Duckler: NHMS general manager puts a good spin on bad news 

  • David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, speaks to reporters on Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Loudon, N.H. The speedway has hosted two top-tier NASCAR races each year for two decades, traditionally in July and September. But Las Vegas officials on Wednesday approved a sponsorship agreement with Speedway Motorsports Inc. to shift the September race to Nevada in 2018. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

Published: 3/9/2017 11:43:00 PM

Dave McGrath, whose damage-control skills are finely tuned, was tested Thursday morning, after the titanic corporation he works for threw him under the race car.

The New Hampshire Motor Speedway general manager, the face and voice of the track, said all the right things during a press conference, a day after the speedway lost one of its two major-league races to Las Vegas next year.

Fasten your seatbelt, McGrath told us, for great stuff down the road. Like a better Monster Energy Cup Series race in July. And exciting short-track racing. And continued fun with the Tough Mudder Run. And, perhaps, a giant music festival.

The undercurrent, though, was louder than 40 cars racing around Loudon’s 1.058-mile oval: Race fans here and all over New England got hosed this week.

There’s simply no other way to put it, no matter how positive McGrath spun his spin.

“Showcasing the incredible vacation destination that the speedway and the Granite State offer to fans each summer,” McGrath said. “This creates new opportunities for us to explore events such as music festivals and winter events and much more.”

McGrath did his best to smile and address the future, while blending his own disappointment and reality with comments like this one:

“Look, I’m a competitor and I’m a fan and certainly it hurts, certainly there’s a little pain there and discomfort. But I just want you to know ... this team at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is going to take its energy and going to focus that energy on a July 2018 race event, and we’re going to make it bigger and better than it’s ever been, and that I can guarantee you. This is a change that this team – this company – is up for.”

Oh yes, the company. It’s called Speedway Motorsports Inc. It’s a monster in racing, owner of nine speedways, including NHMS and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its founder and top banana is billionaire Bruton Smith, and it’s run by his son, Marcus Smith.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Board of Directors agreed to pay SMI millions to move a race from the speedway it owns here to the one it owns there.

McGrath made sure we knew that declining attendance figures, which have infected the entire tour nationwide, had nothing to do with this.

Instead, the Smiths took the money and ran, leaving McGrath to face the sour, skeptical media, pushing and pressing its negative angle, the one about lost revenue and the once-a-year loss of stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Of course, McGrath viewed things through his own public-relations prism, saying, “The reasons behind the decision are really quite simple. The city of Las Vegas and the Visitors Center ... made an offer that our company felt was in the best interest of the business. As a general manager, I support that decision. Certainly as a fan of our sport it’s also very difficult. But I understand the decision, and I support our company in its movement.”

What else could he say? The Smiths are his bosses. I imagine, however, that McGrath might have said something different behind closed doors, in private – something like, “How can they do this to these fans? Our fans?”

Meanwhile, employees and business owners along Route 106 in Loudon told me, of course, that their earnings would suffer.

Greg Makris, who co-owns Makris Lobster Pool, said that beginning next year, waitstaff won’t be needed through September anymore.

“The impact on the state of New Hampshire will be tremendous,” Makris said. “Restaurants will be less full, hotels will be less full, grocery stores will be less full. You can’t take $33 million out of the state and not expect disappointment.”

John Cronin, who’s owned the nearby Eggshell Restaurant for nearly 30 years, said he’ll miss the rush of customers who eat there through the week leading up to the big race. That meant big money.

“We’ll feel it, as all of us will here and others all over the state,” said Cronin, seated at a table during the Thursday lunch hour. “But we will survive. We were here before the track. We have a loyal customer base. This will be a little bit of a glitch for us.”

One of his waitresses, Susan Gelinas, has worked for Cronin for 15 years. She said daily tips during race weekends often reach $200, twice her usual take on a typical weekend. She also said her car-parking business would suffer greatly.

“That pays for a lot of taxes,” Gelinas told me.

Across the street from the speedway, at the Sunny Maples syrup store, owner Michael Moore said the syrup will still flow without a second race. His business won’t suffer too badly.

His family also runs a car-parking business on race weekend, however, and that will hurt “maybe a whisker,” Moore said. “For the family, it’s pocket cash, and it’s too bad to lose that.”

But the comments I heard, the spirit with which they were presented, were not negative enough to form the core of this column.

At Makris’s place, photos of Kyle Busch and Rusty Wallace hung on the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bruton Smith and others within NASCAR’s community have eaten there. Makris pulled out his wallet to show me legendary car owner Richard Childress’s business card, with his cell number scrawled on the back.

“I’ll miss the camaraderie with the drivers and the overall effects,” Makris said.

But he said more. He said he has full confidence in McGrath. He said he’s hopeful jazz and blues and country music festivals will be staged at the speedway.

“Somewhere along the line, they’ll figure out where to go,” Makris told me. “SMI will be creative.”

And Cronin ran into the parking lot to feed me one more quote: “Dave McGrath is very creative. He’ll come up with alternatives to bring people to the track.”

Mission accomplished. McGrath’s endless good cheer had already permeated the town. The sun will come up tomorrow. The earth will continue to spin on its axis. And exciting events will replace the NASCAR race in Loudon. Just wait and see.

“Our North Star has always been about our fans and fans’ experience,” McGrath said during the press conference. “But I want those fans to understand I’m right there with them. I care about them, and I understand this is disruptive.”

For true NASCAR fans, it’s more than that.

It’s a low blow, and it hurts.

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