Amy Henderson · Thursday July 3, 2008
When Bruton Smith talks, everyone listens; and Sunday was no exception. Popping up just prior to his track’s main event, Smith spoke to the media as newly purchased New Hampshire Motor Speedway prepared for the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event under the Speedway Motorsports, Inc. banner. As usual, all ears were in Smith’s direction as he and NHMS General Manager Jerry Gappens addressed the packed room. The future of the race track was in question, and these two were just the people to provide either comfort or chaos to thousands of New England racing fans.
But once they finished, the motives for Smith’s press conference were clear; rumors of the Speedway’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Instead, Smith has big plans for the 1.058-mile oval that he purchased from Bob Bahre last November. Yes, those plans include upgrades to the facility. No, there won’t be a dragway; but the road course will continue to be an integral part of the track moving forward. And to the question that is perhaps most on the minds of local fans and media alike, yes, there will be two Sprint Cup races at the New England Speedway for the foreseeable future.
That first question came — predictably — right away. Would Smith move one of the track’s dates to either Las Vegas Motor Speedway or Kentucky Speedway?
The answer came fast and succinct. “No,” Smith said, and waited for the next question to be asked. Later in the press conference, Gappens reiterated that tickets for both Loudon races for 2009 will be on sale soon, and the track announced its 27th consecutive sellout of a Cup race to boot.
Well, so much for New Hampshire’s demise; from that point on, talk shifted to a brighter future for a track that’s been a part of the Cup Series since 1993. Smith wasn’t shy when asked about upgrades to the current facility; he said he was looking to add an additional 100 acres of RV parking, and more restrooms to relieve long lines for fans. Lights are on the wish list, too — although a noise ordinance in the town of Canterbury, which abuts the track, currently prohibits night racing. Smith said he hopes that can be revisited, and adds that he has the support of none other than New Hampshire Governor John Lynch for many of his plans.
“I’ve got to be pretty good friends with your governor now, and he has offered his support and support from his office,” said Smith. “You can’t do what we do without cooperation from the city, county, and state. Sometimes they say, ‘Well, we can’t do it yet; we’ve got to study it for three or four months.’ If you go outside, you see we don’t have lights. [But] we’re going to have to overcome that, because I want to put lights in here so if we have to run at night, we can run at night.”
And Smith is a bulldog when it comes to getting his way on speedway projects; just ask the city of Concord, North Carolina. When the city council turned down Smith’s initial request to build an NHRA drag racing facility at Lowe’s Motor Speedway — which boasts a 1.5-mile oval and a dirt track along with the planned drag strip — Smith threatened to move his race track and all the revenue it produced. A few weeks later, about the time that nearby Rowan County offered Smith a sweet deal to build a new track within its borders, Concord acquiesced on the drag strip — but Smith still hesitated. Long story short, the end result left him not just staying put in Concord, but building the new addition requested with the help of an $80 million incentive program from the city. And to top it all off, the drag strip will be accessed on the newly renamed Bruton Smith Boulevard.
So if anyone can change the locals’ minds, it’s Bruton Smith; and the fact that he wants to do just that gives hope New Hampshire will continue to be a primary concern of his moving forward.
As for changes to the track’s racing surface, the future remains unclear. Originally planning to make wholesale changes, Smith now says he’ll weigh all options after seeing some racing action early in the weekend. “I found out that this speedway was far racier than I had realized,” Smith said following Friday’s Camping World East and Saturday’s Whelen Modified Tour and Nationwide Series races. “We had some great races here [Saturday], and I’m very proud of that.”
“We’ve been saying, ‘What are we going to do, what are we going to do?’ I don’t know yet. But we’re working on plans.”
Smith’s tracks do have the reputation for being fan friendly. One of the first things Smith did at NHMS was make pre-race pit passes available for purchase, something that was never done in the past due to the track’s small size. There were portable toilets brought in as a temporary measure to ease congestion at the restrooms, and concession stands had a few more choices — although the track remained “dry” with no alcohol sales to speak of.
One major change that Smith is hoping to make is the addition of a third major event weekend at the Speedway — a move which has not been done since 1998. As a result, SMI is in negotiations to bring the IRL IndyCar Series back to Loudon as early as next year. The series has raced at the speedway in the past, but dropped the track from the schedule following the 1998 season.
“Tony George called me Tuesday, and we talked about having the Indy Cars here,” Smith said with his usual touch of humor. “I call them Indy Cars. A league, to me, is something else – we should just call them Indy Cars. Anyways, we do want to bring them back, and I think it’s possible.”
Smith also addressed his desire for a Sprint Cup race at his newest acquisition, Kentucky Speedway, as well as a second date for Las Vegas Motor Speedway — but again, he expressed that his plans did not include removing a race from New Hampshire’s docket. “We’ll try to accomplish that in another way. We’re working diligently on that,” Smith explained. “We may have to make a drastic move somewhere. I’m more concerned right now over in Kentucky than I am in Las Vegas, because Las Vegas is a second date. The sport needs Las Vegas. We need to have our awards banquet there. Everybody in this garage will tell you they want to go to Vegas again and again.”
“I think our sport needs another race in Vegas. Will NASCAR whip out a Thanksgiving gift? I don’t think so, but somewhere, as I gaze into my crystal ball, I can see another date coming.”
Finally, the issue of the track’s road course was addressed. The road course was the original racing surface at the speedway, before the Bahre family purchased it and turned it into a premiere motorsports facility; and even today, it is still home to the oldest organized motorcycle race in the country.
“We just had the 85th Loudon Classic,” Gappens explained with pride. “It’s very important to what we do, and I did promise the motorcycle people that we would look at trying to give that event a shot in the arm.”
“We do have potential for another major event weekend,” Gappens continued. “I don’t know what that is at this point, but that makes a lot of sense. We also had the Vintage Racing Classic here in May that was very successful, too, and I think there’s a lot of potential to add a car show. I think we could have the vintage cars running on the road course and on the oval, with a static display of cars on the outside.”
“I also think there’s potential for those other two events that we have on the schedule — with the history and tradition — so we can build on those and have a great schedule here for ’09 and moving forward.”
That’s a tradition Smith appears on board with, as he again confirmed his satisfaction with the racing NHMS provides. “I was pleasantly pleased with the shows that we had and how racy it really was,” he said. “Prior to that, I was very determined on making some changes. But we’re [still] going to look at the topographical information, study it, and see if there’s something [we can do].”
“This place reminds me a great deal of Bristol, Tennessee,” Smith concluded. “I guess it’s the people; it’s the area, the enthusiasm. Racing here is almost like it is in Kentucky; it’s like a second religion. If I thought it was going to be this good, I’d have paid Bob more.”
Lucky for Smith, that deal was already done. But if you took him at face value, it seems that the future for New Hampshire Motor Speedway is bright. Should Smith remain true to his word, NASCAR racing should be a staple at the New England racetrack for a long time coming, as should the Loudon Classic and possibly the IndyCar Series as well. Those practicing that second religion might just have the best church in town.
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