The majority of NHMS fans won't visit "The Magic Mile" until NASCAR does in mid-July, but they're missing a lot of good racing action before that major weekend. The track heats up in April and doesn't cool down until the end of October and there's plenty of on-track action throughout the seven-month season.
The race season can officially be considered underway at NHMS, as the Loudon Road Race Series kicks off 2012 with the first of seven race weekends on Saturday. After a full slate of 11 races on Saturday that closes with the headlining "Dash for the Cash" Middleweight Grand Prix, the Amsoil NELCAR Legends Tour will hit the road course for its first of nearly a dozen NHMS races this year.
The two series tend to split race weekends to put on one of the best shows NHMS sees all season. The monthly events are some of the better kept secrets in New England racing, but with the legends returning for a second full season, it shouldn't stay that way much longer.
The motorcycles of the Loudon Road Race Series are some of the fastest vehicles on the track all season. Veteran racers like 2011 Middleweight GP champion Eric Wood and his top competition in Scott Greenwood, along with young stars like Shane Narbonne, Cory Hildebrand, Loudon's own Christian Cronin and NHMS' Alex Guilbeault. Narbonne dominated the early 2011 season, before missing the last several races due to conflicts with professional races in the American Motorcyclist Association.
In NELCAR, Shaun Buffington put on a dominating performance against the field, claiming the season's first six races until he was taken out by another driver in the August race. His teammate, Tom Gray, still claimed that race and it wasn't until the final race in October that a driver unseated the stronghold TSMotorsports had on the field at NHMS. That road course race was won by Mathew Bourgoine, who capped a breakout season with the win.
As the U.S. Legend Cars International continue to grow at NHMS, there are plenty of storylines to follow. The 2011 tour champion, Evan Beaulieu, is still looking for his first ever win at NHMS and poses a big threat, along with Bourgoine, to end the dominance of podium regulars Buffington and Gray. Last year's rookie of the year, Ryan Hammar, and the development of younger drivers like Dan Winter, Reid Lanpher and rising female driver Taylor Martin give the field plenty of depth and are sure to produce some surprise finishes. All the drivers are flashing a lot more confidence after a full season at NHMS.
While this is the first big weekend for NHMS, the action is just getting underway. Next week, college students from around the world will visit for a Formula Hybrid competition. NASCAR has been known to scout such events for the next generation of talented engineers from several top universities, including the local Dartmouth College.
Once the students move out, the growing event known as "24 Hours of Lemons" will move in for a weekend that makes a parody of racing. The only rule of the event is that teams may not spend more than $500 on their car, and judges dock points on those that look too expensive. Not that competitors should worry, judges wear wigs and robes and give points for the most ridiculous looking cars. Last year, I even saw one with a turtle-shaped infant sandbox strapped to the top.
The joking ends after the lemons leave, however, as Goodyear has a serious tire test scheduled with five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers on May 8 and 9. The test is expected to include big name drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards, along with reigning Southern 500 winner Regan Smith, reigning Brickyard 400 winner Paul Menard and former Cup champion Bobby Labonte. Fans interested in checking out a tire test will be allowed free access to the grandstands. The infield will be closed and there are no expected driver appearances, but it will still be fun to welcome these elite drivers to "The Magic Mile."
Speaking of Labonte, the 22nd Annual Vintage Racing Celebration will follow that event from May 10-13. (Sorry for the knock on your age, Bobby, but Ken Schrader was last year's Grand Marshal...) Thursday and Friday will feature some of the first race cars in America for two days on the oval, before things rev up with vintage sports cars and motorcycles racing the road course for the weekend. The NELCAR legends will cap the weekend off with a 5:30 p.m. Sunday race on the road course.
...Then, the weekend after that (May 19-20), we're back to LRRS and NELCAR splitting the bill for Round Two of the monthly races.
See? I told you that you were missing a lot if you hadn't planned on attending the track until July. It's just my personal opinion, but if you could come for one day, I'd recommend a Saturday during a LRRS/NELCAR weekend.
The motorcycles go green at noon (rain or shine). You can get hassle-free access to the infield, where you can visit the Smoke Shack BBQ Grill for a smothered-in-barbecue-sauce lunch before heading out to check out a full day of racing. During the races, you can walk right out on pit road to get close to the bikes as they dart by on the front stretch at 150 mph, or you can go to the bleachers in the road course and see who gains the race advantage in the Turn 6 bowl.
Once their races are over, the legends start warming the track. Powered by motorcycle engines, cloaked in the body of a late '30s antique and highlighted by bright orange, green and purple paints, these races are some of my favorites.
I enjoyed being around the track for those race weekends last year and I'm willing to bet that if you visit one, you'll start looking at the schedule to see when you can return for another one!