NHMS poised to make country music festival happen in 2018

  • David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, speaks to reporters on Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Loudon. The speedway has hosted two top-tier NASCAR races each year for two decades, traditionally in July and September. But officials earlier this year approved an agreement to shift the September race to Nevada in 2018, and NHMS announced plans to host a three-day country music festival. AP

  • A Loudon woman adjusts the microphone for Bill Glahn, an attorney for New Hampshire Motor Speedway, at the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Nick Stoico / Monitor staff

  • Bill Glahn, an attorney for New Hampshire Motor Speedway, goes over a sound study conducted during a NASCAR race weekend and how it would compare to a three-day music festival. Nick Stoico / Monitor staff

  • Owners of New Hampshire International speedway Bob, left, and son, Gary Bahre wait out a rain delay before the NASCAR Nextel Cup New England 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Sunday July 17, 2005. The Bahre family sold their stake in the track to Speedway Motorsports Inc. for $340 million in 2007. (AP Photo/JIm Cole) JIM COLE—AP

  • U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., greets fans at the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Sunday, July 9, 1995. The senator was attending the Slick 50 300 NASCAR Winston Cup race at the track. (AP Photo/Rodney Curtis) RODNEY CURTIS—Associated Press

  • O. Bruton Smith, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., smiles as he listens to a reporters question during a press conference regarding the purchase of New Hampshire International Speedway, Friday, Nov. 2, 2007, at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) Tony Gutierrez—AP

  • Cars steer through Turn 1 as fans watch from nearly half-full stands during the NASCAR Cup Series 301 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa—AP

Monitor staff
Monday, August 28, 2017

The box made it clear that the meeting was not going to be quick.

It rested on the floor in front of David McGrath’s feet with “Discovery” scrawled across the side, a stack of folders on top. The New Hampshire Motor Speedway general manager and executive vice president sat on the interior end of the front row, two attorneys from McLane Middleton to his right and a small contingent of speedway employees in the row behind him. The microphone was just a few feet to his left and remained square in front of the Loudon Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Some town residents came to the mic to air grievances with the speedway and list their reasons for opposing a summer country music festival. Others used it to laud the speedway for the business it attracts to the village with its large and small events.

But before the people could speak, there was the box, a few lawyers, a lot of paper and a long night to come.

Close to 100 people turned up at Loudon Elementary School on Thursday for the ZBA’s public hearing on NHMS’s application for a special exception that would allow it to host a three-day country music festival next summer that would bring an estimated 20,000 visitors to the speedway. The crowd thinned over the nearly four hours of discussion, but not by much. Property abutters and some residents from bordering towns wanted their voices heard. So they waited patiently as the speedway’s legal team went over traffic studies and sound studies and how Merriam-Webster defines the word “recreation.”

For a few hours, the school’s gymnasium felt more like a courtroom. The stacks of papers steadily grew in front of each board member. A stenographer – not the town’s administrative assistant, but an actual court reporter – typed away, trying to capture every word said into the microphone.

“It certainly took up a lot of the game clock; we were aware of that,” McGrath sain in an interview Friday afternoon. “But that’s what has to happen when you’re giving testimony on the things you’re trying to do and what the steps are to the rationale behind the answers to the application. I was very pleased with the team and I think the board certainly walked away with a clearer understanding as to what we’re trying to accomplish at the speedway.”

McGrath envisions the speedway evolving as a multifaceted facility. In Thursday’s meeting, he used Fenway Park as an example of a sports venue that also hosts concerts, hockey games and even a big-air snow sports event.

“At the end of the day, I like to think that we’re the epicenter of speed in the Northeast, and we want to showcase this wonderful facility and the history of this mile oval that we are and we’ll continue to do that,” McGrath said. “But 1,200 acres – boy oh boy, we have opportunities to try to develop new things.”

This much was clear by the end of Thursday’s meeting: Whether residents are in favor of the festival or not, the speedway is ready to throw every resource it has at making this event happen. The only thing that could stand in the way is a 1989 settlement between the speedway, the town and a group of “Concerned Racetrack Neighbors” that states the speedway “shall not permit any musical concerts of any type ... except in conjunction with racing events.”

On Thursday, one town resident said it is “egregious that the speedway would consider holding a concert when they knew this agreement was in place.”

Others are on the fence, like a Loudon woman who said she would like to see the speedway take small steps before committing to hosting the event each year.

“I think one time for the concert is okay with me and my husband, and then we review it,” she said.

But McGrath and his team argue that the settlement does not apply to the parcel of land where the festival would be held – the parking lots in the southern end of the property. He added that the track already hosts concerts before and after NASCAR races that sometimes last until 11 p.m.

“My view on the settlement agreement is that it was binding to the property that existed when it was signed back in 1989,” said McGrath, who was named executive vice president and general manager in 2015. “And it clearly states that in the language. Every word of a contract is important, critically important. That’s why they’re in the contract. Our opinion is we’re looking at land that was acquired by the speedway years and years later, so as a result of that we feel that there is a challenge, a loophole, however you want to look at it, that clearly says we’re well within our rights to do this. And quite frankly hosting live music acts, we’ve been doing that for 27 years.”

