.
"I thought everyone would hate me because I beat the long-time favorites, but they didn't. They cheered," recalls Harris, who, when not behind the wheel, works in a doctor's office.
The youngest female jet car driver in history, Harris returns to Norwalk on July 1 for the raceway's wildly popular Night Under Fire. The event is the largest, single-day drag race in the world.
Harris now appears at about 35 events a year, but calls Norwalk her "home track."
"The car I drive has the potential to kill anyone in a second. You always have to have a respect for it. I've got a great car, a great team and the Baders treat me like their daughter," says Harris. "I hope to be racing a long time."
Eldora Speedway in Rossburg (20 minutes from the Indiana border) was already "the single most-recognized short track in America," according to Larry Boos, the track's director of operations. But when the bowl-shaped dirt track was purchased in 2004 by 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart, Eldora's fame escalated. Boos believes Stewart's name recognition and outgoing personality increased media attention, and the worldwide "hot commodity" of NASCAR means "The Big E" in the "middle of nowhere" is now running with the big boys.
"Tony is a racer first and foremost," says Boos. "But he's also aware of what fans and racers want. He plans to continue the great traditions of Eldora, which opened in 1954. But he's also making major improvements in safety barriers, the sound system and fan comfort. And he is looking at corporate and hospitality connections."
Last year, Stewart invited 12 NASCAR drivers to Eldora for a charity go-kart race. He is planning something similar for June 7 at the track's Nextel Prelude to the Dream.
"It gives the drivers a chance to let their hair down and it brings people out to Eldora who have never been here before," says Boos.
Eldora's races feature non-wing sprint cars, winged sprint cars, stock cars, UMP modifieds and late model race cars.
Earl Baltes was a farmer and musician in 1954 when he bought the property that has become the raceway. The still-existing ballroom on the site is named Eldora, which Baltes translated to "gold or riches," according to Boos. Baltes, one of the Ohio's most well-known race track owners, decided the name perfectly fit his new business venture.
You have been a motorsports fan for a number of years now. You're a season ticket holder, you know which are the best bleacher seats in the house, and you plan your vacation days around a certain race. But maybe now you are ready to take the next step, grab the wheel, and become a part of Ohio's active and vital motor-sports world.
One of the best ways to start is to become a member of the Sports Car Club of America (SCAA). Ohio is part of the club's Central Division and there are several regional associations within the state. Club members volunteer at races as flaggers at track level, timers, or as greeters at the entrance gate. Or they get behind the wheel of cars for events that are legal and as safe as possible.
Competitions include the autocross (a timed, precision driving through pylons), a rally (a driver and navigator follow a set of course instructions) or road racing (wheel-to-wheel competition with other vehicles).
For some events, the car you drive to work is acceptable and you don't need a special competition driver's license. The SCCA offers driver's schools and monthly meetings. To learn more about the SCCA and to find the nearest Ohio club, call 800/770-2055 or visit www.scca.org..
Most university students go to the library to study. Students at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima go to a racetrack. The university owns Limaland Motorsports Park, a 1/4-mile, high-banked dirt track. During the week, the track is a classroom for race-car trigonometry, and on Friday nights it becomes a lab where College of Technologies students work with local race teams.
In January, the university opened a $7 million, 70,000-square-foot High Performance Motorsports Complex on seven acres. The center offers courses in high-performance engine machining, welding, custom engine building and fuels, among other subjects. The complex also includes a 500-foot launching pad for drag-racing cars, a 1/8-mile asphalt oval for stock cars and trucks and a rock-climbing hill for off-road vehicles.
An Ohio Track Sampler
Chances are, a racetrack is not more than an hour or two away from anyone who lives in Ohio. But raceways are not all created equal. Some are, well, a bit rustic with primitive comfort stations and a sound system that is one step away from someone shouting into a megaphone. Other tracks boast high-tech timing and lighting systems and downright comfortable seating. But most tracks - small, medium and large - give fans their money's worth.
Admission to racetracks varies greatly, usually based on events and seating. Plan to spend anywhere from $8 to more than $100 to get in the gate. Add a few more bucks to visit the pit area. And always call ahead for last-minute race changes.
