Story by Rhonda Beck
This week in New Weston, Ohio a very big payday is back at Eldora Speedway. The famous dirt track, originally started by the late Earl and Berneice Baltes and now owned by Tony Stewart, is bringing back the Eldora Million. The first one was won by Dresden, Ohio’s Donnie Moran in 2001.
Towards the end of May, several area drivers from North and South Carolina were winning big races and setting their sights on this week’s events. From Mount Holly’s Chris Ferguson, who won the Show-Me 100 Crown Jewel in Wheatland, Mo. to Ross Bailes who captured two Ultimate Super Late Model features, a few talked about gearing up for Eldora.
Trent Ivey of Union, S.C., driver of the no. 88 super late model:
Ivey finished ninth in the final night of the Colossal 100 at The Dirt Track at Charlotte last month and was pretty happy with his run.
“We started on the outside pole outside of Fergy and I was just playing it safe; I didn’t try to run up top with Fergy and run with him. I just tried to keep it cool in the middle and not mess up. We ended up ninth and there were some really good cars there and a lot of good cars behind us. I think we got a car worth going to Eldora with, so we went ahead and pulled the trigger on that. And I’m pretty excited.”
Ivey said he’s going through some extra precautions to prevent any mechanical issues at Eldora.
“We don’t want to have any failures while we’re up there. You just have to go so far and you can’t afford to have problems. We’re really going over everything on the car to make sure that’s fresh and going over our hauler; don’t want to have any hauler problems when we’re up there. Really, just fine tuning everything; not really changing anything on the racecar. Just trying to get every bug that we could possibly get worked out and get it worked out before we leave.”
He said they are taking one car and hope it will last for the Million and The Dream.
“We’re hauling up there with one car and one motor, which kind of sucks, but we’re not quite strong enough to go to have two cars and two motors yet. We’re going up there to run all four nights. We ran all four last time when we went up there for the Dream, which obviously wasn’t for a Million dollars. We bought some spare parts. And we got all our tires in today and got our fuel, so we’re locked and loaded. We just gotta go up there and keep the driver’s head on there right.”
Ivey has some experience at the track.
“I’ve only been up there twice. I went in 2019 and made a race and went last year and I didn’t make it. But I’ve got some laps over there and I’ve raced there like a million times on iRacing, so I think I can get around there. But these guys are so good because they race there a lot, every single year. We’re going there a little less prepared as far as set-up wise and driver-wise but still not enough that we can’t make a decent showing. We’re going to race, but we’re going up there making it a minivacation too because we’ve been crazy with work. We’re pulling 80 hours weeks. So we’re excited to get the hell away from the house for a couple days.”
Kyle Strickler of Mooresville, N.C., driver of the no. 8 super late model:
Kyle Strickler, who finished sixth at West Virginia Motor Speedway last Friday, is ready for another week of top-level racing at Eldora Speedway. Strickler was glad to compete at both tracks the past two weeks.
“We’ve been preparing for these couple weeks for months now. We’ve bought a new car, the Longhorn car, and new motor from Clements all in preparation for all the big money that’s up for grabs. Two big fast racetracks that I enjoy going to, especially Eldora. Eldora’s my favorite racetrack in the country and West Virginia and Cody Watson has been a huge supporter of mine and we try to help him out and support him for all the great things that he does as much as we possibly can. So excited for tonight and tomorrow with the Lucas races there and then really excited to go to Eldora and race for that Million.”
Strickler, who is originally from Pennsylvania, will have family and friends on hand to cheer him on this week.
“Eldora is pretty far from where I grew up, but we still have a ton of people coming just because the Eldora Million, that’s the race that doesn’t happen every year and everybody wants to come out and go to that race. We’re going to have my mom and my dad, I brought my T-shirt trailer, and of course my wife and my kids coming out there. All of our big sponsors and pretty much everybody will be there.”
Strickler finished second earlier this year at Eldora in the Johnny Appleseed Classic and now is looking for his first Crown Jewel win there.
“If you want to be anybody in short track racing, especially in dirt late model racing, you got to run well and perform well at Eldora. I’ve always been a fan of faster, bigger, momentum racetracks, so it’s perfect. It’s one of the first places I went to. It fit my style and loved going there. Even if it only pays $5000, like the Johnny Appleseed, we went there. We try to go to as many races as we can there to get as many laps as possible. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of modified races there and win some prelim nights in the late model. Hopefully we’ll be able to represent the Carolinas well and put on a show and win that Million dollars. That would be absolutely awesome and career-changing.”
