For the last 20 years, September in Loudon, N.H. was time to go racing. NASCAR came to town each year in the early fall, and the America’s greatest stock car racers treated New England’s race fans to a show of speed.
Kyle Busch won the latest edition of the 300-mile contest on Sunday. Yet this time next year, Busch and his fellow racers will be elsewhere.
Sunday marked the final fall race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the foreseeable future. A schedule change proposed by Speedway Motorsports Inc., and approved by NASCAR, will give Las Vegas Motor Speedway a second race for NASCAR’s top division. In fact, the whole first round of the MENCS playoffs will get an overhaul in 2018.
Stops at Las Vegas, Richmond Raceway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course will provide a whole new challenge for championship hopefuls.
However, that new challenge comes at the expense of New Hampshire, the only track that will lose a date in the realignment. Chicagoland Speedway’s race returns to its original mid-summer date, while Dover International Speedway’s fall event moves to the Round of 12.
July will be the only month when any of NASCAR’s three national series visit the Granite State.
NASCAR’s desire to have a greater presence in Las Vegas is understandable. The gambling capital of the United States is quickly earning a reputation as a more general entertainment destination, and a major city in its own right.
As a result, professional sports leagues are taking notice. The NHL adds an expansion team in Sin City this year, the Vegas Golden Knights. The NFL’s Oakland Raiders are also due to move to Las Vegas in 2020. Not wanting to get lost in the shuffle, NASCAR will add a total of three races at LVMS, one more for each national division. Those additional races will make Las Vegas the only city that hosts all three national series on two separate weekends.
There is no doubt that Las Vegas has maintained the status of a frontier within the NASCAR world. The Cup Series is no longer brand new to LVMS, having raced there 20 times before. Yet Bruton Smith, and NASCAR, must believe that there is still some untapped potential for stock car racing in Sin City. Conversely, they must also believe that the potential of Loudon has faded.
Not long ago, New Hampshire had frontier appeal of its own to NASCAR. Bill France’s brand of motorsports was never completely alien to New England’s race fans. Bobby Allison famously won his first race at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine. New England has also been a longtime hotbed for the Whelen Modified Tour. Yet throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Cup Series did not have a regular New England home. Fans in the Northeast had to journey to Dover, Pocono Raceway and eventually, Watkins Glen International to get their Winston Cup fix.
In 1990, Bob Bahre redeveloped the former Bryar Motorsports Park into the current Loudon track, then known as New Hampshire International Speedway. The Busch Series debuted there later that year, and the Cup Series came to town in 1993. Rusty Wallace drove to victory in what, tragically, turned out to be Davey Allison’s final race.
Loudon hosted one race each year through 1996, when Smith and Bahre struck an infamous deal. The track owners bought the venerable North Wilkesboro Speedway in order to get its race dates. North Wilkesboro’s spring date went to the new Texas Motor Speedway, and the fall date became a second for New Hampshire.
Smith, Bahre, and NASCAR have all drawn criticism for engineering the demise of North Wilkesboro. NASCAR, however, remained resolute in its decision to take the sport to new venues. The sport’s leaders wanted to see just how far stock car racing could go. Loudon was a frontier outpost, a place to cultivate new fans who would make NASCAR bigger and better. A small town short track, even one with great racing and a wonderful history, did not stand a chance in the new NASCAR.
Fast forward 20 years, and NASCAR is trying to remake its image once again. Fighting declining TV ratings and hoping to retain Monster as an entitlement sponsor, the sport obviously is not growing like it once was. Yet there is still a frontier for NASCAR, and that frontier is represented by bright lights, big money, and an obsession with being more like “stick and ball” sports.
An additional race at Las Vegas means another event on the all too familiar intermediate tracks. Contrast that with New Hampshire’s layout, which is relatively unique in the NASCAR world. However, being in New England is no longer enough. If NASCAR is making scheduling changes based on putting races where money, media, and entertainment reign, how can Loudon ever compete with Las Vegas?
New England’s NASCAR fans know now, the frontier giveth, and the frontier taketh away.