Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 9, 2017

A Win For Las Vegas Is A Loss For The Northeast

It took nine years, but for NASCAR fans in New England, the other shoe finally dropped. In 1990 the Bahr family purchased and redeveloped Bryar Motorsports Park in tiny Loudon, New Hampshire. They converted the small road circuit into a multipurpose facility anchored by a one mile asphalt oval suitable for stock car racing. Family patriarch Bob Bahre immediately began lobbying NASCAR to bring racing to the Northeast and after three years of hosting developmental series races what was then known as New Hampshire International Speedway saw its first race in the sport’s premier series in the summer of 1993. Four years later a second Cup Series race was added in September. This July and again in the fall racing fans from all around New England and eastern Canada will converge on the Magic Mile to cheer on their favorite drivers, first in the New Hampshire 301 and then in the New England 300.

But those fans learned this week that when the checkered flag salutes the winner of that latter race it will also mark the end of two Cup races a year at what is now New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The name change took place in 2008, when Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. purchased the sprawling 1,200 acre facility from the Bahr’s. With annual revenue of $570 million, SMI operates nine racing facilities as well as the PRN radio network that broadcasts races run at the company’s tracks. The sale was not a complete surprise. Although the entire Bahre family was involved in the operation of the track, Bob had always been the driving force behind the operation, and he was well past retirement age. He and Smith had partnered on other deals, so SMI was a logical choice when Bahre went looking for a buyer.

Still the news sent a shudder through the many racing fans in New England and Canada who faithfully packed the stands at Loudon twice each year. The Bahr’s were locals who helped broaden the appeal of what had been a regional sport by bringing it to the Northeast. In contrast SMI was a publicly traded behemoth with the usual corporate focus on the bottom line. Fans worried that Smith had purchased the New Hampshire facility just to get his hands on two additional racing dates, which he would then move to one of his other tracks.

While Smith sought to reassure devotees of the Magic Mile that SMI was committed to stock car racing in New England, each year’s announcement of NASCAR’s schedule for the following season was an anxious time for a while. The nervous tension gradually eased as Loudon’s two races appeared on each new calendar. SMI also won over folks by enhancing the overall experience, which for many fans in their campers and RVs is an entire weekend of qualifying, practice, and multiple developmental series races before the Cup race on Sunday afternoon. An expansive midway was added near the track, and Cup races were preceded by concerts on a stage erected at the finish line. If the performers were generally groups somewhat past their prime, fans still appreciated the gesture.

Perhaps that led to a certain complacency, a belief that the two race schedule at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was set firmly in stone, like the stripe of local granite that marks the track’s start/finish line. For there was a sudden sense of panic when word came from Las Vegas, site of this week’s NASCAR stop, that the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority was close to a deal to invest $17.5 million over seven years to promote racing in the desert, contingent on the local track adding a second race to the one late winter event it has hosted for years.

The NASCAR schedule is a zero sum game. For any track to add a race, some other facility must lose one. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is an SMI track, which meant that Nevada’s gain was going to be a loss for one of Bruton Smith’s other venues. In addition to Las Vegas, SMI tracks in Georgia, Kentucky, Texas and California host just a single race. Unless SMI chose to pull Cup Series racing entirely out of a location, those tracks were not going to be impacted. Other than the Magic Mile, the SMI facilities with two races on NASCAR’s Cup Series schedule are the mile and a half quad oval in Charlotte, North Carolina and the half mile short track in Bristol, Tennessee.

North Carolina is the traditional home of stock car racing. All of the major racing teams make their headquarters in the Charlotte area, and the city is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Despite its tiny size, the track at Bristol is one of the sport’s most popular. More than 160,000 fans cram into the stands to watch drivers careen around the midget oval with its extreme banking like a bunch of teenage hot rodders racing around a Walmart parking lot. In short, the identity of the SMI track that would sacrifice a race for the benefit of Sin City was never in doubt.

Thursday the news was made official, and now New England racing fans must adjust to a new reality; one that deep down they’ve known was coming from the day their favorite family owned track was sold nine years ago. At a press conference David McGrath, the general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, promised to make the remaining race every July doubly exciting. He also talked about using the venue for other attractions like music festivals. Spoken like a good SMI employee, gamely taking the hit for the greater corporate good.

Of course the July race won’t be made longer or have more cars or multiple finishes; and there are many venues throughout the region far more suitable for music festivals. The possibility of attracting an IndyCar race is more appealing, but at this point that idea is little more than a hopeful thought. For now starting next year racing fans in New England and eastern Canada can only hold on tight to their one remaining race, knowing that it’s a 350 mile drive from Loudon to Watkins Glen or Pocono, the two closest opportunities they will soon have to see any additional NASCAR racing.

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