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FEATURE: A Legendary Attraction This Weekend

Thursday, July 14, 2011
Photo: Chris Roy/RPM Photography

Heads turned. Necks gaped. Jaws dropped. People flocked.

A race-rabid audience thought there were still a few hours remaining before they'd see cars on the track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last September. Sunday morning on a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race day is usually a lot of hype and a lot of anticipation, paying off when engines are fired and NASCAR's biggest stars finally hit the track for more than 300 miles of action.

But there they were last year, waiting for the start of driver introductions when something down at the end of the long frontstretch caught their attention – race cars rolling off a starting grid in Turn 1.

The Amsoil NELCAR Legends Tour finally arrived.

"Everyone wanted to be there for that," said 33-year-old Connecticut Legends driver Shaun Buffington. "When we got up there and they brought us in, it was pretty wild. There were people there that got to see us race that wouldn't have seen us anywhere else.

"There was a lot of added pressure. "Everything at New Hampshire is different for us – until you put your helmet on and strap into the race car. Then you're a race car driver and you just do what you've got to do."

 

For the NELCAR Legends gang, that means put on some of the most competitive racing in the northeast – just as they do week after week on the region's short tracks, from sleepy little crossroads in Maine to just a few miles outside of the metropolis of Hartford, Conn. Legends, the 5/8th-scale kit cars born at 600 Racing's Charlotte-based headquarters, have come a long way over the last decade. Once viewed merely as a novelty act, they're now widely accepted as an affordable proving ground for some of the country's best racers.

Last year's special invitational event at the Magic Mile has now become a full-scale 10-race Legends series at the track featuring events on both a quarter-mile oval and the speedway's rolling road course.

"Ten years ago, if someone had said we'd be racing at Loudon, I would have laughed at them," said NELCAR president Terry Kirk. "Obviously, (Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner) Bruton Smith supports the Legends and does everything he can for them at all of his tracks.

"It's racing. It's not a novelty, and we were all excited about being there."

Excited, yes, but there was also a palpable anxiety hanging in the air, according to Todd Beaulieu, one of NELCAR's series officials and car owner for his son, Evan Beaulieu, of Durham, Maine.

"We were so nervous. It was an awesome experience, but we were so nervous that it would go off correctly," Beaulieu said. "I hope more spectators come and watch the race on Sunday morning (this year).

"The people that came to see us thought it was awesome – and most of them didn't know about it until they heard the cars start up. They had heard Cup cars going around before that as ride-along cars, then all of a sudden they heard the souped up motorcycle motors start up, and they wanted to check it out."

What they saw was a 25-car field filled with drivers from across the northeast running two- and three-wide on the quarter-mile track configured in Turns 1 and 2 on the track used for NASCAR races.

For Buffington, it was as though his racing life had come full circle.

"I started out racing go karts on that track," Buffington said. "My father raced the old Bryar Motorsports Park the track was built on. I grew up racing that road course, and it was always a big deal when we went. It was always us camping there and making a two-day or three-day weekend out of it every time we went. It was like a vacation.

"You go to New Hampshire, and it's a whole different mindset. I hadn't been there in 10 years, but I consider it as my home track. I love being there, win or lose. I could go there just to watch any kind of cars race there."

Buffington hasn't done much watching this year. In fact, not only has he raced at New Hampshire with his Legends car – he won each of the first three races there this season, including the series' first on the road course.

He believes it's brought NELCAR and Legends much-deserved attention.

"It does," Buffington said. "Just to know that it's at a Cup track – it's a place that everybody can identify with it. People look at it differently. When you tell them you won a Loudon or New Hampshire Motor Speedway, even if they've never seen a race before, they know about what the place means."

"It has promoted Legends phenomenally," Kirk said. "We've had more cars, more people interested in the series, more people coming to watch the races, more cars for racing Legends.

"Being that we were babes in the woods first time we'd been there, it's a work in progress. It still is. But the track could not be any more accommodating or easy to get along with. They've just been fantastic. They worked with us, and we've worked with them to make it a Class A No. 1 operation."

The affordability, perhaps more than any stage they are allowed to compete on, gives Legends a leg up on much of the competition. A complete car costs $1,200 from 600 Racing, where all of the cars are built, complete with the engine. Tires last for 8-10 races, according to Buffington, and engines can remain competitive for multiple seasons without any freshening.

Coupled with the exposure gained from Sprint Cup Series drivers like Kyle Busch and David Ragan using Legends as a training ground ("I'm a firm believer that if you can drive a Legends car, learn how to drive the car and be good at it, you can drive anything," Kirk said) – the cost has helped make Legends a more viable option for beginners and veterans alike.

"Unlike other series, we keep adding tracks, teams, drivers and cars in Legends," Beaulieu said. "It's an affordable alternative for guys. I think it's an excellent series to be in. My son, Evan, is 18. We have a Late Model chassis ready to go, but it's so expensive to get into a Late Model division anywhere. And the competition isn't there.

"I think the competition is fierce in Legends."

So fierce that, when the field rolls off for its second invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this Sunday, nobody will be surprised this time around.

-- TB