Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2017

September Falls Silent At NH Motor Speedway

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is traveling, and this post was slightly delayed as a result.  Thanks as always for your support.

They were the first days of autumn, but one wouldn’t have known it from the summer heat in central New Hampshire last weekend, when NASCAR brought its traveling road show to the Granite State. Temperatures that called to mind days at the beach rather than apple picking were a reminder that starting next year stock car racing’s premier circuit will make only one stop at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in July. The second weekend, a part of NASCAR’s September schedule for more than two decades, is being transferred to Las Vegas, one of eight other tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., better known as SMI.

The decision to move both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Camping World Truck Series races to the Nevada desert was announced last March, and was as unwelcome to racing fans in this part of the country as a late winter blizzard. Still while undeniably bad news the loss of the fall race weekend was not unexpected. The Magic Mile, the concrete oval set in its unlikely location along a secondary road in tiny Loudon (population 5,317), came into existence in 1990, realizing the dream of local businessman Bob Bahre. He had bought Bryar Motorsports Park and almost 1,200 acres surrounding the old road course less than a year earlier. With the help of just a single surveyor, Bahre supervised construction of the 1.06 mile speedway and grandstands in a mere nine months.

Within weeks of its opening Bahre’s New Hampshire International Speedway hosted its first NASCAR event, a race in the developmental Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series). Just three years later the first NASCAR Cup Series race was held, and in 1996 the second Cup Series race was added to the schedule. Fans flocked to the track from all six New England states and the provinces of eastern Canada, drawn by the growing popularity of stock car racing as the sport aggressively sought to expand far beyond its southern roots. Additions to the speedway’s grandstands pushed capacity to 101,000, making the track New England’s largest sports and entertainment venue. Twice a year the stands were packed with cheering throngs, each person doing his or her best to will their favorite driver to victory lane. Exiting the track after a Cup Series race on Sunday was an exercise in extreme patience, as long lines of traffic inched out of the parking lots onto Route 106.

The second race in New Hampshire became possible when Bahre and Bruton Smith, head of SMI, joined forces to purchase North Wilkesboro Speedway, an aging short track in the North Carolina mountains. North Wilkesboro was the very first track sanctioned by NASCAR in 1949. But its remote location, small seating capacity and aging infrastructure made the venue expendable to the leaders of a rapidly expanding sport. Bahre and Smith shuttered the track, with each taking one of North Wilkesboro’s two Cup Series races for their own facilities.

A bit more than a decade later his relationship with Smith made SMI the obvious entity to turn to when Bahre, now ready to retire, decided to sell. The transaction led to the renaming of the Loudon oval to the “Motor Speedway” title used by almost all of SMI’s facilities. But of far greater concern than a name was the possibility of SMI transferring one of New Hampshire’s dates to a larger track with only a single Cup Series race. It took almost a decade, but the news New England race fans had long dreaded finally arrived.  The maneuver that gave the Loudon track its second race was now used against it, with Smith opting to reward one of his other properties at the expense of his recent acquisition.

So this time the usual excitement of race weekend was tinged with melancholy. The last September race did bring a larger crowd than has been the case of late. Like virtually every NASCAR facility, the track at Loudon has felt the pressures of a sport that went from rapid expansion to serious retrenchment through last decade’s recession. Large sections of the north grandstand have been replaced by a hospitality platform and parking for RVs, reducing seating capacity to 88,000. Even with those changes recent years have seen empty rows throughout the remaining grandstands. But declining attendance is a NASCAR problem, not just a New Hampshire one. Other tracks have made far more drastic changes, including removing 58,000 seats at Daytona and 67,000 at Charlotte.

Part of NASCAR’s response to its attendance issues has been to cease announcing attendance figures. But an eyeball estimate put the crowd for Saturday’s doubleheader of the 175 mile truck race and a Whelen Modified 100 mile event at perhaps 30,000, with upwards of 75,000 on hand for Sunday’s main event, both decidedly higher than the recent norms.

Saturday the familiar face of Bobby Santos took the checkered flag in the Modified race. The Massachusetts native had driven to victory in July’s Modified event as well, making Santos the first driver to sweep that division’s races at New Hampshire since Ryan Newman in 2010. The emotional win came just one week after his close friend and mentor Ted Christopher, one of the Modified division’s most successful drivers, was killed in a plane crash in Connecticut.

Before Santos’s win Christopher Bell dominated the truck race as he has dominated that division’s season. Bell’s win was his fifth of the year; no other regular truck series driver has more than two.

Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 went to Kyle Busch, in a race that was upended near its midpoint. Martin Truex Jr. had the best car through practice runs and qualifying, and led through most of the early going. But on lap 150 Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon bumped coming out of turn two, with the former going sideways down the back stretch. The massive smoke cloud created by Harvick’s squealing rubber blinded the drivers following, causing a multi-car wreck. Truex was among those dinged in the pileup, while Busch managed to maneuver his way through unscathed. After that Truex’s car was never the same, and Busch sailed to victory, his 12th overall in various series at the Loudon oval.

Now NASCAR moves on, beset by distractions and doubt. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the face of the sport, is retiring at the end of the year. Fan favorites Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards have all recently climbed out of their cars. Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, the former a two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 Cup Series champion and the latter the only female Cup Series driver and NASCAR’s second most popular driver behind only Earnhardt, are both without rides for next year. The competition among manufacturers has become one-sided with Toyotas winning eight of the last eleven races.

Despite those issues, with just a single visit next year the grandstands at New Hampshire Motor Speedway may once again be filled to overflowing. Or perhaps, between those problems and feeling abandoned by the sport, many fans in New England will decide they’ve seen enough.

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Responses

  1. Lots of facts, but a smooth easy read, Mike.I don’t follow NASCAR, but I have a lot more insight into it now. Thanks.
    Ω


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