The NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit swings north this week for the first of two visits to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The quirky little 1-mile oval, dubbed the “Magic Mile” years back, is a bit of a shock to those driving up Route 106 and caught unaware. Coming from the north, as I do, you pass a small lake and a lot of pine trees. On a regular day, when there is no activity at the track, it looms up suddenly and silently out of those pines, though over the years more inroads and parking areas have invaded the giant trees.
Race fans have a sometimes contentious relationship with the Magic Mile – the contention owing to a track that fans just don’t seem to know what to make of, less than stellar racing in the track’s past, and television networks’ seeming inability to show any racing that isn’t among the top five and occasionally Dale Junior. With Speedway Motorsports Incorporated’s latest purchase of Kentucky Speedway, there are those fans who would like to see NHMS lose one of their two dates in favor of the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta.
To this notion I say, “Wait just one minute!”
Now, it is true that I am a bit partial to the track. It is really my “home track.” I grew up in Campton, N.H., just 45 minutes north of Loudon, and I saw my first auto race of any kind at the Magic Mile.
Maybe that’s a part of the reason, but it isn’t all. I’ve seen some great races at NHMS: my first ever race, when Dale Earnhardt picked off drivers one by one, like a panther tracking its prey, until time ran out and he was second to a young driver who would go on to make the track his personal playground. I saw Ryan Newman, Robby Gordon and Joe Nemechek take home their first Cup victories and Tony Stewart come oh-so-close to his first win only to lose it on fuel mileage. I saw Stewart win on a rainswept, dreary Sunday to honor his competitor and friend Kenny Irwin, who had died on that same track just two days before.
But I’ve seen some bad races as well. The year that Irwin was killed, his was not the first death in turn 3 at Loudon. Adam Petty lost his life in that same corner just two months earlier, due ultimately to a rash of hung throttles on GM engines (a problem that was known to NASCAR prior to Petty’s death and had a fairly simple fix) and the then-Busch Series race that weekend (it was a standalone then, and probably the most fun race weekend the track hosted) was held on a cold, rainy day that saw Tim Fedewa take the checkers and dedicate the hollow victory to Petty, as Stewart would do for Irwin within a matter of weeks. That same rash of stuck throttles led to a restrictor-plate race at the Magic Mile in September of 2000 which was a thorough disaster-Jeff Burton led every lap and the plates didn’t slow the cars down enough to save anyone should a throttle have stuck wide open. Luckily, even NASCAR saw the hopelessness of their solution and let the cars run unrestricted the following year.
But every track has both good and bad races, so that’s not the only reason, perhaps not even the best reason, for the track to keep both of it’s race dates.
The most compelling reason, to me, is that NHMS is unique. There are no other flat, asphalt 1-mile ovals shaped like a paperclip on the Cup circuit. In fact there are few 1-mile tracks at all anymore. The track is technical and demanding. Teams have to chase the setup all weekend long, and drivers have to time each corner precisely to pass and ultimately, win. The racing is only boring to the untrained eye, because there is really a lot of it. It may not be for the lead, but there is racing a-plenty – a fact fully supported by loop data. The track is different and has become racier than many of the plethora of 1.5 or 2-mile ovals that litter the schedule these days. There are many of that type of track on the circuit – the sport is saturated with them, and should never allow another to take the place of a unique track, especially one that has sold out every Cup race it has ever hosted (a mark that may fall by the wayside this weekend as every track struggles to fill the stands, but still worthy of mention as NHMS is one of a very small handful of tracks to sell out two races a year.). None of the 1.5 or 2-mile ovals sell out one race a year (with the exception of Las Vegas), let alone two.
One other compelling reason to keep NHMS on the schedule twice a year for the foreseeable future is that the track has never sat on its sold-out laurels and management has always gone above and beyond to assure that the track improves for the racers and fans. Former owner Bob Bahre worked tirelessly to improve the track – trying different sealers and widening the racing surface in order to improve the racing – and it worked, as the Little Track that Could has gone from a single groove to a multi-grooved surface. Bahre also made sure the fans were taken care of. Camping at the track for years cost nothing. Eventually Bahre decided to charge a modest fee for the week, in exchange for larger spaces and enforced family camping areas. The money was poured into more improvements, a task which new owner SMI has continued, under Bahre’s direction as a consultant. (I went to the track office on Wednesday of this week and Bahre was the first person I saw when I walked in the door – his presence is still felt keenly.) Simply put, few other racetracks have undergone the transformations that NHMS has, at great expense, all to make things better for race teams and fans.
So, Bruton Smith, when you consider where to cull a race date from in order to add Kentucky Speedway to the schedule, please consider Atlanta – take a 1.5-mile track in place of another, not at the expense of a fan-friendly, unique, quirky racetrack that has evolved slowly into a premier venue. NASCAR, please don’t consider anything less than cookie-cutter for cookie-cutter as you consider a scheduling request. NHMS has too much going for it to see a race fall away.
NASCAR needs something unique in a cookie-cutter world. It has just that in the Magic Mile, the racetrack that rises gracefully from New Hampshire’s rocky hills and pine forests to loom over Route 106. It’s a track that makes racers race but they know that the trophy is well and truly earned. It is truly the fans’ track. It would be a shame to lose all of that.