Tony Stewart is a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and successful Sprint Cup owner, but after last week he needs to add burgeoning NASCAR promoter to his stout resume.
Stewart embraced the daunting task of playing host to the first NASCAR national series race on dirt in 43 years with last week’s “Mudsummer Classic” NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points-paying race at his iconic Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.
The half-mile dirt track required extensive renovations and additions to host a top-tier NASCAR series race, but it delivered on nearly, if not every, front.
Eldora sold all of its 18,000 seats in eight days after tickets went on sale in January. According to the SPEED Channel, the “Mudsummer Classic” was the highest-rated, non-restrictor-plate truck race and the 10th-most watched truck race in the network’s history. With 1.4 million viewers and a Nielsen rating of 1.2, the race also was the highest viewed on cable for last Wednesday. The event also had plenty of buzz on social media – so much so that it rivaled that of a Sprint Cup race – and, most importantly, scored rave reviews from fans and drivers.
“Going into this week, I was just really focused on doing whatever it took to make sure we had a good show for the fans and NASCAR so we could come back again,” “Mudsummer Classic” race winner Austin Dillon said. "I think it was a success. It was such a great show. This is real racing right here, and that's all I've got to say.”
“It was fun. It’s a matter of asking the fans,” said Sprint Cup Series veteran Ryan Newman, who finished third. “Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. It’d be fun to come here and go to some of the fairground race tracks, mile race tracks.”
NASCAR, which took a gamble on running the trucks on a surface that is not truly conducive to the vehicles, was extremely pleased with the event that had a dirt-track event format to it. The event consisted of five eight-lap qualifying races, a 15-lap, last-chance qualifier and a feature race split into three segments (60 laps, 50 laps, 40 laps).
“What makes tonight very special (is) the fact that it is a combination of Wednesday night racing, on a dirt track, which has been a long time coming from a lot of our fans who requested it,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said during his visit on the SPEED broadcast of the race. “So, tonight is very unique, and that’s what makes it special. What (does) the future hold? We’ll see, but I know tonight is something everybody is going to check off and say that was a historic moment.”
Added Sprint Cup Series star Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I really thought that was extraordinary for the race track, the series, the sport - what a risky and gutsy call to go do that. I thought it was just extraordinary that NASCAR was willing to make the leap, and then Tony (Stewart) was there at the right place and the right time with a perfect race track and a historic place to run it. It’s awesome that it all came together so well.”
NASCAR and Stewart have not discussed the future as yet, but judging from the result it could become an annual event for the Camping World Truck Series.
“We wouldn’t have done this for one race if we didn’t think this was something that could potentially go further down the road,” Stewart said. “If it only goes one year and we only get one opportunity to do it, is all the time, effort and worrying worth it? Absolutely.”
So where does NASCAR go from here with this concept? There already was banter about adding more dirt races to future Camping World Truck Series schedules and possibly Nationwide and Sprint Cup races. For the time being, NASCAR plans to consider the concept only for the truck series because there is more flexibility with the schedule. Substantial increased costs to play host to Sprint Cup or Nationwide events at these smaller venues would probably not be financial feasible in the current model.
But the concept has intrigued the Cup drivers.
“It would be fun to go run there if they ever did an exhibition or something,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t know about a full-on event. But, yeah, maybe we’ll end up doing that one day. What I saw was entertaining and exciting and something that I hope I see more of, just from a viewer’s standpoint.”
“I would love to see a Cup race at Eldora,” four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon said. “That would be awesome. … Those guys look like they were having a lot of fun.”
Added Sprint Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer: "Why not? You know what I mean? If the fans liked it and it was well received and people enjoyed it, then why not? This is a fan-driven sport and it always has been and we've always been able to deliver to the fans greater than most other sports and continue that.”
As for Stewart, it turned out to be quite a banner week as a promoter, driver and owner. Following a hugely successful “Mudsummer Classic” event at Eldora, he finished fourth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his driver Ryan Newman won the Sprint Cup race for Stewart-Haas Racing.