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Bruton Smith Intent On “Shafting” New England Race Fans

Editor’s Note: On one of the most controversial topics of the year, Frontstretch has the New Hampshire sale covered: check out this anti-sale commentary by Tommy Thompson, a positive assessment by Matt Taliaferro or a letter to Bruton Smith penned by our Sonya Grady – with her own suggested list of improvements.

Friday’s announcement by O. Bruton Smith, Chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) that he had purchased New Hampshire International Speedway (NHIS) for $340 million should concern the fans of the New England area. Smith, who also revealed that as part of the change of ownership, the name of the racetrack will be changed to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, can be counted on to make drastic changes other than just the subtle name modification. The exact details of the future plans for NHMS are not completely clear, but all indications are that Smith’s interests do not necessarily align with the best interests of the outstandingly loyal fans of the extreme northeast region of this country.

The charismatic Smith, viewed by some as a kind of “white knight” against the forces of the France family who not only owns NASCAR, but controls SMI’s rival track owner/management company, International Speedway Corporation (ISC), is not a man afraid to shake things up a bit to get what he wants; and in this case, what he wants is a second date for his Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Well, now Bruton can rest easy, he just got one. There is no reason for wild speculation or accusation of behind-the-scenes politics in my coming to that conclusion, as Mr. Smith has been very upfront with his desire for a second date in the Nevada desert. In March of 2006, he made his intentions and means for accomplishing his goal crystal clear to the stock car world. Speaking to reporters at that time, the media-savvy NASCAR pioneer who opened the gates to Lowe’s Motor Speedway (then Charlotte Motor Speedway) in 1959 said he had standing offers out to the owners of Pocono Raceway, Dover International Speedway and yes, New Hampshire International Speedway, to purchase their racetracks so that he could transfer a race date to Las Vegas.

Said Smith, “If Pocono or any of the others came knocking, they know that I’m here. And it would take me 20 minutes to write the check.” Well, Bob Bahre, Chairman at the Loudon racing facility knocked on Smith’s door, and the 80-year old Smith, as promised, answered that door with his checkbook in hand.

Unlike the ongoing game of one-upmanship between Smith and the City of Concord, N.C. that I likened last week in my article Billionaire Bruton Smith Bluffs City Council Into Submission to nothing more than a well-played idle threat on Smith’s part, there is no doubt he is not “playing” with the Loudon track this time. As the native North Carolinian’s history substantiates in his past dealings with North Wilkesboro Speedway, Smith will buy tracks just to move their dates… and then leave them dormant for the foreseeable future.

However, those past purchases, race date transfers and eventual closings involved facilities where a case could be argued that they were no longer viable venues to support the modern era of NASCAR Cup racing. As the argument went, both tracks were located in over-saturated areas of the southeast and were suffering from declining fan support, as well as being in need of extensive capital improvements to bring the tracks up to today’s standards. That is not the case in New Hampshire; the facility, built in 1990, though arguably needing some upgrades in amenities, is far from dilapidated or competing for ticket sells with other nearby venues. Additionally, fan support for the track is second to none. All of that makes Smith’s ability to justify moving either of New Hampshire’s two Nextel Cup race dates to any of his other SMI-owned tracks considerably more difficult.

Brian France, Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, in a carefully-worded statement assured the racing community that there would be no changes in the NHIS schedule for 2008. But the often criticized head of the organization left the door open for future changes.

Said France, “While we don’t have any details about SMI’s plans for NHIS, all sanctions for 2008 have been signed and finalized. As a result, there will be no location changes to the 2008 schedule that was released last month. This is important to the fans, competitors, broadcast partners and sponsors who have already made plans for the 2008 races. Looking beyond 2008, NASCAR will continue to consider requests by any track operator, including SMI, to relocate race dates. Under NASCAR’s “realignment” plan, we have worked with track owners to relocate race dates to meet the needs of our growing national fanbase.”

A cynic, which I admittedly am becoming more of everyday in respect NASCAR’s ability to always make correct decisions, would interpret France’s statement to indicate that the sanctioning body is hiding their collective heads in the sand and do not want to face this issue right now. Apparently, they are not sure they have the resolve and wherewithal to challenge Bruton Smith’s impending undeserved “shafting” of the New England race fans. For they are aware that it is almost a certainty that if NASCAR does deny a transfer of a race date to Las Vegas, they will be inviting a protracted legal battle to be waged by Smith.

The proper response by NASCAR to the SMI purchase of NHIS should have been to send a clear message to Smith and the fanbase in that region of the country that their demonstrative and overwhelming support of the sport is appreciated and that as long as their loyalty to NASCAR continues, that loyalty will be reciprocated. But of course, that is not what NASCAR said… just that there were no guarantees beyond next season. Just a bunch of corporate mumbo jumbo about the “needs of our growing national fanbase.” It is going to be interesting to see how NASCAR, if unwilling to ultimately stand up to Smith, will explain how only one of 36 race dates is meeting the needs of the northeast region.

Amazingly, there is little universal solidarity on this issue among race fans nationwide. Many seem indifferent to the possibility of fellow race fans losing a race date at their home track, as they do not particularly care for the type of racing the notoriously difficult to pass 1-mile track produces. But this is about something bigger, as tracks can be improved. This is about whether fans that have lived up to their end of the bargain with NASCAR should be awarded for their devotion… or simply viewed as dispensable.

Time will tell… but if Bruton Smith is allowed to move a date from a track for no valid reason other than to satisfy his business objective, fans need to ask themselves not only how secure the track nearest to them is, but how much of their allegiance they want to commit to it. Or, for that matter, NASCAR.

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