Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday July 14, 2011
There’s a certain irony in the progression of things, and Sprint Cup racing is no exception. One week after a Kentucky race that was so overshadowed by the woes of fans attending, or trying to attend, that the on-track action was almost an afterthought, the Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, NH. A track that had traffic woes when it opened in the 1990’s-but went on to show what a track can do for the fans if its ownership really wants to.
The first race at New Hampshire was in 1993. Rusty Wallace won, and yes, there were traffic issues. But the fans kept coming, and then-track owner Bob Bahre set the bar for track owners over the next decade and a half. I first went to what was then New Hampshire International Speedway in 1997 for a sold-out show (one in a streak of sellouts that began in 1993 and lasted until 2009), and sure, we encountered traffic. I think it took an hour or so to cover the last 15 minutes of the trip on a normal day. Leaving was admittedly worse and always has been, but we got home at a reasonable hour just the same. (Since that day, I’ve learned every possible route to and from the track, and traffic is rarely a bad issue for the informed.) Local law enforcement does a credible job with traffic patterns. The track is several miles from the closest Interstate, so getting the lanes set up and moving is especially key.
But Bahre wasn’t satisfied with mediocre, and set about making access roads that would funnel fans in faster and out with fewer headaches. Traffic has eased considerably over the years despite the races at NHMS still being some of the best-attended on the circuit. It’s still not perfect, and the track would do well to have more people to direct the flow leaving the track-they have a person about every ten feet coming in-but it’s vastly improved.
The chief complaint in the early years wasn’t the traffic, though, it was the racing. The track, which is a large, flat, paper-clip shaped affair not unlike an overgrown Martinsville in appearance, was a one-groove beast, and passing was difficult for the best drivers on a good day. So Bahre tried everything he could to improve things. The track was widened and resealed. And once again, things improved. The racing will never be like it is at Martinsville, because at a mile, NHMS gives twice as much space for cars to spread out. But it will never be like the bigger, cookie-cutter ovals, either, because it has too much of a short-track character.
Even when the race up front is quiet, there is good, hard racing somewhere on the oval for nearly every one of the 300 (or 301) laps of the race. Like at a short track race, there will be some wrecks. Rubbing is still racing on tracks like this one where aerodynamics isn’t as crucial as it is when the track gets bigger and the corners easier to navigate. There will be long-green flag runs, too. All part of the game. And the racing is night and day compared to the early days. It was okay then, but compared to the other mile-long ovals at Dover and Rockingham, it was nothing to write home about. Now, it produces some of the better races of the year.
It is true that a lot of fans have long memories, and perhaps Bahre’s one great mistake was New Hampshire’s second date, which Bahre took when he and Bruton Smith bought North Wilkesboro Speedway. Smith took one date to Texas, Bahre took the other to Loudon, and that was all she wrote. Even in the 1990’s boom, it wasn’t good for the sport, and there was no excuse for it. However, I will challenge the notion that Bahre and Smith were solely to blame, because as is often the case, NASCAR shares some of that blame.
At a time when the sanctioning body was in the process of expanding the schedule, Texas deserved a date on it’s own merit, not one that Smith had to buy, and Loudon deserved a second race more than most of the bigger tracks did. Surely NASCAR could have found them a space and allowed racing to stay at North Wilkesboro as well, but they didn’t. In any case, New Hampshire does have the stigma of being one of the tracks that took away North Wilkesboro forever, and while not entirely true, it’s something that many fans still shun the track for. And unlike some of the other tracks that got dates at the expense of another, NHMS actually deserved the date. The problem lies in the way NASCAR forced ownership to go about it.
Nicknamed the Magic Mile, New Hampshire is also an example of how a track should be run to keep fans happy. The bathrooms, especially under Bahre’s reign, are among the cleanest on the circuit, rarely out of essentials like paper towels. The souvenir haulers are as convenient to the track as you can get, parked just behind the frontstretch grandstand. Camping at the track was free for years, as it should have been; the track didn’t have shower or bathroom facilities, but anyone with a self-contained camper and a race ticket was welcome (the prime spots on the backstretch were not included, but other lots were). It’s no longer free, but there are shower houses and other improvements that perhaps warrant the cost. Parking is free and there is plenty of it. Tailgating is as good as anywhere and the fans that come are generally friendly and have the sense of being in it together.
Truly, New Hampshire Motor Speedway should be an example to its SMI partner, Kentucky, on how to do it right. Hopefully NASCAR won’t repeat its past mistake and allow Smith to move one of the two dates to another one of his tracks because frankly, NHMS is one of the few tracks on the Cup circuit that truly deserves two dates. And that’s because of the total package. In fact, Smith could take the lessons of Bahre, who made it clear that a racetrack is first and foremost for the fans and competitors, and who didn’t shy from making improvements with those people in mind wherever and whenever he saw a need. If Kentucky Speedway can follow the example of a little track carved out of New Hampshire’s granite and pines, it can become something much better.
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