Here's a sampler of Ohio tracks:
Burke Lakefront Airport 1501 N. Marginal Rd., Cleveland, 216/619-RACE (7223). www.grandprixofcleveland.com
june 23-25 Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course7721 Steam Corners Rd., Lexington, 800/MID-OHIO. www.midohio.com
June 23-25 EMCO Gears Classic and Unlimited Audio Accessories Triple Crown Tuner Challenge
July 28-30 AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days
Aug. 4-6 Honda Super Cycle Weekend
Aug. 18-20 Vintage Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio
Sept. 15-17 National Auto Sport Association Championships
Sept. 22-24 AMA Road Race Grand Championships and AMA Motocross Manufacturers Cup Championship
Sept. 29-Oct. 1 AMA Superbike Championship Shootout
Eldora Speedway13929 St. Rte. 118, Rossburg, 937/338-3815. www.eldoraspeedway.com
June 7 Nextel Prelude to the Dream with NASCAR Drivers plus ARCA Truck Series
June 10 Dirt Late Model Dream
July 15 Kings Royal (World of Outlaws Sprints/NRA 360s)
Aug. 16 Old Spice Summer Sizzler with NRA Sprint Invaders/UMP Modifieds
Sept. 8-9 36th Annual World 100 for Late Models
Oct. 7-8 UMP Nationals for Late Models and Modifieds
Norwalk Raceway Park1300 St. Rte. 18, Norwalk, 419/668-5555. norwalkraceway.com
July 1 Night Under Fire
July 15-16 VHR Motorsports CycleFest
July 28-30 Blue Suede Cruise
Aug. 11 Kumho Street Warriorz
Aug. 24-27 Skull Gear World Nationals presented by PPG
Oct. 24-29 Halloween Classic
Attica Raceway ParkAttica Fairgrounds, St. Rte. 4 and U.S. Rte. 224, Attica, 419/426-8911. www.atticaracewaypark.com
July 21 Short Track Shoot Out/National Sprint Tour
Aug. 18-19 2nd Annual Attica Summer Nationals
Aug. 26 Fan Appreciation Night
Sept. 2 Season Championship Night
Dragway 429161 Rainbow Highway, West Salem, 419/853-4242. www.dragway42.com Sept. 29-Oct. 1 World Series Spectacular
Allen County Fairgrounds2750 Harding Highway, Lima, 419/991-1491.
June 24 Ohio National Championship Motorcycle Races
Clermont County Fairgrounds1000 Locust St., Owensville, 800/796-4282. www.visitclermontohio.com
Sept. 16 Truck & Tractor Pull and Craft Show
Clinton County Fairgrounds985 W. Main St., Wilmington, 937/685-9251. June 9-10 Grand National Tractor/ Truck Pull
Columbus Motor Speedway1845 Williams Rd., Columbus, 614/491-1047. www.columbusspeedway.com
July 1 50 Lap Late Model-Firecracker Championship
July 4 Open Wheel Explosion USAC National Sprints and National Midgets
Aug. 19 Amazing School Bus Figure Eight
Aug. 26 Kids' Night (Kids ride in race cars)
Fremont SpeedwaySandusky County Fairgrounds, Elmore, 419/333-0478. www.fremontohspeedway.com June 6 and July 22 National Sprint Tour
Ft. RecoveryAmbassador ParkSt. Rte. 49, Fort Recovery, 800/551-FORT. www.fortpull.com
Aug. 25-26 National Tractor Puller Assn. Grand Nationals
Kil-Kare Speedway and Dragway1166 Dayton-Xenia Rd., Xenia, 937/429-2961. www.kilkare.com Aug. 4 Daytona 100
Lorain Speedway9072 Leavitt Rd., Elyria, 440-986-7223. www.lorainspeedway.com
July 22 Midwest Supermodified Association
Aug. 5 Short Track Trucks Challenge
National Trail Raceway(NHRA Drag Racing facility), 2650 National Rd. SW, Hebron, 740/928-5706
June 2-4 Hot Rod & Muscle Car Nationals
June 16-18 Chrysler Classic:
July 15 Night of Thunder
July 27-29 Jeg's Northern SPORTSnationals
Aug. 11-13 Mopar Nationals
Sept. 1-3 National Mustang Racers Assn.
Sept. 15-17 Super Chevy Show
Sept. 22-24 Lucas Oil Drag Racing Sept. 29-Oct.1 National Street Car Assn. World Finals
Tri-State Dragway2362 Hamilton Cleves Rd., Hamilton, 513/863-0562. www.tristatedragway.com
Aug. 19-20 IHRA Mr. GasketPro-Am Tour