“If you build it, they will come.” Such was the tag line to Field of Dreams, a much-awarded movie that was a hit back in the late ’80s.
Coincidentally, that was the beginning of NASCAR’s soaring popularity as well. And the mindset at NASCAR corporate headquarters and in the boardrooms of other corporations or networks looking to cash in on the stock car craze was very much the same: If you can get a NASCAR Cup race date, the fans will all but tear down the fences to attend those races. And they will pay semi-obscene amounts of money to do so. Those who can’t get a seat to see the race live will watch on TV (and the ratings were soaring). All was well in that kinder, gentler era before Admiral France (in this case Brian) drunkenly steered the NASCAR Valdez onto rocky shoals while simultaneously trying to jettison NASCAR’s longtime and fanatically loyal fanbase off the plank in hopes of replacing them with younger, hipper and more affluent fans.
It was also in that same era that NASCAR proper began its flirtation with either is now or used to be New Hampshire Motor Speedway. NHIS had formerly been Bryar Motorsports Park. That track was best known for its epic and often dangerous motorcycle weekends that made Sturgis, S.D. look like a Girl Scout Jamboree. They also featured a lot of highly competitive and popular modified series racing. Back in the day, modified racing was very popular in the northeastern United States. That was, of course, before NASCAR tried to take over the series and screwed that all up too. But back in the day, legendary drivers like Richie Evans, the brothers Bodine, Mike McLaughlin (no relation), Reggie Ruggiero, Steve Park and Mike Stefanik used to wage some fierce on track battles in the Modified series.
But Bob Bahre had other ideas for the piece of real estate, and they included a low-banked, one-mile oval track. Bahre, who recently went to his final reward, was a philanthropist of the highest order and an exceptional human being. But a lot of fans of that era wished he’d gone ahead and pursued his dreams of hosting a Cup race several dozen degrees of latitude south and left Bryar alone.
What was then the Busch Series started hosting two events annually at New Hampshire in 1990. On July 11, 1993, Rusty Wallace won the first ever Cup race at NHIS before about 66,000 fans, most of whom came to see Dale Earnhardt finish 26th. Back then, Rusty still drove a Pontiac Grand Prix and I still drove a Ford Thunderbird. My T-bird was in the parking lot outside that race (and as I recall for almost three hours after that same race due to traffic). As predicted, they built it and the fans came, despite a post-race traffic mitigation plan probably written in crayon in a kindergarten sandbox by the stupidest kid there.
So you could say initially NHIS was born under a bad sign. But the tiny track in Loudon was on a collision course with destiny that would leave the track out and out the most despised circuit on the schedule. Bahre had built it and they, in fact, had come. So what does a fellow with a brand new Winston Cup date at his track want most? A second Cup date. ‘Cause it’s already built and they will come back (for the most part). The problem was there were a whole lot of business entities that wanted one of those dates, including NASCAR through their wholly-owned International Speedway Corporation, which owned tracks like Daytona, Michigan, Darlington, Talladega, etc., etc. Things being such as they are, there just weren’t enough weekends on the calendar to give every track that wanted one a Cup race date. There’s no way to add 20 weekends to the calendar. If you tried, it would end up 100 degrees on Christmas and snowing on the Fourth of July down the road.
While they weren’t adding weekends, NACAR seemed agreeable to letting owners who bought an existing track move the dates from the existing location to a new one. Nestled down five miles outside of the bucolic burb of North Wilkesboro, there was a .625-mile racetrack that had been on the Cup schedule since the inaugural NASCAR “Strictly Stock” season of 1949. There wasn’t much of anything in North Wilkesboro to be honest. But there was that racetrack, and the locals loved it dearly and took great pride in it. They’d loyally supported that little racetrack for decades. The town depended on the two race weekends they hosted a year as an economic salvation. And then one day NASCAR just went ahead and allowed those race dates to be bought right out from under them. Bruton Smith bought one half of North Wilkesboro to move one date to his new track in Texas. Bahre bought the other half to move the second date to his track in New Hampshire.
