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For race fans around here, a sound business decision rings very hollow

  • John Wright and his son Evan, 4, check out some the driver clothing apparel stores near the grandstand area of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday July 14, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • John Wright and his son Evan, 4, check out some the driver clothing apparel stores near the grandstand area of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday July 14, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor



Monitor staff
Saturday, July 15, 2017

A long time ago, Rhett Butler stood in the doorway of a grand southern mansion and told Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Hardcore NASCAR fans feel the same way this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. They don’t give a damn why Bruton Smith, who owns nine tracks, including the one here, took one of two Monster Energy Cup Series races from Loudon and moved it to Las Vegas, starting next year.

They just care that he did, valid reasons or not, and they don’t like it.

After all, the speedway has hosted a pair of Cup races for 20 years, but after the upcoming September event, those days are officially over.

Their reaction was expected.

“It’s for money, and I think that’s good for him,” said Don Davenport of Fairlee, Vt. “But it doesn’t make him very loyal to his fans that come to this track twice a year.”

Ouch.

The issue here is deep, layered, complex and touchy. Business is business, right? If the speedway here isn’t drawing well – and it’s not – it’s simple logic to look elsewhere, right?

But here’s where it gets confusing. NASCAR is hurting, here, there and everywhere. TV ratings are down, as are ticket sales.

The reasons for this, I was told Saturday, vary. One was obvious: the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Another that kept popping up was the introduction in 2007 of the Car of Tomorrow, which featured wings on their backs, replacing spoilers, and lasted five years.

Fans hated the change, and it had little to do with the quality of racing. Rather, it had more to do with aesthetics. Fans simply didn’t like the way the cars looked. Infused with loyalty to their brand, they had trouble spotting their car, problems with differentiating between Ford, Chevy and Dodge.

Elsewhere, diminished attention spans, rising ticket prices and the recent recession all were cited as other reasons for the sport’s downfall over the past decade.

Also, NASCAR continues to fool with its points and playoffs systems used to determine its champions. Fans, I learned, are fickle and hard to please in this sport. They don’t like gimmicks, but they want enough tinkering to keep the action hot.

As veteran writer Jim Utter, the NASCAR editor for motorsports.com, told me, “NASCAR fans hate change almost as much as they hate things staying the same.”

Chris Smith of Walpole, Mass., works at an auto repair shop and said his colleagues used to love NASCAR in the 1960s, traveling to Daytona, Talladega and Watkins Glen.

No more.

“They don’t bother,” Smith told me. “It’s not stock car racing anymore. NASCAR ruined it.”

The result: a sport once seen as a challenge to football’s Godzilla-like popularity is now searching for answers to make it more appealing.

And that begs this question: If all speedways are suffering, isn’t it reasonable to believe that another track (Vegas?) will, too, and therefore New England fans got a raw deal?

Well, I thought, maybe New Hampshire Speedway is hurting more than other tracks. Once upon a time, Fred Neergaard, the director of communications at the speedway, announced the same words in the media center, year after year.

“Attention in the media center,” Neergaard would begin. “Today’s attendance is 101,000.”

Then, beginning in 2013, nothing. No attendance figures announced. Research online shows “n/a” in that category, meaning “not available,” and it’s been that way ever since.

Bleacher sections near Turns 1 and 4 have been empty in recent years, meaning the track is now regularly three-quarters full.

Earlier this year, Dave McGrath, the executive vice president and general manager at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, held a press conference to announce the Vegas move. McGrath, affable and optimistic, turned serious when I asked him for recent attendance figures. He wouldn’t say, and other tracks no longer reveal their numbers, either.

And that makes it impossible to compare here with other regions, which makes it impossible to determine if New Hampshire Speedway has more empty seats than other places.

McGrath, who was unavailable for comment Saturday, insisted at his press conference that declining ticket sales had nothing to do with Bruton Smith’s decision.

Don Hawk is the senior vice president of business affairs for Speedway Motorsports Inc., the corporation run by Smith. In an email Saturday, Hawk, who rarely leaves Smith’s side and is here this weekend, wrote, “While I understand the disappointment of the fans here at NHMS and the surrounding area, it was not a punitive decision but a decision based on many other considerations. It was done for the FANS throughout the whole country as (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) is a huge market for attendance, for TV and NASCAR as a sport.”

Hawk continued: “It was a business decision that makes a lot of sense as it wasn’t based as much on decline of attendance at NHMS as you stated, but rather the opportunities for growth at LVMS.”

Some I spoke to agreed with Hawk, that the glitz and gambling in Vegas made for a potential cash cow.

But do you think the fans here care about that? Do you think they understand the other point of view?

Bruton Smith’s view?

Frankly my dears, they don’t give a damn.

“I met Bruton Smith, and everybody had a great time,” Davenport said. “Everybody respected the man. Not sure about today.”