Strickler also commented on Chris Ferguson’s recent Crown Jewel win and some other big races he hopes to be a part of this year.
“It was really cool to see a younger guy like Chris from the Carolinas and a guy that a lot of people think of as a local or regional guy, branch out. He’s been going out there for years and for him to get a huge win like that is awesome for late model racing–to see some different guys and people that deserve it and put the work in and get those wins. And the XR series has been very refreshing with late model racing, what they’re doing with the purses and really helping out the racers. Barry Braun and everybody with XR is doing an awesome job, allowing us to go to some really great facilities and put up a ton of big money for us to go race for. We’re going to go to as many of those races as we possibly can, and we’ll be headed out to Kansas and to Belleville which is a racetrack I’ve never been to. They say it’s really big and fast and races like a big circle which are the kind of racetracks that we do well at.”
Despite the car count at Eldora, which is well over 100, Strickler is aware that some regional racers with a lot of talent weren’t able to make the trip due to equipment and economic reasons.
“The tire shortage right now is really tough, especially with trying to get ready for these big races that pay so well. It’s really tough to get tires that you need to get to go race and of course they’re expensive enough. And now they are even expensive than they normally are and you can’t get ‘em. So it’s kind of frustrating, but it’s just another bump in the road you have to deal with.”
Chris Ferguson of Mount Holly, N.C., driver of the no. 22 super late model:
Chris Ferguson is coming off his big Show-Me 100 Crown Jewel win in May and now is hoping his momentum carries into this week at Eldora Speedway.
“I ran third at the Dream last year and I ran fourth in the Dream, third in the Dream, and fifth in the World a couple times. I’ve been hunting a win there, just haven’t quite finished it off yet. But we’ve been dadgum close. I’ve been beating around the bush there; hopefully this is the year to get one and just gonna do my best and kind of go in with the same mindset that we had, ever since ’19. Just hoping that I can finally seal the deal and get me a big win up there. Even a prelim; just a win up there would be nice.”
Ferguson also knows there are many racers who may never win a Crown Jewel but have very successful careers. And he noted how his recent win has had more media and fans across the country giving opinions about his level of racing.
“It’s one of those things–there’s a lot of guys in the sport that never win a Crown Jewel. And that’s not a blemish. That’s just the reality of the sport; it’s so tough to win ‘em. There’s some really great racecar drivers that are some of the best that will never get one. I think when you’re in that conversation—I started on the pole in the North/South and finished fourth, I started on the pole at The Dirt Track World Championships and been in the front, the same thing with the Show Me I ran fourth, The Dream I’ve ran third, the World I’ve ran fifth. Over the years I’ve been so close. At some point you gotta figure the odds will go your way if you put yourself in the top five or top ten to get one. It’s really cool that people thought I was going to get one. To some people it’s a ‘Cinderella story’ and I think it is a ‘Cinderella story’ to some extent. I’m not a full-time racer, a 100 percent. But you know, at the end of the day, performance-wise, I don’t think it’s a ‘Cinderella story.’ I think we’ve proved we can be up there and it’s no surprise. But it’s cool to see all the different views. People from the Midwest, people from the North. They have different opinions on everybody, and they only see you race once or twice a year and their opinion is going to be different compared to someone that watches us every week. It’s cool to read all of it and it’s been a fun experience getting interviewed by so many different people. It’s definitely a perk of getting to win one of those big races, for sure.”
Carson Ferguson of Concord, N.C., driver of the no. 92 super late model:
Concord’s Carson Ferguson just won the Schaeffer’s Oil Spring Nationals Championship and is running his first full year in the super late model. He has never raced at Eldora Speedway, but this week he will be there.
Wesley Page is co-owner of his car with Donald Bradsher. Page said he’ll be up there with Ferguson. He also owns the car of Ben Watkins, but Page knows that some drivers aren’t able to make the trip due to work schedules, economics and other obligations
“I’m going with Carson to Eldora; I’m not taking Ben. I mean I would have loved to have taken Ben but it’s just financially, you know, Carson has a little more sponsor backing so he can get it all in and do more things. But from the price of gas to everything right now, that’s a tough week to swallow for a smaller team,” said Page.
