World 100 Triumph Can Make Career
Perhaps dirt late-model star Don O’Neal put it best.
“You go over there and give 100 percent,” O’Neal said. “What- ever that place gives you, it gives you.”
The “over there” that O’Neal spoke of was Eldora Speed-way. The 45-year-old Martinsville, Ind., standout who’s won a plethora of big races had been asked just one simple question: “What’s left for you to do?”
Without even thinking, he answered, “Win a race at Eldora.”
Although O’Neal would likely be happy with any victory at the famed half-mile, the annual World 100 was at the forefront of his mind.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the World 100. O’Neal is definitely in the majority: he’s not one of the 26 drivers who have earned one of the prestigious globe trophies and a hefty winner’s check that accompanies it.
“I’ve been good over there sometimes and something always happens,” he said.
When legendary racing promoter Earl Baltes scraped out the original Eldora Speedway quarter-mile in the plains of western Ohio just north of Rossburg in 1954, he never envisioned what the place would become.
And when he paid a then-whopping $4,000 to win the inaugural World 100 in 1971, he had no idea how famous that race would eventually be.
To make the 28-car starting field can be the highlight of a driver’s season. To win it can be downright overwhelming.
For some, it can be a career maker.
Baltes grew to love the World 100, adding $1,000 to the winner’s share each year and calling it his favorite race of the season.
Baltes attends the race each year, still calling it the highlight of the Tony Stewart-owned track’s season.
Ohio pavement-racing standout Bruce Gould won that first World 100. Gould died two years ago, leaving 1972 champion Verlin Eaker as the oldest living winner.
Eaker explained he was driving a big-block Chevy Nova that day with a set of Firestone tires that he used again just a few days later to win a race in Omaha, Neb.
“Times have changed,” said the 77-year-old National Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer, adding that he almost won the race a second time in 1978, the year that Ken Walton won.
Eaker, Walton, Joe Merryfield and Ed Sanger, four of the toughest drivers ever produced by the state of Iowa, won four of the first eight World 100s.
Sanger, 70, of Postville, Iowa, remembers driving the 500 miles back home after his 1974 win with two big fistfuls of money wrapped in a dirty shop rag shoved down in his front pants pocket.
He won the race driving a year-old Camaro with a $300 Chevrolet LT1 short-block assembly with very little modification except for the camshaft.
Sanger’s last World start came in 1985. “I loved that high-banked track,” he said.
Last year, in reference to what a World 100 victory means to a driver, Eldora Speedway Race Director Larry Boos simply said, “It’s the trophy. It’s not the $42,000, I don’t think.”
Boos is right. Several races each season pay more money than the $43,000 offered to the 40th anniversary World winner. But nothing else running will come close to producing the car count, fan interest, excitement and buzz throughout the industry this race is capable of.
Other than the annual Hillbilly Hundred in West Virginia, the World 100 is the longest-running national event on the dirt late-model calendar each season.
The World has held its prominent spot as the No. 1 race of any year almost since the beginning.
The success of the race is mostly due to Baltes and his tough-but-fair procedures and consistency. Everything was done his way or the highway and equality always ruled.
Current track management has only improved on those ideals in the six years since Baltes sold his track to Stewart.
When Earl Pearson, Jr. won the 2006 race, possibly the most hotly contested World 100 in history, he called it “unreal, a dream come true.” Jimmy Owens, leading the pack of 2010 favorites, called his 2007 triumph “phenomenal.”
Last year’s winner Bart Hartman said, “It means everything.”
It means so much, actually, that national traveling drivers often make appearances at Eldora’s lesser-paying events just to get track time for the World and the $100,000-to-win Dream held each June.
“You always wanted to have as many laps as you could at Eldora,” said 2003 World 100 winner Dan Schlieper. “It definitely benefited me.”
The first 10 World 100s saw a different winner each year. Then, from 1981 to 2001, retired drivers Larry Moore and Jeff Purvis, along with current stars Donnie Moran, Billy Moyer and Scott Bloomquist, captured 17 victories among them.
Moore also won the 1979 race. His three globe victories rank high on his long list of accomplishments.
“I won races that paid more, but it was a prestigious race,” Moore said.
If the World 100 has a king, it’s Moyer. From 1991 to 2000, the Batesville, Ark., legend won an unprecedented five globe trophies.
He had a 1987 win all but wrapped up in his first World start until an engine let go with just a handful of laps remaining.
Moyer explained that Eldora’s wide, sweeping corners suited his driving style just fine from the start. He proved that once again, and established himself as a World 100 favorite, after scoring a convincing victory on a tricky, slick track in this year’s Dream.
With varying track conditions, a menacing concrete wall that loves to eat sheet metal, 20-car heat races and close to 200 of the best teams and drivers in the country, just making the World 100 is a battle all its own.
“You better run good or you’re gonna be struggling in a hurry,” O’Neal said. “If you don’t, things are gonna start getting rough in every category.”
Perennial Eldora favorite and former track champion Matt Miller, the 2005 Dream winner, is still looking for his first World victory.
He knows what it would mean to him.
“That’s where you get your respect,” Miller said. “You wanna go out there and prove that you (can) beat anybody in the country.”
Earl Baltes is missed at Eldora Speedway. But his groundbreaking efforts decades ago still are seen and heard every September.
The World 100 is still “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
“I was always happy just to make the race,” Schlieper said. “We won and (my crew) ran out and said, ‘Man, we just won the World 100. We’ve gotta do something.’ So we climbed the frontstretch fence.
“If I ever get the chance to do it, I’ll climb it again.”