A life in racing: Eldora Speedway Manager Jerry Gappens

From the Sidelines

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Mike Stegall (L) and Jerry Gappens (R) talk racing at Eldora Speedway half mile oval dirt high banked track. (Gaylen Blosser photo)

ROSSBURG – The first time you meet Jerry Gappens, you will find one of the most outgoing, happy, and knowledgeable people you will ever meet.  Jerry is the new manager at Eldora Speedway, and his life has been about marketing, people, and racing. A talk with Jerry is like listening to a history on short track racing, and the people who have helped him throughout his career.

Eldora Raceway infield at Darke County’s half mile dirt track. (Gaylen Blosser photo)

Jerry grew up about an hour north of Indianapolis near Kokomo, his father was a weekend dirt track racer at the Kokomo raceway and Jerry would go with his dad. He said the highlight was when they would come to Eldora. At eight, he got a quarter midget, played little league baseball, and was also into just about all sports.

Jerry went to Ball State to study communications, wanting to be a sportscaster. He backed that up with some marketing. His first job out of college was to work for one of the all-time greats in the sport of motor racing, Chris Economaki, who had the magazine Speed Sport news.

Darke County’s Eldora Speedway. (Gaylen Blosser photos)

Chris interviewed Jerry here at Eldora while doing a show for ABC! He did marketing for them for eight years, which led to an opportunity to work with Howard “Humpy” Wheeler of Speedway Motor Sports for 23 years in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Speedway Motor Sports then acquired New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and Jerry went there for eight years as manager. On his way back home for a visit, Jerry stopped in at Eldora and talked to an old friend, Roger Slack, then manager of Eldora, who invited him up.

Jerry went home to visit his mom and came back for the Kings Royal, went back home, and came back on a Wednesday for the NASCAR truck race held here. On his way back to Charlotte, he stopped at a small track, Gas City Speedway in Gas City, Indiana.

Former Darke County Commissioner Mike Stegall (L) and new Eldora Speedway General Manager Jerry Gappens (R). (Gaylen Blosser photo)

When he got back to Charlotte, he thought about the track, called the owner, met with him, and did a lease with him to promote the track himself. As a small track manager, you do it all; sell tickets, pick up trash, clean toilets, help with parking, etc., He learned it all.

He had met and knew Tony Stewart from Charlotte, and to make a long story short, Tony told him he needed a new manager at Eldora, and Jerry took the job.

Eldora Speedway’s 16 Private Suites Located Outside Turns 3 & 4. (Gaylen Blosser photo)

I asked him what it was like working for Tony, and he said he has had some people work for him for 35 years! Tony is very loyal to people, and is detail oriented, does a lot for people behind the scenes, and is not a micro manager.

This winter Jerry e-mailed Tony, who was at a drag race watching his wife, Leah, a copy of the plans for the Ballroom. He was surprised when Tony called him and discussed in detail the plans and changes he wanted!

Eldora Speedway General Manager Jerry Gappens and Mike Stegall look over 14,000 square foot $2 million Eldora Ballroom renovation. (Gaylen Blosser photo)

Jerry stayed busy this winter, doing camper renewals, ticket renewals, scheduling, and the renovation of the original ballroom. The plan is to have it open by June, remove the modular offices, and move them to the old Baltes house.

The eclipse event was a good kickoff event for Eldora. He did not know the actual number of people, but they did have campers from 10 states show up! Tony told him he thought that was cool for Jerry to open up the track like that, and Jerry said he talked to a lot of people who were not race fans, but thought they would have to come back to Eldora to catch a race!

Eldora Speedway General Manager Jerry Gappens (R) shares Eldora Ballroom updates with Mike Stegall (L). (Gaylen Blosser photo)

Jerry thinks Eldora is well positioned in this slower economy, and the renewals are up about 10%. In the past, tickets have been sold in 49 states, with only Hawaii never having someone buy a ticket! He thinks special event tracks like Eldora, will do fine. They have held prices for the last two years, and the Ballroom, (which you have got to see!) will add something special.

He said Tony appreciates the history of Eldora, and wanted to keep it as original as possible, instead of tearing it down and building new.

Nearly completed Eldora Ballroom renovation. (Gaylen Blosser photo)

Next weekend starts the season at Eldora, so Jerry and the crew will stay pretty busy until it is over. Jerry and I talked a little longer, and I found him to be very interesting and wanting Eldora to get even better.

This was one of the more enjoyable interviews I have done, and Jerry makes it  easy to like him.  He is a big, happy, hard-working, and knowledgeable dirt track manager, that is very enthusiastic about Eldora.  He showed Gaylen Blosser and myself the Ballroom and the track, and the pride and enthusiasm were apparent.

Darke County’s half mile dirt track, Eldora Speedway. (Gaylen Blosser photo)

This year, take the family up to Eldora, enjoy the race and this terrific facility, eat a hot dog, and just look at what Darke County has to offer. If you look around, you might see some guy, picking up trash, parking cars, or selling tickets, and it just might be Jerry! You will enjoy yourself, and talking to him.

That’s the way I see it……from the sidelines!