Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 17, 2011

Economy Aside, NASCAR And NH Enjoy The Weekend

NASCAR returned to New England this weekend, with the premiere stock car racing circuit making the first of its two annual visits to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the one mile oval located a short drive north of Concord, the state capital. After years of having the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 run at the end of June, changes to this season’s Sprint Cup schedule pushed the race into the middle of July. However New England racing fans, relieved that their track retained both of its dates on the NASCAR calendar despite persistent rumors that one race would be transferred to one of the eight other tracks in the Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) family, were not about to quibble over the exact dates that the colorful semi-trailers hauling 800-plus horsepower racing machines pulled into town.

This is the fourth racing season since original developer and owner Bob Bahre sold the track known as The Magic Mile to Bruton Smith’s SMI. Fans greeted the transaction with trepidation and dread at the time, fearful that Smith would move at least one of the New Hampshire dates to another facility. Now, with both dates seemingly secure and with the deep-pocketed SMI making steady improvements to the facilities and amenities at the track in Loudon, many of those same fans are the first to laud Smith and his company. Although one does presume that none of those fans were stuck in the horrendous traffic jam outside SMI’s Kentucky track a week ago. But I digress.

As always at a NASCAR weekend, Sunday got all of the attention but Saturday was more fun. As is the recent case at most NASCAR weekends, both days were filled with reminders of the economic challenges facing the sport.

Sunday always gets the attention because it’s the day of the Sprint Cup race. NASCAR’s premiere drivers race before close to 100,000 tightly packed fans and millions more watching on national television for a healthy purse and precious points in the season-long Chase for the Championship. Saturday is almost always more fun because there is more racing, at least two races and sometimes three; and because a smaller crowd leaves fans room to spread out.

As for the economic challenges, no other major American sport has been hit as hard by the economy as NASCAR. While stock car racing fans come from every economic level, the sports’ roots are decidedly blue-collar. Loyal fans often travel considerable distances for races, staying in the area of a track for several days and pouring tourist dollars into the local economy. A lot of that traveling, staying, and pouring has stopped for people more concerned about keeping or finding a job. Walking from one of the many parking areas surrounding the Speedway into the track on Sunday, friends and I passed the prime RV parking area, which sits above The Magic Mile’s back stretch. For the first time in memory, a number of the spaces that are often rented for an entire week sat empty.

For the past several years Sunday race broadcasts on Fox and TNT have more often than not shown patches or worse of empty seats where once fans crammed into grandstands. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been no exception. A track that sold out every Sprint Cup race for years has fallen short of that for the past two. Fans in attendance this Saturday were being invited to buy still available tickets for Sunday. When Sunday arrived, the northern grandstand around turns three and four in particular had large sections of empty benches.

It isn’t just attendance that has been impacted by the economy. Getting a car to the starting line week after week in any of NASCAR’s series is an extraordinarily expensive proposition. That’s why stock cars are typically decorated with decals from numerous different sponsors. But on Saturday, when the contestants for NASCAR’s developmental Nationwide Series race qualified for their 200 mile contest, they were merely determining the starting order. In a race open to 43 entrants, only 42 teams made it to Loudon. Among those were several drivers from around New England. Not regular drivers in the Nationwide Series, they had obviously been given an opportunity to step up from a regional NASCAR level in order to help fill out the field.

After the Nationwide qualifying and before the actual race, there was “happy hour,” the final Sprint Cup Series practice session. Even at NASCAR’s top level, there were a handful of cars that rolled out onto the track with white hoods, lacking primary sponsors. Still others had primary sponsors but displayed blank space on bumpers and quarter-panels where any NASCAR fan expects to see the logos of multiple secondary sponsors.

Despite the economic uncertainty surrounding the sport, on the track the weekend offered exciting moments as always. On Saturday 26-year old Kyle Busch made some history while winning the Nationwide Series race. Busch started his NASCAR career in the Craftsmen Truck series while he was still in high school. He moved on up through the Nationwide Series and has been a full-time driver at the Sprint Cup level since 2005. But he remains one of several Sprint Cup drivers who also drive frequently in Nationwide Series races, a practice that presents an ongoing dilemma for NASCAR. While having some of their top drivers race on the “off day” of every weekend helps boost attendance, it also takes a seat behind the wheel away from a developing driver who might be a future star. Busch’s victory Saturday was his 49th in the Nationwide Series, putting him into a tie with Mark Martin for the most career Nationwide wins. Since he also has 22 Sprint Cup and 29 Truck Series victories, the win was also the 100th of his NASCAR career. Racing fans are known to have strong opinions about individual drivers, and most detest Busch. But they also recognize achievement, and there was some grudging acknowledgment of the significance of Busch’s as he drove around the track with a large flag with the number 100 on it after the victory.

Then on Sunday Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart both started and finished 1-2 in the Sprint Cup race. It was the first victory of the year for the ten-year veteran nicknamed “Rocketman,” and it was the first time in five years that the two drivers who started a Sprint Cup race in the front row finished 1-2 as well. More important, since the two are teammates running for Stewart-Haas Racing, it was a huge day for the organization that Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing three years ago to start. That move was considered something of a gamble given the economic conditions already apparent at the time. For NASCAR as a whole those conditions remain decidedly uncertain, and that will still be the case when the big haulers return to New Hampshire in late September. But on Sunday afternoon, at least one economic gamble in the world of stock car racing looked like a pretty good bet after all.

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