Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 17, 2017

Fewer Fans But Better Racing

Like so many other stops on the stock car circuit, New Hampshire Motor Speedway continues to adjust to the reality of the sport’s slow but certain decline in popularity. Three years ago, several sections of the track’s north grandstand were removed, eliminating thousands of seats that had once been filled every time NASCAR’s main series raced at the Magic Mile, but which in recent years had sat largely empty. Since then seating capacity has been reduced by nearly half at the track in Richmond, and by significant amounts even in the heart of NASCAR country at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and at the home of the sport’s biggest race, Daytona International Speedway.

The first thing fans arriving at Loudon for this weekend’s races noticed was that half of what remained of that north grandstand had disappeared, further reducing NHMS’s seating. The flat ground on which those grandstand sections once stood is now a lot for RV camping, with twenty spots priced at $999 for the weekend, marketed for their exclusive location close to the action between Turns 3 and 4.

Financially the move makes sense, as lately there have been more than enough empty seats in the main and south grandstands to relocate all the fans who previously sat in the seats that were removed. That means the revenue from the RV area that is being marketed as the “Trackside Terrace” is so much gravy for Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the owner of the track. Still the elimination of more seating and the steadily shrinking capacity of not just NHMS but also many of its brethren is a stark reminder to race fans of their declining numbers.

That point was underscored on Sunday, when despite warm summer weather and blue skies fans who made the trek from across New England and eastern Canada to the one-mile oval that sits improbably on a two-lane country road in a rural hamlet eight miles northeast of New Hampshire’s state capitol building, did not do so in sufficient numbers to pack even NHMS’s diminished grandstands for the weekend’s main event. It was the Overton’s 301, the nineteenth race on this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. As the thirty-nine entrants came out of Turn 4 and the Toyota Camry pace car dove into the pits, fans came to their feet for the start of what would prove to be the third highly entertaining race of the weekend. But most of them did so with room to spare, as there were plenty of empty seats and patches of completely empty rows throughout the Speedway’s stands.

There is no shortage of analysis and opinion about what NASCAR needs to do to reinvigorate its fan base. As previously noted in this space, last decade’s recession hit stock car racing doubly hard, causing corporate sponsors to shy away from the enormous expense of supporting race teams, and making fans think twice before loading up the gas-guzzling RV for a road trip to NASCAR’s nearest venue. But for all the complaints since then about the standardization of the cars and drivers becoming little more than corporate spokespeople, hasn’t the obvious answer all along been to consistently offer more exciting racing? Isn’t that what NASCAR is supposed to be about?

If the cure is as simple as that, then among the many thousands who did make it to Loudon last weekend, and let’s not forget that NHMS’s two NASCAR weekends are still the biggest sports draw in New England, surely some left as new fans of stock car racing.

Saturday afternoon the modifieds led off the action with their usual display of highly competitive racing. The Modified Division is NASCAR’s oldest, and because the Whelen Modified Tour is based in New England many fans feel a personal connection to the drivers. The modifieds look nothing like street automobiles. With their open wheeled design and long and low front ends the cars resemble modern dragsters. In the Eastern Propane 100 26-year old Ryan Preece, the 2013 Modified Tour champion, started on the pole and led the most laps. With just two circuits around the Loudon oval remaining, Preece, Bobby Santos, Doug Coby and Monster Energy Cup Series driver Ryan Newman were locked in a four-car duel, coming into the front stretch together in close formation like a squadron of fighter jets. Then Coby got into Newman, driving the yellow number 77 up into the wall and bringing out the caution flag. When the race resumed it was Santos who got the better restart, pulling away from Preece for his fifteenth Modified Tour win.

Next up was the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s top developmental series. As is often the case, three Monster Energy Cup Series drivers stepped down to race in the Overton’s 200. While common, it’s a practice that takes the wheel away from a young driver who could use the experience. The top-tier drivers usually dominate any Xfinity race they enter. To a degree Saturday was no exception, with Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski all finishing in the top five. Keselowski’s Ford was clearly the fastest car on the track, but during a pit stop on lap 170 he started to pull out of pit stall while a gas can was still locked into its coupler with his car. Keselowski was hit with a stop-and-go penalty for dragging equipment outside his pit, forcing him to return to pit row on the next lap and come to a full stop at his box.

Keselowski’s error essentially handed the race to Busch, but the real news of the race was that the three Monster Energy Cup Series drivers finished first, fourth and fifth, rather than one-two-three. William Byron, currently second in the season-long Xfinity standings, finished ahead of Larson and Keselowski in third place after a fine afternoon. Even more impressive, the second spot went to Preece, the full-time Whelen Modified Tour driver who was given a rare shot at moving up in class by Joe Gibbs Racing. Finishing up a double duty day, Preece squeezed everything he could out of the opportunity.

On Sunday, the weekend’s main event went to Denny Hamlin, who ended a long winless streak for both himself and Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin outlasted a hard-charging Larson who came from all the way at the back of the pack after winning the pole only to have his Chevy fail a post-qualifying inspection. Martin Truex Jr., the leader for much of the race, settled for third.

The race featured hard driving and frequent passing not just at the front, but throughout the pack. That was largely due to the decision to coat two lanes around both sets of turns with PJ1 Track Bite, a specialty compound designed to increase traction. With greater grip, drivers could choose alternate lines around the track, which produced far more side by side and even three wide racing, something rarely seen in the past at the flat Loudon oval. The drivers loved it, with Larson calling the day “fun” and Hamlin adding “As far as I’m concerned we should race here ten times a year.” The happy fans loved it as well, or at least those who showed up did.

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