LOUDON, N.H. — With the way the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is structured these days, there will always be an inevitable loser when a track gains a new date.
There simply isn’t any more room to add races.
This week, while the people of Las Vegas celebrate, it is New England and Canada that are mourning the loss of their September weekend.
Their track — which only hosted its first race in 1993 and only gained its second Cup date for the 1997 season — now will scale back to one race a season, the July weekend that it has held since the track’s construction.
The irony of this date realignment is that New Hampshire Motor Speedway now has become the victim of the very same forces which brought it its second Cup weekend to begin with.
The story of New Hampshire’s second cup date begins on Jan. 1, 1996, when then-co-owner of North Wilkesboro Speedway Mike Staley sold his stake in the track to Bob Bahre, who owned New Hampshire Motor Speedway at the time.
With North Wilkesboro now in the hands of Bahre and then-Speedway Motorsports Incorporated-head Bruton Smith, the track’s two Cup dates were split up for 1997 — the former became what is now the spring date at Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway, and the fall date became the second race at New Hampshire.
At the time, Bahre and Smith cited the aging facilities, geographical location, and diminishing crowds as the reasons why North Wilkesboro was dropped from the calendar. But there was also an underlying and more primary reason for the date swaps: Bahre and Smith both knew they could make more money from races at New Hampshire and Texas than they could at North Wilkesboro.
Fast forward 20 years, and many of the same forces that brought down North Wilkesboro have now turned against NHMS.
When looked at side-by-side with Las Vegas, the comparison bears an eerie resemblance to ones made between North Wilkesboro and New Hampshire back then. Las Vegas received a massive renovation in advance of the 2007 season, with a complete reconfiguration and repave of the facility and a whole host of new facilities for fans and the NASCAR workforce added in the infield. New Hampshire has received no major upgrades on a similar level since it opened in 1990.
Crowds have visibly diminished at NHMS in the past few seasons, while Las Vegas has consistently been one of the best-attended races since the work was completed on the track in 2007. Furthermore, LVMS’ capacity (116,000) is larger than NHMS’ (88,000). Finally, the western market has been one that Speedway Motorsports Incorporated has tried to tap into with extra races for years now because of the untapped potential that they see. Their belief in the New England and Canada markets (which New Hampshire primarily serves) is nowhere near as strong.
There has also been a sort of stigma around New Hampshire since the turn of the millennium. The technical packages that NASCAR brought to the track in the 1990s made for incredible and highly entertaining racing — but also pushed cars to the upper end of their speed limits, especially for a track so small. This was due in part to the fact that only one surveyor was used in the track’s construction, and no engineers were consulted at all. It was a track designed with entertaining racing in mind.
Then 2000 came, and it was the unquestionable nadir of the young track’s history. Within the span of three months, both Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, Jr. lost their lives in accidents at the facility, and their deaths scared NASCAR so much that they ran restrictor plates on the cars during the September race weekend that season.
The restrictor plate idea didn’t work at well at all — Jeff Burton led all 300 laps en route to the victory in the Cup race that weekend — but the fear of New Hampshire was there.
The next season saw the Speedway dealt unfortunate circumstances. Its fall race was to be held on September 16th — but that ended up being the weekend directly following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. NASCAR, in accordance with virtually every major sporting league in the country, postponed their event for that weekend, and the fall New Hampshire race was eventually run on November 23rd as the season finale — the Friday after Thanksgiving.
That race was the final race on the original configuration of NHMS. For the 2002 season, the apexes of the corners were brought in by two grooves in an effort to add some asphalt between the wall and the drivers, with the intention of slowing down corner entry speeds and decreasing the likelihood of accidents in the vein of Petty’s and Irwin’s.
In one sense, the changes worked — there have been no deaths at New Hampshire since the changes were made — but those changes also dampened the racy nature of the original layout. The entertaining races of the 1990s have long passed — in their place have come races that have not offered much, save for some late fuel-mileage and late restart drama.
To be fair, it is not entirely New Hampshire’s fault that the racing has been so poor as of late. The extreme technological advances of the cars and trucks used by the national touring series nowadays are more to blame.
Most fans have cried out against the racing at the intermediate tracks in recent seasons, citing the lack of action that takes place — especially in recent seasons. The sad truth is that in no place is that problem more evident than at New Hampshire, where the lack of banking and mile length exacerbate and exaggerate that problem and put it directly under the spotlight.
The cars can’t go fast enough on the lack of banking, and the mileage of the circuit is too long to work as a short track and too short to work as an intermediate track for the Cup cars.
All of the above factors have combined into a tidal wave and swept away the fall date out west to Las Vegas.