Ferguson talked about his experience at Eldora and the type of dirt and track. He was planning to do some testing on the way up, but rain cancelled that opportunity.
“I went to watch one time, I think like in 2014 or so. And that was all. That’s the only time I’ve been there. It’s hard because a lot of the tracks around here, we just don’t have that slick dirt. I haven’t been on that type of dirt in the super yet, that black dirt. Hopefully we can just make the race; that’s our main goal is to make the Million and if we don’t it won’t be because of the lack of effort.”
Ferguson knows he has been given lots of opportunities and wants to be successful while learning in the process.
“It’s really all happening just really fast and at the end of 2020 we were actually putting the car up to sell. We didn’t know what our next step was. 2020 was a rough year for us. We just decided that we were gonna sell our stuff and then two days later Donald (Bradsher) called me. So it was him and Wesley Page who partnered up and I drove their crate car last year. And then this year, probably about the middle of last year ,Donald had mentioned getting the sheet metal for super stuff and at the end of the year we were out there starting the Drydene series. I really had no expectations; just going to go out and learn as much as we could and go into something new and still just try and have fun with everything. Because we go from being very competitive to expecting to run top three or top five everywhere we went in the crate car, to jumping into something you’re so green to, you kinda gotta back yourself up and accept the fact that you’re gonna be getting your teeth kicked in and you gotta pay your dues. That’s the point we’re at right now. We have had good runs, but I would like to see us get a better baseline to where we can unload at places and be better right off the get-go. I feel like I don’t do a good job in qualifying so I’m always having to make up for it the rest of the night. We’ve had a lot of things go our way. And it’s crazy to have a lot of things go your way and still not be winning races. But once I do my part, I feel like in qualifying and everything goes our way, then that’s what it takes to win races.”
Ferguson continues to learn how to make the adjustments that will keep his car competitive.
“I’m in the shop everyday here and I make a lot of my own adjustments through the night. A lot of it is just learning what adjustments affect each other more. I feel like I have a good grasp on the crate car and then some of those adjustments work and some of them don’t. It seems like the super is more particular on which adjustments you can do on certain nights to make your car spectacular. That’s just what it takes now to win—you gotta be perfect, you gotta have perfect luck. Draw in the best group in qualifying and carry it through to the heat racing.”
As far as Eldora, he is mainly glad to be competing in the event.
“Obviously, still no expectations. But you always want to win and put yourself in one of those situations–‘What if I win the Million?’ So of course, that puts an exciting factor in it. And man, just racing at a historical place like that in front of all the fans and television and stuff like that, it’s going to be really cool. The best of the best is going to be there, so just being able to participate in it is probably the biggest thing for me. If you had told me at the end of 2020 that I would be racing the Million in 2022, I would have told you you were crazy. But Donald and Gena (Bradsher), I don’t know what they saw in me. And Wesley Page. They’ve taken a chance and put me in the super stuff; I couldn’t be more thankful for that.”
Ross Bailes of Clover, S.C., driver of the no. 79 super late model:
Ross Bailes, who started out his season winning Drydene Xtreme Winter Championship and getting several victories, like in the Ultimate Super Late Model Series in May, including two May, is hoping to continue his success at Eldora.
“I’ve only got one car so we’re just taking the one we’ve been driving. I’ve been there two or three times and each time I’ve gone we’ve ran two or three races. So I’ve raced there of course four or five races or six. I finished third in a prelim race the first year I went there. I don’t have much experience when it comes to feature time. Like I only see that type of track three or four times a year. The main thing is I need to make the first race on Wednesday just so we can get some seat time on that type of track for the big race on Thursday.”
Bailes plans on racing the whole week.
“We’re looking forward to it. We don’t go up there but maybe twice a year so it’s always fun to go there. And we’ve proved that we’ve been running pretty good so we want to see how we stack up against those guys.”
Bailes also was happy for Chris Ferguson on his first Crown Jewel win. The two have had a lot of good races together, especially in the Southeast over the years, starting out in crate late models and then in super late models with series like the Carolina Clash and Ultimate Super Late Models.
“Yeah, I mean that’s pretty cool. I think we all want to be able to win one of those. He was kind of one of the first ones from around here to do it. And hope we can follow up and get one.”
