The first impressions are always the most important.
Longtime fixtures in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East have likened racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to competing on worldwide stages in the Daytona 500 or the Super Bowl, or to more regionalized landmarks like Fenway Park. And this summer, even as the series itself turns 25 years old, that buzz hasn't worn off.
"We went through the tunnel, and I'm telling you the place was just unbelievable," said Andy Santerre, the four-time K&N Pro Series East champion who now works with Revolution Racing. "I'd never even seen it on TV before I went there. I thought to myself, 'This is like the Daytona 500.'"
Jamie Aube, who won three championships in the early years of the series, was one of the first drivers to tour the Magic Mile after it was completed. Participating in a media event, he drove a pace car around the old Bryar Motorsports Park road course and looked out over the newly-minted oval before its first event in 1990.
To this day more than two decades later, the Bow, N.H., native remembers how he felt.
"I looked out at that oval, and thought, 'I absolutely cannot wait to get out there on that,'" Aube recalled.
"I remember coming over when it was Bryar Motorsports Park, driving up around the pond, it was kind of a cool little road course then. It was always a neat place. But I also remember driving to the track, and thinking to myself, 'You know, Concord doesn't look that great.'
"When Bob (Bahre) motored down and built the place – it looked like everything in the whole racing industry in the northeast exploded."
Not only had Bahre created the playing field for the the debut of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in New England, he had simultaneously changed the playing field for regional racing in the northeast.
Brad Leighton is perhaps the best example.
Leighton, of Center Harbor, N.H., went from being a weekly racer at places like Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in the early 1990s to becoming a multi-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion. And more than that, Leighton became the series' all-time win leader at NHMS with eight career victories. He won two of four starts at the track in 1999 and then three straight from 2001-2002.
"I've never not respected the fact that it is a superspeedway," Leighton said. "It's a 'speedway,' but to us and what we were used to, it's a superspeedway to New England. The majority of us New Englanders are short-track racers, and you realize that you have to do things differently there. It's always treated me well for that reason."
Leighton did something that wasn't always easy for northern New England's short-trackers: He adapted quickly to the massive track.
For most people who grew up on short-track racing in the region, the flat half-mile track in Stafford, Conn, or it's neighboring Thompson International Speedway, were the biggest tracks they'd ever seen. The Magic Mile – at virtually twice the size of either of those – was a completely different animal.
"It's a whole different approach to racing, a whole different mindset there," Leighton said. "All the things you were brought up doing, you had to transition into a speedway race. Fortunately, I've been involved with all the right people to win a lot of races there."
Santerre's first career start in what was then the Busch North Series came just a few miles down the road at Star Speedway in Epping, N.H. Star is a flat quarter-mile where 70 miles an hour is considered fast.
"They wanted to see how that race went," Santerre said of that 1992 season. "Then we came out of that, and they were like, 'OK. We're going to New Hampshire.'
"I'd never been on anything bigger than a half-mile, and even then I'd only done that once. I'll tell you, it took me a while to get my courage up to send that thing off into the corner that first time out. The first race there, I ended up crashing late in the race. I was running mid-pack, anyway, but at least I got to see what it's like."
For all three drivers – Aube, Leighton and Santerre – conquering the largest NASCAR track north of Dover, Del., was a defining moment.
"Absolutely," said Aube, who won K&N Pro Series titles from 1988-1990. "It's one of the biggest wins I've ever had. At the time Budweiser was sponsoring me, and we went out for them and got the pole and won the race. It was just a thrilling, thrilling race for us – equally as thrilling as anything we'd ever done."
Aube's lone victory at New Hampshire came in 1993, his second-to-last career series victory.
And like Aube, having the chance to simply to compete at the speedway was an amazing one for Leighton. In fact, he said that the feeling he had as a rookie there in 1995 was the same one he had when he made his last start at the facility in 2009.
"You know what's unique about it?" Leighton said. "That sensation of going through the tunnel has never changed for me. It really hasn't. I've always walked through the (Turn 2) tunnel on my own or early in the morning with my wife, and I've never lost that sensation of being amazed.
"As far as the on-track stuff, you do get a bit more comfortable with the speeds and the techniques of speedway racing as the years go on. I don't remember one situation where it was like, 'Oh, we've got it figured out here.'"
But the fact is that Leighton, who won back-to-back K&N Pro Series championships in 1999-2000, did figure out the Magic Mile. No series driver has ever won more races, and only Ted Christopher – who has victories in both the K&N Pro Series and the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour – has more total New Hampshire victories.
"It was nice to be recognized as sort of 'owning the track,'" said Leighton, who will likely run a couple of ACT Late Model Tour races at the speedway this season. "You look at some of those years – 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 – we just pretty much were the car to beat, which was really rewarding. I'm just thankful for that.
"I don't think I ever approached it any different each time I went there. I ran with a couple of different teams, and now I've run a couple of ACT cars. I've always just approached the track with the utmost respect.
"I took a lot from the track, but it always gave me a lot back."