Junior Johnson, whose name was almost synonymous with North Wilkes, was so upset by the plans to shut the track down he didn’t even attend that last race at the track, saying he didn’t want to watch as an old friend died.
(Also in that era Darlington, the Granddaddy of all the Superspeedways, lost one of its two annual race dates when it was moved to Fontana, a move that enraged longtime fans. As noted above, Smith’s purchase of half of North Wilkesboro got him one Cup date for his track in Texas. He compounded his villainy by the buying Rockingham and moving one of that track’s dates to add a second date at Texas.)
Yeah, if you build it they will come. But a lot of them will also become pissed off, and as it turns out, you can’t replace lifetime fans overnight. Yep, strange but true. A sport built on the once fanatical loyalty of their fans couldn’t wait to be rid of them. Down south especially, NASCAR once had fans like a summertime swamp has skeeters, but they were sent packing without so much as a kiss.
The racing at New Hampshire usually wasn’t very good. In one memorable instance, the track surface began falling apart during the event, leaving the track littered with gravel and all but un-raceable (a situation that repeated itself in 2017’s Overton 301). Then in 2000, two unthinkable tragedies hit at NHIS. In May, Adam Petty was killed in a practice crash prior to that weekend’s Busch race. Later that summer, Kenny Irwin was killed in an eerily similar wreck in the same section of the track. A NASCAR investigation claimed both wrecks were caused by stuck throttles. A toe loop was then added to the loud pedal of all NASCAR race vehicles, so if a driver’s throttle pedal stuck, he could manually pull it closed.
Not everyone was convinced stuck throttles were at fault. Both Petty and Irwin died as a result of basilar skull fractures. There was increasing pressure for NASCAR to mandate the HANS device to prevent any further such fatalities. Not everybody was on board with the idea. The late Earnhardt took issue with his competitors he felt were too chicken to race. He suggested that they “tie kerosene rags around your ankles so the ants don’t crawl up your legs and eat your candy-asses.” Of course, early the next season Earnhardt died at the wheel of a race car. There’s no sense in debating whether a HANS device might have saved him.
But that weekend, NASCAR did try a novel idea to appease those increasingly demanding HANS devices be mandated and SAFER barriers installed at the tracks. For that weekend, NASCAR mandated that the Cup cars be fitted with restrictor plates typically only used at Daytona and Talladega. That made for a terrible race, an event many still consider the worst of the modern era. Jeff Burton led every lap of the race. There were no passes for the lead. For three hours and six minutes, fans watched slack-jawed and struggling to remain awake. The deafening silence hundreds of miles to the south was fans in North Wilkesboro not celebrating Burton’s prowess and dominating victory.
Not all the NHIS Cup races were that bad, but none of them were very good either. By coincidence, Davey Allison’s last race was at NHIS in 1993. Later that week he would perish in a helicopter wreck at Talladega though that can hardly be blamed on NHIS.
Another tragic coincidence occurred at NHIS in 2001. The fall race at the track was scheduled for Sept. 16. That was of course just five days after the tragedy of 9-11. Everyone assumed that the race would be postponed if not outright cancelled out of respect as the nation reeled. Recall in modern era NASCAR racing, most drivers and teams flew to the races. All air traffic, both private and commercial, was outright banned as the FAA came up with new laws governing air travel. Then, as now, most media members drove to the tracks to cover races, including this humble scribe. I (well all of us) kept waiting for word to come down the race had been postponed. Finally, I called NASCAR down in Daytona Beach and explained I was about to start a very long drive I had no interest in taking that week. I asked to talk to Mike Helton to make my pitch the event should be postponed. At least that suggestion added a little laughter to a tough week. I still recall I was just west of Brattleboro, Vt. on Route 9, about eight hours from my then-home, when the announcement came over the radio the race had been postponed until Nov. 23. I wasn’t thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about NHIS or NASCAR right then. I was luckier than most assigned to cover the postponed race in that my sister and my brother-in-law owned an inn on the southern tier of Vermont, so I didn’t have to drive all the way home that afternoon.
