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'20 years ago, a track was born'

Last modified: 6/25/2010 12:00:00 AM
It opened with both promise and promises, appealing to the hopeful while appeasing the hostile as it tried to reach a balance often asked of new neighbors in a traditional New England town.

When Bob Bahre built New Hampshire International Speedway two decades ago, it spurred myriad questions. Would NASCAR's top series follow him to Loudon? Would fans in the Northeast support stock-car racing? What financial impact would the facility have on the state? Would all of the noise and traffic be worth it for neighboring communities?

As the track celebrates its 20th anniversary during this weekend's NASCAR races, some of those questions have been answered. Others remain up for debate. And still more have arisen over time.

But after two decades, the speedway has become a fixture of the community - not only within New Hampshire's capital region, but across the racing world.

"I'm not sure that any of us really anticipated how big it would become there at the speedway, but they've done a tremendous job over the years and it's grown into quite the spectacle," said Dale Jarrett, the driver who was NASCAR's champion in 1999 and has spent most of his life around stock-car racing. "It has become a stop on the tour that's as well-supported as anywhere you go in the country. Bob Bahre and his family deserve a lot of the credit for that."

 Bahre's vision

Bahre had been a fan of racing since he was a kid, when his father took him to the track near their Connecticut home. He had been a part of the sport since he borrowed money to help rescue Maine's Oxford Plains Speedway from closure in the 1960s.

But that experience didn't exactly leave his advisers convinced that buying Loudon's Bryar Motorsports Park was a prudent business decision.

"Our lawyers, accountants, everybody said I was nuts to even try it," remembered Bahre, who - along with brother Richard and son Gary - moved ahead with his plan nevertheless. By December 1988, he had an agreement to buy the downtrodden facility then known best for hosting the Loudon Classic motorcycle race.

He was by then at the retirement-ready age of 62. He had local residents publicly griping about noise and traffic from the day his intentions were announced. And he had no guarantee of getting the NASCAR race that could make his investment worthwhile.

"But he had a dream," according to Jerry Gappens, now the track's executive vice president and general manager. "He had a belief. He had a strong passion for motorsports."

By the next August, work had begun on the Bahre brothers' vision. The pre-existing park was eliminated, except for a portion of the course (still in use by motorcycle racers). In its place was laid a paved, 1.058-mile oval that became the first speedway of more than a mile built in America since 1969.

With near-flat corners and a backstretch elevated just enough to allow those filling the 59,000 seats to see around the racetrack, construction wound up costing Bahre almost $20 million. Some of that came from wealth he'd built as a businessman and banker in Maine. Some of it was borrowed. And some more, if needed, would come by selling off a piece of his vintage car collection, valued about $50 million at the time.

It helped, too, that the country was in a recession and good deals could be had on construction materials. But whatever was required to make it happen, Bahre was going to do it.

"He and his brother put blood, sweat and tears into it," Gappens said. "The man built the place. We're very grateful he took that leap."

 Bleachers and a fire truck

Bahre's leap did occasionally require him to spend on more than merely concrete, barriers and metal bleachers.

"One night we were there," he recalled of a meeting with local officials, "and they were worried about the height of the fire truck, so I said to my son Gary, 'Get me my check.' I bought them a new fire truck."

And that wasn't all. A group of residents from Loudon and Canterbury - an unincorporated association named Concerned Racetrack Neighbors - jointly sued both New Hampshire Speedway Inc. and the Loudon Planning Board, resulting in a 17-point agreement reached in May 1989.

In the settlement, the speedway agreed it would not hold musical concerts of any kind except in conjunction with a race; would not host drag racing, tractor pulls or demolition derbies; would not sell beer outside of corporate boxes; would not schedule a race to end later than 7:30 p.m.; would install sound barriers at each end of the track; would limit the number of days cars without mufflers could use the track; and would arrange for traffic control personnel at certain intersections.

In exchange, the eight Concerned Racetrack Neighbors agreed to "cease all opposition to the racetrack expansion, either by public statements or contracts with any federal, state or local agency."

The settlement says the agreement also applies to Bahre's successors for as long as the site is used for auto racing, so the covenants carried over to Speedway Motorsports Inc. when the track was sold to that corporation in 2008.

But 29 months after the sale, Bahre hadn't forgotten them. "The town of Loudon was very good to me from Day 1," he said in May. "The planning board, everybody. We had a few people up in Canterbury that, in my opinion, were a bunch of horse's (expletives) - they started suing and fighting over the whole thing - but the town was good.

"We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them," Bahre continued. "They had the foresight to know it was going to be good not only for the area, but for the state. They were excellent. Can't say anything bad about the town of Loudon."

 Race time

Neither off-track issues nor a New England winter slowed construction of the track itself, which took less than 10 months between groundbreaking and grand opening. The speedway officially opened June 5, 1990, staged the Loudon Classic just 12 days later and less than a month later welcomed NASCAR for the first time.

The Grand National Series - the second-level circuit now known as the Nationwide Series - debuted in New Hampshire on July 15, and because that happened to be an idle weekend for the top-tier Winston Cup Series, the race attracted a host of big-name drivers. Harry Gant was there, as was Morgan Shepherd and The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt.

There was a big wreck early that collected a number of cars, including that of local favorite and former Concord resident Ricky Craven, and 17 caution flags slowed the field for 83 of 300 laps. But the racing was decent. The lead changed hands on 18 occasions, among 12 different drivers, and neither of those numbers has been topped in 22 subsequent races.

The end featured a fight to the checkered flag, as veteran Tommy Ellis held off a hard-charging Gant by 0.29 seconds, still one of the narrowest Loudon finishes in the series. Although he wound up eighth that day, the race left Jarrett with a positive first impression.

"You could tell then," he said last week, "that there was going to be something special about it."

 Bigger and bigger

Cup Series star Davey Allison was among the field when NASCAR returned a few months later, and he left with a similar feeling.

"I was very impressed," he told the Monitor in 1991. "All the facilities - the drivers' lounges, the restrooms, the garage area - were impressive. I've been to a lot of tracks around the country, and that's one of the best."

The track impressed the right people in NASCAR, so by 1993 New Hampshire had earned a spot on the Cup Series schedule. After four successful stops there, the sport's higher-ups decided Loudon was a place they wanted to visit twice a season.

Local fans rewarded that decision by selling out every Cup contest between 1993 and 2008 and continued to fill the seats even as things grew bigger. Additions to the grandstands became almost an annual upgrade, and by July 2000, the speedway became the first New England sporting event to draw at least 100,000 spectators.

That consistent support was among the major reasons Bruton Smith and SMI paid $340 million to purchase the facility two years ago - and in the process brought the founder's tenure full circle by lending an answer to what was the biggest unknown when Bahre moved into town decades ago.

"If we get a Winston Cup date, it'll be worth a lot of money," Bahre said at his introduction in 1988. "If we don't, it won't be worth a dime."


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