New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 2015. (File photo)
By ROGER AMSDEN, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LOUDON — The general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway said the track is looking at a variety of options for replacing the September NASCAR race that it will lose to Las Vegas next year, including the possible installation of lights, which would allow the speedway to host night events.
David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of the track, said Thursday he is exploring having a race weekend in September which will include regional racing divisions, possibly in conjunction with a music festival.
He said current local ordinances prevent NHMS from having a stand-alone music festival and also having racing after 7:30 p.m., which has kept the track from adding lights.
He said that the subject of night events "is a conversation we'll continue to have" with local officials.
The track, which was founded by three-time Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby winner Keith Bryar in the 1960s, was originally known as Bryar Motorsport Park. It featured the Laconia Motorcycle Classic, a 100-mile event on its 1.6-mile road course, as well as local stock car racers on Saturday nights on a 5/8 mile oval as well as Can-Am series races and Sports Car Club of America races which brought actor Paul Newman to Loudon. It was sold to Don and Lulu Brymer in the late 1970s and then to Bob Bahre, owner of the Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine, in 1989. Bahre turned the speedway into a modern track with a 1.058-mile oval in 1990, and the track started hosting NASCAR races in 1993.
It went to two NASCAR races in 1997 after Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith partnered to buy the North Wilkesboro Speedway, with Smith moving one race to his Texas track and Bahre bringing the other to Loudon.
Bahre sold the speedway before the 2008 season for $340 million to Smith, who heads Speedway Motorsports Inc., which also owns the Las Vegas track as well as six others.
At the time of the sale in late 2007, speculation was rife in NASCAR circles that Smith would eventually shift one of the New Hampshire races to one of his other tracks, but SMI made major investment at the Loudon track and kept both races at the track until its most recent decision to move one of them.
The track has been a key player in the state's tourism industry for over 20 years. According to a 2011 Southern New Hampshire University study, the two Sprint Cup races at NHMS added $179 million in spending and $103 million in income, and generated 2,500 jobs – including 1,500 part-time jobs at NHMS.
Speaking at a press conference at the track Thursday, McGrath said that the loss of one of the major attractions at the speedway is a cause for concern but not for alarm. "The wheels aren't coming off the wagon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway."
New Hampshire Motor Speedway did not have sponsorship for one of its two Cup races last year and attendance has dropped since the 2001-2010 period, when it routinely drew 100,000 fans to both races. It has not announced sponsorship for its two 2017 Cup races.
McGrath said that attendance and sponsorship challenges at the track matched those of other tracks, and he didn't feel they were the reason for the decision to end 20 years of history of two Cup races a year at the speedway. "It was an offer we couldn't refuse," said McGrath.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority approved a $2.5 million incentive package Wednesday afternoon for the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track to add a second Cup date. Last March the Vegas track drew 115,000 to its NASCAR race, 96,000 of whom came from out of state. The race had an estimated economic impact of $139 million for Nevada.
"We are not pulling up the tent stakes and leaving the Northeast, leaving New Hampshire and leaving New England," McGrath said. "We still have one race weekend that is absolutely going to be the best. Decisions like this can be gut-wrenching and be tough. But it's a business decision and it's one that makes sense to me and it makes sense certainly to our company."
He described hearing from fans, including an old high school friend who described the news as a "gut punch."
"I'm right there with them. I care about them, and I understand this is disruptive. But this is going to get better," he said. "Give me some time. Let me show you what we're capable of as a team. We understand the angst. We understand there were two races, now there's one. Let us make this great. Don't turn your backs on us. Let's work together," said McGrath.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway will host its last September NASCAR race this fall but will continue to host its July race in future years. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)