A tip of my hat this week to my local track, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS), a 1.058-mile oval with a 1.6-mile road course included which seats more than 93,000 people. Built 20 years ago by Bob Bahre, NHMS was bought three years ago by Bruton Smith, whose publicly-traded Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI) also owns the Charlotte, Atlanta, Bristol, Las Vegas and Texas Motor Speedways plus the Infineon Raceway (Sears Point) road course.
Original owner Bahre is a crusty old boy (below with Gary Bahre), a self-made man in the construction business. He owned the Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine before building NHMS and has also accumulated one of the USA’s finest private car collections. Bob’s brother Dick was a sometime NASCAR car owner, and the Bahres bought what was left of the old Bryar Motorsports Park road course and transformed it into a modern superspeedway.
Around 10 years ago Bob started thinking about retiring and talked to Bill France Jr about buying his jewel of a track located in the heart of New England. But eventually Bahre made a deal with Bruton Smith, although he still has an office at the track and shows up at many events. “I can’t stay away,” he says. “What else would I do? This is what I know and love.”
Smith’s SMI operation is the USA’s second largest track-owning company behind the International Speedway Corporation (ISC, owner of Daytona and 10 other tracks). The 84-year-old has been one of the most important figures in the rise of NASCAR. Back in 1948 Smith promoted the first NASCAR strictly stock race and he built and opened the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, the year after Big Bill France opened Daytona. Smith has earned and lost his fortune at least twice and today he’s one of the most powerful players in American racing.
The big events at NHMS each year are a pair of NASCAR Sprint Cup weekends in June and September. The track also hosts a full schedule of races for historic and vintage cars, motorcycles and amateur racing, and next year Smith will bring Indycar racing back to New Hampshire after a long absence. CART drew pretty good crowds there from 1992-95 before Bahre switched to the IRL for three disappointing years ending in ’98.
Since then NHMS has become a true NASCAR track, expanding in 1997 from running a single 300-mile race to two Sprint Cup events. There’s been endless debate that one day Smith will move one of New Hampshire’s Cup weekends to one of his other tracks. In fact, many observers believed that was the reason Smith bought the place in 2007.
But the two Cup weekends continue, and in a time when many NASCAR tracks are struggling to draw crowds, New Hampshire does extremely well. It’s no longer a sell-out, but there are far fewer empty seats than most tracks have had in recent years. In fact, September’s Cup race was reckoned to be the best attended of the season’s last 10 races which make up NASCAR’s much-hyped ‘Chase for the Cup’.
One of the reasons for NHMS’s continuing success is because it’s smack in the middle of New England, and its two Cup races are the only big-time NASCAR shows anywhere in a vast and sometimes underestimated region comprising Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Run by long-time SMI man Jerry Gappens, NHMS is a good promoter too, so there’s every reason to hope that next August’s Indycar comeback will turn into a solid, long-term success. It would be a good thing for NHMS, New England race fans and IndyCar