Despite exciting NASCAR race, New Hampshire Motor Speedway still struggles to fill seats

  • #48: Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday, July 21, 2019, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/NKP, Russell LaBounty) MANDATORY CREDIT Russell LaBounty/NKP

  • NASCAR driver Mark Martin (5), takes the lead over r Denny Hamlin (11) and Juan Pablo Montoya (42) as cars crash on the final lap during the first race of the 10-race Chase to the Championship, the Sylvania 300, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009. martin won the race.(AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Kevin Harvick smokes his tires for fans after winning a NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday. There were a noticeable amount of empty seats during the weekend’s marquee event. AP photos

  • A fan eats ice cream while waiting for driver introductions prior to a NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Temperatures in the area were in the mid-90s during the race.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/24/2019 3:50:52 PM

Sunday’s NASCAR race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway came down to a last-lap shootout.

Fans rose from their seats as veteran drivers Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin bumped and nudged one another through the final lap with Harvick edging out the win by 0.21 seconds.

It was the third-closest margin to decide a race on the Magic Mile out of the 48 that have been held there since NASCAR’s premier Cup series began visiting the track in 1993, back when the speedway was on its way to sell-out crowds.

Sunday’s 301-lapper capped a packed weekend of races in Loudon, seven in all including the two dirt-track races held under the lights Friday night at the speedway’s new flat track. Despite all the action and entertainment – and a wide variety of styles of racing – the grandstands were noticeably light with attendance for Sunday’s main race, the Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301.

Entire rows were empty on the south and north ends of the track. The largest concentration of fans sat looking over the front stretch, perhaps because it provided the best respite from the sun and heat, blocked by the press box and operations tower behind them.

Some race fans took to social media to reminisce about the days when the track was packed to capacity in the early 2000s, when seas of fans waved their caps as the cars sped toward the green flag, back when the NASCAR was called the fastest growing sport in America.

“You can only look at these throwback videos from ‘90s to mid-2000s and look at the attendance,” one fan Tweeted. “How has NASCAR let it get to what it is today? Such a shame to see.”

Did scorching heat in the high 90s play a factor in low attendance this year? Absolutely, as did the three-hour rain delay before last summer’s race.

In fact, it’s never been as hot for a NASCAR race in Loudon as it was Sunday, and hundreds of fans retreated beneath the grandstands to cool off throughout the race. No matter how cold the beer was, any seating arrangement in the grandstands was sweltering.

Take weather out of the equation and the expected attendance at Sunday’s race is a staggering drop when compared to NASCAR’s peak in the mid-2000s, when NHMS was a regular sellout event twice a year with an attendance of more than 101,000. The track no longer releases attendance figures; it hasn’t since 2013.

Loudon Fire Chief Tom Blanchette ​​​said the track provided an estimate of about 40,000 on Sunday, depending on weather and the number of walk-up ticket sales. He also said the heat brought on a surge of emergency calls that were handled well thanks to a contingency plan set up with departments from surrounding communities.

The drop in attendance is not a subject David McGrath, the speedway’s general manager, wants to focus on. In his role as the track’s top promoter, it’s understandable. And it’s difficult to pinpoint why the sport has seen such a decline – NHMS isn’t the only racetrack trying to bring attendance back to what it once was.

It only takes a short peek on social media to see fans’ most common gripe is that the quality of racing has changed, particularly with this year’s aero package that was designed to create more pack racing. But some drivers, and fans, criticize the package for making it too hard to pass.

McGrath disagrees.

“I get frustrated because I hear it, believe me,” he said. “I hear it on the different channels. I like the rules package, and I applaud NASCAR. ... I know that it’s resonating with the fans. When Kevin Harvick and Denny were banging their cars together coming out of Turn 4, over the roar of those engines, I could hear those fans screaming. So I think we’re in the right direction.”

Of the eight tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., the parent company of NHMS, none provide the same volume of races that occurred in Loudon last weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway, which also has a dirt track and is in NASCAR’s home city, holds six races around the annual Coca-Cola 600 in May, including the Cup series all-star race.

The flat track, located behind the North East Motorsports Museum on Route 106, broke ground last fall and held its debut race during motorcycle week. It’s part of an effort to add more to the fan experience when they visit Loudon, McGrath said. After news broke in 2017 that New Hampshire was losing its second annual NASCAR race to Las Vegas, the emphasis turned toward making the July weekend the best it can be for fans.

Ever since the announcement came out, McGrath and his team have been trying to draw those September fans to the July event. Back then, McGrath said he expected it would take at least five years for that shift to happen.

This is year two, and McGrath said the track saw an increase in sales from last summer to this year. He declined to give a precise figure but said it was “north” of the 4 percent increase he cited in an interview after last summer’s race.

“We’ve had two great finishes in these last two years,” he said on Tuesday. “The energy is at a whole new level at the speedway. That is what (SMI Owner) Bruton Smith instills in all of us general managers to do, and that is to work for the fan to create more energy. NASCAR puts on the racing, we throw the party. And I feel like the fans here will tell those that weren’t (here), ‘you missed out.’ ”

The racing has certainly been good these last few years at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and the flat track is a positive addition. But for now, the only dirt racing that fans will see is when NASCAR comes to town. McGrath said it takes more resources to maintain a dirt track than the asphalt oval, which hosts various kinds of racing and car clubs throughout the dry months.

Perhaps it is also better from the track’s perspective to have planted this seed of interest in dirt racing and restrict it to NASCAR weekend, making the dirt laps part of the attraction rather than merely an additional event.

Outside of NASCAR, the track has sought expansion in other venues of entertainment in the wake of losing its fall race. Last year, NHMS won a state Supreme Court decision allowing it to host a country music festival, which is planned for the summer of 2020.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who was in attendance for Sunday’s Cup race in Loudon, said the loss of the second race has hurt the local economy in the state and in Loudon. But he expressed confidence in McGrath’s leadership and the track’s pursuit of other events to draw crowds to the area.

“The local economy has definitely taken a hit because it brings in so much money on such a localized level here,” Sununu said. “The side-benefit, the silver lining of the whole thing, is the New Hampshire Motor Speedway executive team has been very aggressive about expanding their opportunities ... So while we’ve taken a short-term hit, it has definitely opened up other economic opportunities right here at the speedway.”

The September race isn’t coming back, and there doesn’t appear to be any real hope it will. The city of Las Vegas is paying SMI $2.5 million each year until 2025 to have the September race there, which kicks off the NASCAR playoffs. The money comes from the city’s convention and visitors authority, which is mostly funded through hotel taxes.

Hopefully it is a cooler weekend when NASCAR returns next July. Otherwise, it’s another reason some fans might choose to stay away, as good as the racing is.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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