By T.J. Buffenbarger
Growing up in a family that went to the races as fans I always liked racing. I can link loving racing back to seeing my first Kings Royal in 1986. It wasn’t just the racing but the pomp and circumstance surrounding it with the format, driver introductions, and crowning of the King. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but something about that event propelled my enjoyment of motorsports from like to love.
That was the magic of Earl Baltes.
For me Earl Baltes’ flare for spectacular promotions propelled sprint car and late model racing to a different level. Baltes creative flare mixed with his ability to promote was something every promoter worth their salt should strive for. Baltes with his family built up a racing empire that changed the face of short track racing. Through Eldora, other facilities he promoted, and the series he was involved in created a culture of entertainment that permeates throughout the short track industry. There are few people I can apply the phrase, “I never met anyone like them” to, and Baltes was one of them.
Baltes’ ability to stand out in a crowd is legendary, drawing attention virtually everywhere he went. Who else could make a hat with the brim flipped up so fashionable that people purchased them? Trademark lines such as “If I sell one more hot dog I might break even” endeared him to customers.
Growing up going to Eldora at least four or five times per season I admired his work ethic, promotional skills, and ability to stand out in a crowd. Eldora ability to produce big time events for reasonable prices was always admired by fans. It felt like Baltes would rather make his money drawing 5,000 people at a lower price rather than 1,000 at a higher price. That way of doing business still stands at Eldora with reasonable priced concessions and admission that still draws national attention.
Baltes was also a strong member of his community. One acquaintance of mine that lived near the speedway and worked there talked of how Earl would stop by and chat during the week and see how things were going.
For the past several seasons it’s been a privilege to have the spot where I cover races from at Eldora Speedway be two seats down from where Baltes and wife Berneice Baltes sat. I gained a new perspective during that time of Baltes and his entire family. I had plenty of interactions with the Baltes family as a race fan growing up through when I was first credentialed at Eldora as a working member of the media in the early 2000’s, but visiting with them in a more laid back atmosphere proved to be delightful. It was my pleasure every visit to know them. Earl and Berneice would come into the lower level of the tower just before the night’s program was to begin along with several other members of the Baltes family. We talked some racing but mostly about family, weather, farming (always wanting to know how the corn was up by me), and whatever the topic of the day might be. They were visits I grew to enjoy more with each meeting.
One of the fun parts about where I covered races there was sitting by the window was a non-stop parade of well-wishers. People would come by, tap on the window, and wave. Some of them Earl and Berneice knew, others were just wanting to show their appreciation. Even though their customer service days were long behind them Earl and Berneice would wave, smile, and even took photos with adoring fans.
One moment I’ll never forget happened last July after Kerry Madsen won the Kings Royal. The winner of the Royal is always brought up for a quick press conference with the media. Before all of this started Madsen saw Baltes, stopped in his tracks, and thanked him for everything he had done. One could see how heartfelt Madsen’s words were. Every time one of these press conferences occurred every driver took the time to see how Earl and Berneice were doing.
I’ve often wondered what Darke County and Motorsports would look like if Earl Baltes had continued farming and playing his Saxophone instead of finding racing. Thankfully we never had to find out and future generations will feel his impact on the sport for the better.