Arnold Alpert, a longtime resident of Canterbury who said he was part of the group that pushed for the 1989 settlement, didn’t buy the loophole argument. He said he believes restriction on the speedway to host concerts is as simple and straightforward as what is written in the agreement.

“Our understanding is reflected in the settlement,” he said.

Another Loudon resident, Michael Harris, agreed.

“This board has no power to change settled law. ... To do so would put the town of Loudon in peril,” Harris said Thursday.

Track record

Bob Bahre purchased the land in the late 1980s, originally the site of Bryar Motorsports Park, and after nine months of construction New Hampshire International Speedway opened its doors in June 1990. It immediately became the largest speedway in New England, and in the 27 years since it has grown into the largest sports venue in the region on its 1,200 acres. Just a month after opening, NHIS hosted its first NASCAR event with a Busch Series race (now called the Xfinity Series). The Busch series returned for two races each year and their success prompted NASCAR to send its top-line Cup series to Loudon in 1993.

NASCAR experienced substantial growth in the 1990s under the direction of then-CEO Bill France Jr., as the sport turned north and west beyond its southern roots. The Boston media market was attractive, and NASCAR didn’t need another reason to give Loudon a second race.

NHIS hosted its first fall Cup series race on Sept. 14, 1997. Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag on his way to winning his second Winston Cup title. Gordon, born in California and raised on racing in Indiana, reflected the turn NASCAR was taking to the mainstream.

The sport grew rapidly in the 1990s with tracks popping up across the country. One was in Las Vegas, purchased by Speedway Motorsports Inc. in 1998. The same company bought NHIS in November 2007 and changed the name to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Bahre family sold their stake in the company for $340 million. No longer was the track along Route 106 in Loudon a local family-owned operation – SMI, a national corporation, reported annual revenue close to $500 million in 2015. NHMS became one of eight speedways owned by SMI before the company acquired a ninth, Kentucky Motor Speedway, in 2008.

Loudon’s loss

NASCAR’s rapid rise plateaued in the second half of the decade and eventually began to draw back. For several years, New Hampshire Motor Speedway boasted more than 100,000 fans at its races. Those numbers appeared to drop as the once-crowded stands thinned. In 2012, NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures altogether.

It’s not clear how many fans the speedway draws these days.

When asked, the track (i.e. McGrath) politely declined to share those numbers.

In March, SMI announced it will shift New Hampshire’s September race to Las Vegas beginning in 2018. On Thursday, McGrath told the Loudon ZBA that his plan for a country music festival is not related to the track losing its second race. He said the process in planning this event preceded his tenure as general manager.

“When I became the GM, I reignited that conversation,” McGrath said on Friday. “That’s when we really kind of dialed up the intensity that this was the direction that this business wanted to move in. That was all discussed long before I ever learned that we were going to lose the September race to Las Vegas. As I said to the (ZBA) chairman (Thursday) night, we were merely going to add that onto our calendar.”

Initially, McGrath wanted to hold the music festival in early August, slotting it between the July and September races. That hasn’t changed since it was revealed that the track will not be holding a September race next year or any year after that.

The festival would be three days, beginning on a Friday and ending on a Sunday, McGrath said. Performances would last from about 2 to 10:30 p.m. each night. McGrath wouldn’t name names, but he said the performers would be “A-list” and “top-notch” country music acts. The event would be put on by Live Nation, a global entertainment company headquartered in Beverly Hills, Calif.

McGrath said he expects the event would draw some 20,000 people per day over the weekend and about 5,000 cars. He didn’t anticipate that the festival would bring in the RV presence of a race weekend, but a lot of fans would likely set up tents and camp in the parking lots.

Overall, the speedway argued, a festival would not match the magnitude of a race weekend.

“A NASCAR weekend is much larger than what we’re asking for now,” Jennifer Parent, an attorney representing NHMS, told the board Thursday.

The speedway has applied for a variance to allow camping and tenting in conjunction with the festival. It has also asked for a special exception to hold the concert on its property, which the town identifies as a “recreational facility.” Parent spent several minutes arguing the word “recreation” can include the leisure activity of watching a concert in the same way one would watch an auto race.

The legal team was effective in their arguments. Their sound study, conducted from three different areas surrounding the track, asserts that the varying noise levels are comparable or less than those of a race weekend. Traffic would be managed in a similar way to, again, a NASCAR race, though with less traffic overall. The environmental impact, they said, would be minimal: the stages are only temporary and no permanent structures would be built.

Despite all of these reasons, not everyone is buying it. But in the end, it may not matter.

The board will weigh its decision in September. No matter the outcome, a lawsuit could be in the future. The outcome would only dictate who is filing – after all, someone isn’t going to get their way, whether it be the speedway or an organized group of residents identified as Citizens to “Keep Track of Agreement.” Because that is what this all comes back to: the settlement reached 28 years ago, just months before the speedway sank its roots into the village of Loudon.

It’s all on the table now. Out of the box, and in the open.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)