Expansion in a growing market like Vegas can, at times, work out well. But, as Kevin Harvick pointed out last weekend, it can have its perils.
“I love Vegas and I think it’s a great atmosphere and it would be good,” he said after qualifying in Atlanta last Friday. “But sometimes you can turn one great race into two mediocre ones, and I think that’s just something that you have to be careful of and look at and really evaluate. I would be cautious to look at a California-type situation where one great event that we have there wasn’t so great when we had two. You have to be careful of not doing that.”
The “California-type situation” Harvick referred to occurred in 2005, when Auto Club Speedway gained a second date on the calendar at the expense of Rockingham Speedway. NASCAR was seeking to capitalize on the nationwide boom of growth it had undergone in the 1990s with the move; instead, the quality of the racing suffered massively, and attendance plummeted. NASCAR admitted defeat in 2010 and scaled back to one race for the 2011 season.
Fittingly, the racing and attendance has picked up significantly since Auto Club went back to one race, and outside of the road course races, it ranks as one of the most entertaining races every season due to the trickiness and age of its surface (which hasn’t seen a repave in the track’s 20-year history). Harvick’s point is very much apropos — make sure that the quality of the race weekends (which encompasses all of the fan experience and the on-track action) doesn’t suffer at Las Vegas the way that it did in Southern California, and it should create a recipe for success.
Will it, though? And how will New Hampshire react going forward? Those are arguably the two largest questions coming out of yesterday’s announcements.
In Las Vegas’ case, I can’t say that anyone knows exactly what will happen. SMI’s hope is that the explosive growth Las Vegas is experiencing as a city, combined with its status as a destination locale, will parlay directly into greater attendance numbers and more profits for the track. All we can do is watch over the next few seasons to see if Marcus Smith and company have correctly predicted that demand is currently outstripping supply in Sin City.
As for New Hampshire, the loss of a Cup date will obviously hurt the track’s revenue margins and have a significant impact on the local economy. Dollars like the ones a NASCAR national touring series bring into a city are not easily replaced, and it will be businesses that surround NHMS that will suffer the most. The track, as part of the SMI conglomerate, will have its losses partially offset by the other tracks in the SMI family. But there isn’t another event as big as a Cup weekend waiting in the wings to fill the hotel rooms and dining tables of Concord and Manchester. Never mind the black mark that this throws on the pride of the region — how crushing is it to effectively be told that your race track isn’t good enough at bringing in people and dollars to justify two races a season? That is the way that the locals will look at this, and it is a sad day for them.
Yet there is a way to offset the damaged pride. To do that, I look to grassroots racing in New England and the continuing strength of its support, which helped get the region a stop on the Cup circuit in the first place over 25 years ago.
I am in support of a massive weekend for NASCAR’s regional touring series to replace the outgoing Cup weekend at New Hampshire. Bring the Whelen Modified Tour and the K&N Pro Series East to run on Friday and Saturday, with some of the local touring series in tow as support races. I think there’s even a chance that the Pinty’s Series could come south for a date, especially considering how many Canadian NASCAR fans already frequent NHMS’s current Cup weekends. It would be a much more realistic “south-of-the-border” race than the Mexico City experiment the XFINITY Series ran some 10 seasons ago!
A regional touring series weekend would also play right into the tastes of New Englanders, whose support of their local series have always been their best calling card in the motorsports world. Making NHMS a central place in the region to highlight those series (much like what Bristol is doing this year with the U.S. Short Track Nationals) seems like a very logical move to me.
Never mind the fact that the less-advanced technology that powers the regional touring series cars should make for a throwback style of racing akin to — surprise! — the way the Cup Series ran in the track’s ’90s heyday.
The “Magic Mile” has had quite the strange history so far. No engineers consulted, one surveyor used, two fatalities and one race postponed to November (in 2001, since NHMS’ Fall date fell on the weekend directly following 9/11) are only part of it. This is a track that has had a lot of uncommon variables thrown at it in the past, and they have contributed to a quirky history of the place.
A change in philosophy to run an SMI track more like a local short track seems odd — if you follow convention.
But when has New Hampshire Motor Speedway ever consistently followed convention?
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, the Performance Motorsports Network, Scorpion Radio Group, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
James Pike is a multi-faceted reporter for Race Chaser Online and an analyst on the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Pike is the lead correspondent for Race Chaser Online’s coverage of Australian Supercars and also covers regional touring series events in the Carolinas, including the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the CARS Tour.
He is a graduate of the Motorsports Management program at Belmont Abbey College and currently resides in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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