Nick Hoffman, Mooresville, N.C., driver of the no. 2 super late model:
Mooresville, N.C.’s Nick Hoffman is racing at Eldora Speedway this week in the Barry Wright house car, a deal that came together in recent weeks.
“So really, it was kind of a last-minute deal more than anything. I was planning on driving for Jeff Matthews. That’s who I drove for down in Florida at All-Tech and was planning on doing the Million with him. Then Barry called me with this opportunity. I think it was a Tuesday that he called me and we had talked about it a little bit on that Tuesday. And then a little bit more on Wednesday. At that point we were trying to figure out if we were going to race that weekend or what, and he told me Gaffney had a practice on Thursday. I drove down there to his place and I sat in the car and got things geared up to test it at Cherokee. We did that. Did not race that weekend just because we didn’t have the hauler and everything else ready. Then we went the following week back to Cherokee to race, which was last week. It’s all come about really quick, obviously. And you know, everything was lined up to drive for Jeff Matthews; we just went ahead and put that on a standstill, which he was totally fine with, because he wants the best for me. He was just giving me an opportunity because he had the equipment and everything sitting there. I feel we’ve got the right people and everything now as far as equipment and everything put in place to do it the right way o as he would call it, I guess, the ‘Wright Way.’”
Hoffman has a demanding race schedule set for the next month.
“We’re gearing up for a pretty long swing here because we go straight from Eldora to the Hell Tour. That’s 28 races, 32 days, whatever it is this year–it’s pretty close to that. It’s pretty grueling and I think at some point throughout that tour, Barry plans on trying to bring the car up and me run a doubleheader deal with the mod and the late model too. Hopefully at least once if not more. So we’ll see how that goes.”
As far as Eldora, Hoffman has raced there quite a few times.
“When I was running for the Jones Oil guys years ago, I won two races at Eldora in a late model. I made both The Dream and The World and The Intercontinental, I believe that’s what it was called. I think I’ve made The Dream twice and The World twice. So I have high expectations for myself going to that place. I feel like I get around there pretty well. And I’m confident in Barry’s equipment. First off, is just trying to get in the show. And then as long as you can get yourself in the race, I think it’s anybody’s ballgame from there.”
Hoffman has more experience running the types of dirt in the Midwest and up North.
“Yeah, that’s a totally different deal, once you get up towards the Midwest. And I tell you, I generally suck at the Southern racetracks. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia-type racetracks–that’s not really my specialty. I’ve gotten myself where I race in the Midwest and that’s the type of dirt I race on. It’s what I do the most of and I know the tendencies of what it does and yeah, so it definitely helps. It’s still a wildcard right now with Eldora. We don’t know with the way it’s been this year. Obviously, Tony’s up there right now working on it, trying to get it better. I expect it to be a lot better for this week; I think everybody does. But yeah, you just till don’t know what you’re going to get, even with the new dirt, what it does. It hasn’t gotten slick yet. You know, it’s been rough and wide-open for the last two races so even when it does slow down and get slick, what it’s going to do at that point, we don’t know, none of us do. It should be interesting. Throwing us kind of a curve ball, but at the end of the day at Eldora, the cream rises to the top. J.D. and Brandon, Dale McDowell, Scott and those guys are always up front, so try to know what you’re up against.”
Hoffman also races in the midget division and has some of those races scheduled as well.
“I’m going to run the midget at Jacksonville, Ill. this month and in Wheatland, Mo. so I’ll probably run ten midget races this year–ten, fifteen, something like that. I’ll probably run 60 modified races and at least one late model race. So I’ll run close to 100 races again this year. But as far as the late model, we’ll do what Barry wants to do. I think his biggest goal is just to run big races and I probably myself I’m trying to race at really good racetracks and try and stay racing against the toughest competition. I would love to do that North Wilkesboro deal. It’s one, obviously for the money and it’s a historic place so I think it’ll be a good race.”
A few other drivers that hail from North and South Carolina and that are entered to compete at Eldora include Chris Madden, GR Smith, John Henderson, Austin Kirkpatrick, and Daulton Wilson.
“We’ll run the Lucas stuff and go up to Eldora for the Million. Looking forward to going up there and seeing what we’ve got,” said Wilson last month at The Dirt Track at Charlotte.
The Million and The Dream 100 will certainly make it another memorable week for everyone at a historic dirt track.