Eldora: Where dreams come true
ROSSBURG, Ohio -- It's easy to see why this half-mile oasis of dirt seemingly lost in the cornfields of western Ohio is one of Tony Stewart's favorite places on the planet.
It is about as far from the pressures and commercialism of the Sprint Cup Series as one can get, a place where a three-time champion can have a late-night beer without photographers snapping his picture, a place where he can escape and enjoy the pure passion of the sport he loves.
There is so much mystique surrounding Eldora Speedway that you keep waiting for Shoeless Joe Jackson to emerge from the cornfields.
It is racing's Field of Dreams.
And this was a dream night for Stewart, race winner Austin Dillon, the sellout crowd and NASCAR, which went outside its comfort zone to stage a major race on dirt for the first time in more than 40 years.
win-win for Austin Dillon and track owner Tony Stewart.
If the Camping World Truck Series and its Mudsummer Classic don't come back next year and the year after that and the year after that and so on, it will be a mistake.
A huge one.
"If that didn't do it," Stewart said late Wednesday night, his face flush with emotion, "... that's about as good as you could ask for."
With all the unknowns, all the mystery of putting trucks built for pavement on dirt, the event went off flawless -- more flawless than Stewart or anyone could imagine.
OK, so the golden shovel given to the winner needs to be replaced by a golden pick ax. The dirt and clay were packed so hard that the shovel barely dinted the surface as Dillon and his team collected souvenirs, including one that likely will find its way into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
But beyond that, everything was perfect, down to three drivers fighting for the win and a green-white-checkered finish.
"If you didn't enjoy that kind of racing, you don't know what real racing is," Stewart deadpanned.
Stewart never has appeared more proud as he talked about the past couple of days. It was like listening to a father after seeing his baby for the first time.
You finally appreciate what he has since first laying eyes on the track as a kid, since he purchased the 59-year-old facility from founder Earl Baltes in 2004. You finally understand why he has spent much of the past nine years pestering NASCAR to put a race here.
"No matter how big all of this gets, no matter how big NASCAR and all we do in racing gets, tonight was a perfect example of why we all do this and what the passion of racing is all about and still is," Stewart said.
Passion was everywhere, including the more than 20,000 fans who packed into the bleachers and trackside hill.
"Tony, thank you!" shouted one fan as Stewart stood on the frontstretch while Dillon struggled to break the ground.
"Thank you, Smoke!" shouted another.
The best way to thank Stewart is to make this a regular stop in the series.
"This is real racing right here," Dillon said. "That's all I've got to say."
The scenes of Eldora reminded of the famous 1947 speech given by NASCAR founder Bill France that colleague Ed Hinton reminded us of on Tuesday in Part II of his series on the France family.
"A dirt track is more than necessary to make a stock car race a good show," France said at the time. "In fact, stock car races not held on dirt are nowhere near as impressive."
Or as Julie Hendrickson of Fairmont, Minn., wrote in the comment section of my Eldora preview column, "If the fans don't have dirt in their beer, they're not at a real race."
The event took us back to a time when it didn't take a second mortgage to attend. Tickets were $36. Beers were $2. You could buy six beers for the bargain price of $10 or 12 for $20.
The race took us to a simpler time, when the local high school band played the national anthem and the local beauty was the track queen.
And it was at night.
In the middle of the week.
This is a formula for success not only in the Truck series but the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series.
That's not to suggest Nationwide and Cup need to run on dirt, even though Eldora promoter Roger Slack suggested running an all-star event for all three national series here.
But midweek races might be just what the sport needs, particularly as it approaches a time of competing with the NFL and college football.
Mark Garrow reviews the Camping World Truck Series' debut on dirt, plus an Indy preview featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart.
As for Slack's suggestion, Stewart interjected: "That is also why we only have seven employees. We have to pay so much for that kind of knowledge and that kind of plug that we can't afford to have anybody else here."
Color is what Eldora is all about, beginning with the pedestrian tunnel called "The Love Tunnel" -- complete with a $10 plaque carrying the name of Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who spent millions to build a bridge at his track with Stewart's name on it.
Then there is the Eldora Ballroom that sits outside the track. Nobody ever said what happens in there, only that what does happen never leaves.
And it doesn't get much more colorful than the official liquor drink of Eldora, appropriately named "Toilet Water." If you're curious, it's a mixture of Maui Blue, orange juice and 7UP.
Oh, and there's a Tootsie Roll floating at the top.
The racing was colorful as well. They went five-wide at the start of the "last chance" race -- and nobody wrecked. The door-to-door, finger-flipping, dirt-flying battle between 61-year-old Norm Benning and Clay Greenfield to transfer into the main event was as good as it gets.
"I love Tony Stewart's track," Benning said. "I have been looking forward to this race since the day it was announced."
That, by the way, was the highlight of Stewart's night.
The main event had its share of highlights too. That the race came down to dirt specialists Dillon, Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman wasn't a surprise. That Larson went from 13th to first in the first 40 laps and Dillon came from 19th to win solidified that the competition was good enough to get another race.
If Dillon had his way, the series would return twice in 2014.
Two midweek races on dirt. Has a nice ring to it.
This isn't your typical average dirt track. This is a destination place. People spread ashes on the track, everything. It's just one of those special places." -- Tony Stewart
NASCAR president Mike Helton seems at least open to it.
"One of the magnetisms about tonight is it is unique," he said. "What the future holds, we'll see."
What the present suggests is that the future should hold more midweek dirt races. Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith, one of the many who attended out of curiosity, didn't rule out lobbying for a race at his dirt track in Concord, N.C.
Some on Twitter suggested holding the Sprint Cup All-Star Race on the Charlotte dirt track to liven up an event that has grown dull in recent years.
"Out-of-the-box thinking," defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski said as he took in the atmosphere. "Out-of-the-box thinking, and with really nothing to lose."
And everything to gain.
NASCAR won on this night.
More importantly, short tracks across the land won as many who never witnesses a race on dirt were introduced to something new. Judging from the responses on Twitter, most loved it.
"It's even hard to understand fully what the real impact of this is to so many short tracks across the country," Stewart said.
But it is easy to understand why Stewart would rather be at this place, where childhood heroes such as A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford once roamed, than just about any other place in the world.
"This isn't your typical average dirt track," Stewart said. "This is a destination place. People spread ashes on the track, everything. It's just one of those special places."
And on this night, it was extra special.