Loudon track owner wants opponents to rethink ban on night racing
New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, pictured on September 24, could get lights installed, which would allow the track to host night races. (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
The owner of the Loudon racetrack has asked NASCAR for permission to hold one race at night this year or next despite a 1989 legal settlement banning night racing that was signed by Loudon officials and the track’s former owner. That agreement is “binding,” it says, as long as the property is used as a racetrack, no matter who owns it.
And some of the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit that ended with that settlement haven’t changed their minds about night racing in the 23 years since. “It’s hard enough with what we’ve got,” said Jim Snyder, who owns land in Loudon but lives in Canterbury, near the track. “I think night racing would add a whole lot of inconvenience for the neighbors.”
Still, Jerry Gappens, general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, sees room – and a need – for negotiation. Season ticket renewals are down 25 percent since 2008, Gappens said, in large part because fans can’t or won’t sit outside in July’s hot sun to watch a NASCAR race. Moving race day from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night would resolve his customers’ top complaint.
“If you don’t try to adjust based on feedback, then it’s going to have a negative effect on your business,” he said.
Gappens said he will try to avoid litigation but didn’t rule that path out. And Bob Krieger, chairman of Loudon’s selectmen, said that while the board has not taken a position on night racing, he suspected litigation would be the only way to amend the settlement.
Gappens has not yet asked the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit whether they’d reconsider the ban on night racing, but he said he intends to if NASCAR approves his request to move the July race to Saturday night. So far, he’s had only “casual conversations” with Loudon’s selectmen and made the request to NASCAR. Gappens said he hopes to hear back from NASCAR by month’s end.
“If NASCAR says that (a night race) could be a possibility, then you go through the process with the other pieces of the puzzle,” Gappens said. Those “other pieces” are the Loudon selectmen and, more importantly, the six people who brought or joined the lawsuit that resulted in the 1989 agreement.
Several of the litigants could not be reached yesterday. Nor could the lawyer who helped the plaintiffs with their case. Snyder, one of the original plaintiffs, said he “wasn’t persuaded by the economic argument.”
Arnie Alpert of Canterbury, who joined the lawsuit with his wife, Judy Elliott, wasn’t either.
“People from away think of (the track) basically as a Brigadoon that comes to life twice a year,” Alpert said. “That’s not the reality. The reality is that there are things going on most weekends from early spring to late in the fall. And from a noise perspective, cars driven by people who are lower tier in terms of racing stardom make as much noise as cars driven by NASCAR superstars.”
Gappens said yesterday that he has asked NASCAR to hold only one night race and doesn’t envision holding other night races.
The 1989 agreement that bans night racing also prohibits concerts or drag racing at the track and dictates where and how alcohol may be sold. It does not prohibit the erection of lights, which would be necessary for night racing, but it does state that racing must end by 7:30 p.m. – unless weather or some other unexpected event causes a delay that forces the race to go past 7:30 p.m.
Gappens said that while he has been approached by concert promoters about hosting concerts and by the state liquor commission about selling alcohol at the track, he is not asking to change those restrictions. And while the track’s owner, Bruton Smith, knew about the restrictive agreement when he bought the track in 2007, Gappens said he and Smith believe it’s reasonable to renegotiate the prohibition of night racing.
Gappens said it’s not just out-of-town racing fans who support night racing. He cited a 2012 survey by Loudon officials put online and sent to 5,300 residents. Of the 380 people who responded, 58.6 percent said they’d support night racing, 34.1 percent said they opposed the idea and the remainder indicated no preference.
“I understand the concerns that a handful of people had 23 years ago about this big stadium-type structure coming in and attracting these big crowds, but I think we have proven that the track has been well-run,” Gappens said. “My argument is that it’s a changing environment for businesses.”
Gappens compared the situation to local, state and federal governments that amend laws regularly. He cited the state’s adoption of same-sex marriage as an example of societal change. “That’s the American way,” he said. “We recognize changing patterns.”
If NASCAR approves Gappens’s request, Krieger said the selectmen would host well-publicized meetings to get residents’ thoughts. “I’m all for what the people want,” Krieger said. “I want to keep an open mind for both sides.”
Krieger, like Gappens, said moving the race to Saturday night might be good for the town, too. More fans may leave after the race Saturday and thereby lighten traffic Sunday. Or race fans may stay the extra day and spend money locally.
If the town opts to pursue a night race, Krieger believes a trip to court will be necessary whether the plaintiffs support or fight changes to the agreement signed by the selectmen serving in 1989.
“We’re all going to need to go to court and work it out,” he said. “I can’t change what a judge set.”
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)