Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 8, 2010

Will Loudon Lose Out?

These are anxious days for New England NASCAR fans. New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon is the only NASCAR venue in the region. Opened in 1990 the track hosted its first Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup Series) race in 1993 and since 1996 has had two stops on stock car racing’s annual schedule, one at the end of June and a second in late September. But the 2011 NASCAR schedule is in its final stages of preparation and rumors are rampant that The Magic Mile is about to lose one of its two races.

Significant changes to the Sprint Cup calendar are all but certain. NASCAR CEO Brian France has confirmed as much, saying before last weekend’s race at Indianapolis that “we’ll have some pretty impactful changes to the schedule that I think will be good for NASCAR fans.” But the reality of course is that how good any changes are for fans will depend a lot on where those fans live.

There are two factors driving the likely shakeup. The first is the economy. The long and painful recession has struck deeply at the NASCAR demographic, and it has shown in declining attendance at tracks all over the country. Although in truth there is probably more than just the economy to blame for fewer fans in the stands. The reality is that television ratings are down as well, and I don’t think the economy has gotten so bad that fans at home can no longer afford to turn on their flat screens. Many long-time racing lovers pine for the good old days of aggressive, paint-swapping driving. The standardization of the cars and a strong emphasis on increased safety have combined to suck some of the drama out of Sunday afternoons at the track. Whether it’s just the recession or a combination of the economy and a dull product, too many tracks have too many vacant seats; and that opens the door for tracks and cities without a race to argue that it’s their turn to get a green flag.

The second factor is the control of multiple tracks by just two entities. International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which like NASCAR itself is controlled by the France family, owns twelve tracks that host 19 Sprint Cup races, just over one-half of the schedule. Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI), owned by Bruton Smith, owns seven tracks that host 12 races and one, Kentucky Speedway near Cincinnati, Ohio, that has not been on the Sprint Cup schedule. Only 5 of the 36 annual races are run at tracks not owned by the two behemoths. Thus ISC and SMI both have considerable influence on the schedule, especially when it comes to swapping races or dates among their own tracks.

If the economy were the only issue dictating schedule changes, Loudon would probably be safe with its two races for next year. While there were some empty seats at this season’s first race on June 27th, the crowd was still close to 90,000. That compares favorably to most stops on the Sprint Cup circuit. At Atlanta, for example, official attendance at the March race has dropped by more than 10,000 each of the past two years. And that’s the official number; the large sections of empty seating clearly visible on television were the clearest evidence that the actual number of fans in the stands was even lower than the announced number.

The ability of the big multiple-track owners to move races among their holdings is the more worrisome issue, and has been since the New Hampshire track became part of the SMI family in late 2007. Just this past week the management at SMI’s Atlanta Motor Speedway announced that after fifty years of hosting multiple NASCAR events, they would have just one race in 2011. Their counterparts at Kentucky Speedway have scheduled a press conference for this coming week, where they are expected to announce that they will host a Sprint Cup race for this first time next year. Getting a race for the Kentucky track has been a known priority for Bruton Smith. In effect, the sagging attendance at Atlanta opened the door for the SMI chief to see if the area near the Ohio-Kentucky border can’t do better.

For Loudon fans, the Atlanta-Kentucky swap meant we dodged one bullet. However, Smith has also publicly and frequently stated his desire to get a second race for his track in Las Vegas. In one over-the-top moment he went so far as to say that NASCAR had “a moral obligation” to award a second date to the 1.5 mile D-shaped oval. While I seriously doubt that the France family views the issue in such dramatic terms, the statement does indicate the depths of Smith’s desire. And the reality is that with its 142,000 seat capacity as compared to Loudon’s 93,000, even a less-than-capacity crowd would mean more ticket sales than New Hampshire can possibly generate.

During the June race at Loudon, SMI and Smith got into a public spat with the Town of Loudon over the amount that is charged for police details during race weekends. I don’t much doubt that the little town north of Concord has seen the presence of NASCAR as an easy way to fill the town coffers. In 2008, SMI was charged $250,000 for police coverage during each Sprint Cup weekend. That figure was negotiated down to $170,000 per weekend last year, but in going public with his displeasure in June, Smith stated that he thought an appropriate figure was more like $65,000.

Given that Smith spent $340 million of SMI’s money to buy the track from Bob Bahre, the money for police details seems like small change. That caused more than a few of us to wonder at the time if the dispute was real or merely a straw man designed to serve as an excuse for moving a race. That skepticism increased when it was revealed that SMI has paid other communities around the country amounts similar to what Loudon was charging. Still, mindful of the enormous economic benefit to the state from bringing nearly 100,000 people from all over New England and eastern Canada to central New Hampshire twice a year, Governor John Lynch weighed in on the side of Smith and SMI. But Loudon selectmen have refused to budge.

There are those who think that given SMI’s investment to buy the Loudon track, there is no way Smith would pull a race as long as the stands are virtually full twice a year. I hope they’re right. But maybe Bruton Smith all along saw the purchase of Loudon as the quickest way to get his second Las Vegas race, and factored an investment in that goal into the purchase price. In that case, when the 2011 schedule is announced in the next few days, the bad news for New England NASCAR fans will be that the track in Las Vegas will be the one holding the winning hand.

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