The makeup race took place on the Friday after Thanksgiving that year. I got myself in a bit of trouble with an opening paragraph of that race recap that started with something along the lines of, “Break out the Flexible Flyers and ship them to the netherworld. Hell must have frozen over, because Robby Gordon won a Cup race on an oval.”
Perhaps the most memorable race at NHIS took place on July 14, 1996. Ernie Irvan suffered severe and life-altering brain injuries in a Michigan practice crash in 1994. He made only three Cup races in 1995, but on that July afternoon, Irvan returned to victory lane at NHIS driving the No. 28 Texaco car Davey Allison had made famous.
Coincidentally, a Robert Yates Racing Ford was involved in another memorable moment at NHIS. In 2003, Dale Jarrett was leading the pack when he wrecked. His car ended up driver’s-side-door facing traffic on the frontstretch. In that era, NASCAR still allowed drivers to race to improve their positions or get their lap back after a caution flag flew. That practice was eliminated after Jarrett nearly got drilled while his stricken car sat motionless on the track. A lot of fans despise the “free pass” or “lucky dog” rule. I accept it only because the barbarous practice of racing back to the yellow flag it replaced surely would have led to many more severe injuries, or even deaths, if allowed to continue.
In that era, something strange was beginning to happen. They were still building new racetracks, but damn few people were coming. The trend was perhaps most notable first at Fontana. I believe Fontana was the first track to stop releasing attendance estimates, which were in fact little more than wildly optimistic stupid-ass guesses. But it was hard to deny there were huge sections of empty seats at Fontana, even for its inaugural Cup race. Years later, track manager Gillian Zucker went as far as to claim all those seats were empty because the fans were under the grandstands doing a little shopping.
Whatever the case might have been, by late in the first decade, NASCAR’s popularity had peaked and was about to enter an era of steep decline both in ticket sales and TV ratings. The latter was spurred on by FOX’s unloved “sports-based entertainment” broadcast style that drove away whatever longtime fans were still even casually following the sport. What do I know? Maybe The Adventures of Digger and Friends was a good idea. No. I really don’t think so.
Proposed tracks in Staten Island and Seattle were discussed but eventually dropped. Ironically, in 2008 Bahre sold his stake in NHIS to none other than Bruton Smith, who he had partnered with to buy North Wilkesboro and sack it of its race dates. Smith originally had big plans for what was re-dubbed NHMS. He wanted to add lights to the track like the ones used at all the other facilities he (or actually Speedway Motorsports, his company) owned. Initially, he announced plans to tear up the entire track and rebuild it as a high-banked, one-mile concrete oval similar to Dover. But when the local government refused to allow the lighting to be installed based on an agreement they’d made with Bahre years before Smith entered the picture, Smith lost interest in the joint. At one point there were plans to add a casino to the track property, but that never panned out either. It seemed the thinking was shifting to “if you build a new racetrack AND add a casino they will come.” Ask the nice folks out at the track in Kansas how that theorem worked out. Or Las Vegas for that matter. Or Dover. Here’s the correct answer: People go to racetracks to see races, not casinos. They go to casinos (or online) to gamble, not to racetracks. And the odds don’t look very good that trend will change anytime soon.
In 2018, Smith moved NHMS’s fall date to his track in Las Vegas. Karma can be such a bitch. It’s ironic in that some of the tracks which lost dates because they weren’t selling enough tickets routinely sold more seats than the new palaces of speed do. It just looks a lot worse when you sell a third of the seats available than it does when you sell 80% of the seats at a smaller venue. Perhaps that old saw ought to be changed to, “If you build it, you are dumb.”