Eldora Speedway…Just the name evokes images of speed, prestige and rim riding racing action.
For 17-Years the Big E has held an annual event titled the “Dream”, an appropriate name for a race paying $100,000 to the winner. Each of the 91-competitors entered the gates on Friday for qualifying with a dream of their own. For some rookie’s that dream was to get seat time at the famed high-banked ½-mile in the heart of Ohio farmland, for others the dream was to land a spot on the starting grid for the 100 lapper, and for many it of course was to walk away with a large trophy and a ton of cash.
Some drivers end up satisfied, others deem the accurate race name to be “The Nightmare”…but there is definitely something about Eldora that makes everyone walk away smiling and looking forward to the drop of the next green flag.
With damp conditions on Friday the track was wicked fast, lap times cracking the 14 second barrier made for some exciting laps around the Big E, and in round two of qualifying Jared Landers wowed fans and competitors alike by putting down a lap time of 14.922 and shattering the previous track record in his Clint Bowyer owned No.777 machine.
Saturday dawned clear and sunny and when race time rolled around the action was once again intense. Six 20-lap heat races lined up to determine the starting order; and it was wonderful to see some of our Michigan boys down in Ohio testing their cars and their skills. Alan Vochaska had a good run in his No.34 Sweet Mfg. ride before an unavoidable collision took him out of contention, while Bay City’s Jeep VanWormer proved once again how he can tame the high banks by winning Heat #1 and setting himself up for a 6th place starting spot in the big show.
With only the top 3 transferring from the 15 car starting field in each heat, the racing was all out. Fans were treated to the equivalent of six feature events that any promoter in the U.S. would give anything to have just one of.
There is nothing quite like hearing the rumble of 26 high compression engines revving up and getting ready to run flat out for 100-laps. Twenty-six of the Nation’s best Dirt Late Model drivers doing battle at one of the fastest and most challenging tracks in the U.S.
The feature lined up with Darrell Lanigan (No.29), and Billy Moyer (No.21) on the point, but in the race that ran nearly 50-laps before the only caution of the event came out, all eyes were on the yellow No.71 machine of Don O’Neal. O’Neal started the event back in 12th position, and as the track became single grove at the very top, O’Neal somehow found a line nobody else could seem to master and drove up to 2nd. As the laps wound down O’Neal stayed in hot pursuit of Moyer and with 14 to go he dove low for a classic Eldora slide job. He took the lead and never looked back winning one of dirt racing’s crown jewel events.
O’Neal has long been a Dream favorite, but lady luck has never shown favor to the Martinsville, Indiana driver until Saturday night. Viewed as the best driver to have never won a big event, O’Neal has now cemented himself in the record books and changed his title to simply be one of the nation’s best drivers. After the event O’Neal stated, “I started off and held my own, and for about 20-30 laps I didn’t know if I had the car [to win] or not and then it seemed when I started picking the pace up 40 and 50 laps in I started thinking, ‘we might have a shot here’. I kept picking up one car at a time every few laps, and then I finally got up there in the top-5 and then 3rd, and then 2nd and then I thought…Man I’m gonna win this race!”
O’Neal was definitely the show stealer, but he wasn’t the only man on the move. Brian Shirley (No.3s) and Jimmy Owens (No.20) were strong contenders early on, working their way from the provisional spots to crack the top-10 and top-15 respectively. Although a spin and other complications put Owens out of contention after the halfway mark he made the show exciting. Shirley held on to his position, while Steve Shaver looked very good in his No.6 ride and battled up to take 10th from a 17th place starting spot.
One of the other wonderful things about Eldora and particularly the Dream weekend is the feeling of home. Eldora may be over 5 hours from my mailing address, but hearing Rick Eshelman on the PA, seeing familiar racecars, and having my section “SA” friends greet me as though we saw each other yesterday instead of one year ago or more is a wonderful feeling. I always love seeing and catching up with Doug and Delores from Illinois who make me envious with their travels. Eddie Carrier Jr. fans; Deanna, David, and DeLaney who travel from Tennessee every year. I remember DeLaney as a young girl cheering on Scott Bloomquist and now she is a high-schooler whose passion for racing is still evident. And new to our section were Barry and Jackie who I really enjoyed getting to know…Seeing them in Jeep VanWormer apparel also scored major brownie points with me.
My trip to Eldora was an amazing one and with just over 51-weeks until next year I am already looking forward to the “Dream 100” in 2012.