Ray Duckler: Heat? What heat?
The devil himself might have complained about the heat rising from the asphalt yesterday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Not 7-year-old Kat Hunter, though.
Not with Danica Patrick and other NASCAR drivers in town, testing before next month’s big race.
The little girl with the big sunglasses sat on her father’s shoulders around lunchtime, behind the speedway’s catch fence. She spotted Patrick, racing’s female pioneer, and yelled as loud as she could, her voice cutting through the humid air like Patrick’s car down the straightaway.
Patrick turned and waved.
“She’s cool,” Hunter said.
Cool? On a day like this? With temperatures in the 90s, yet again.
Hunter was one of no more than 20 fans who “filled” the speedway’s aluminum bleachers. They were admitted for free, to the hottest place imaginable (no disrespect to Mr. Devil’s home), and they were easy to miss from the infield media center.
There, with the air conditioner blasting, the venue with seating for 100,000 fans looked like a sleeping giant, ready and waiting for the two Sprint Cup Series races, one July 14, the other Sept. 22.
They came to watch practice, came to watch stars like Patrick and Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman and defending champion Brad Keselowski.
They came despite the heat, and they came because they love the sport.
“The thing with NASCAR racing is it takes a certain kind of fan to come out here in the hottest weather ever,” said recent Concord High School graduate Chris Roberge of Deerfield. “This is the hottest time of the year, and it takes that special kind of sports fan to come out here and watch these cars when there isn’t even a race going on.”
Kristen Costa, the speedway’s director of communications, said a middle-of-the-week testing session isn’t going to be a big draw no matter what the temperature is. But yesterday, you could have fried an egg on the pavement in one of the many empty parking lots.
Bacon and home fries, too.
“I’m burning,” said 24-year-old Pat Gagnon of New Boston, a cook at Saint Anselm College, sitting high in the lonely bleachers, in Row 33. “I’m on vacation this week, and I was reading the paper and it said they were coming up here and I thought I should take the trip up. This doesn’t bother me. It’s better than snow.”
Gagnon is a die-hard, to the point where his girlfriend bought him a canoe for his birthday last week, painted light blue, with the number 2 and the Miller Lite logo on it.
That’s what’s on Keselowski’s car, and that’s Gagnon’s favorite driver.
As the sun continued to bake Gagnon, two of his friends, Joe Cousins and Lindsay Paradis, both of Goffstown, joined him.
“Track testing, I mean, it’s an awesome day,” said Cousins, 24. “You get to go out, and it’s a free day to see your favorite driver go on the track. You can’t beat it. So it’s a little hot, but it’s worth it.”
Asked at 1 p.m. how long he might stay (testing ran until 5 p.m.), Cousins said, “I’ll stay until my skin is redder than a lobster.”
That probably didn’t take very long, considering neither Cousins nor Gagnon brought sunscreen.
“I never wear sunscreen,” Gagnon said.
Racing roots often run deep, which helps explain why some of these people showed up on such a toasty afternoon. Roberge, who wore a Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt, said his grandmother introduced him to racing when he was a little boy, and that’s when he started pledging loyalty to the driver known as Junior.
“I’ve followed him ever since,” Roberge said. “I got nothing going on today, so I’ll be here all day.”
Ron Carabbis, 63, came from Las Vegas for a family reunion in Boston. He remembers The King, Richard Petty. He’s staying in Manchester and said there was no way the heat could stop him.
“This close to Loudon?” Carabbis said. “No, I had to come up here. This was definitely going to happen, no matter what the temperature was.”
The chosen few, which swelled to 18 fans, tops, later in the day, watched the cars circle the oval, with ear-splitting engine roars fading on a regular basis as the cars moved to the back straightway, then returning when they cut through turn 4 and sped back to the start/finish line.
There, the little girl with big dreams, the kid on her father’s shoulders, ignored the heat and watched her idol practice.
“I’d like to race in the Daytona 500,” Kat Hunter said.