The Hippo


Oct 21, 2019








Courtesy of New England Dragway in Epping.

Track terms

Short track: a track less than one mile long
Stock car: standard cars modified for racing; the most common professional race car
Modified: a squat car with four exposed wheels and rounded roof; designs vary, but rules to keep competitive cars similar
Supermodified: a more aerodynamic race car with exposed wheels, a rear top wing and a narrow frame
Tiger racing: small British kit cars
Late-model racing: older cars once used in professional NASCAR stock car racing
Kid’s truck: for kids 14 and younger
Midget car: small, four-cylinder cars with 300-400 horsepower used in shorter races

NH on the fast track
Granite State racing scene built by the fans for the fans

By Ryan Lessard

 When 12-year-old David saw the show car of Richard Petty — the legendary stock car driver — in the parking lot of an auto parts store in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and collected Petty’s “hero card,” he was hooked. When 8-year-old Dick saw his first race, he was hooked. And when 8-year-old Bruton saw his first race, he was hooked, too. 

Today, Bruton Smith is the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Young Dick Berggren — who’s opening a motorsports museum in Loudon — grew up to have a 32-year career as a motorsports announcer for CBS and Fox and even appeared as himself in the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. And David McGrath became the general manager of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway last October after being an executive in the company since 2011.
Not every fan of racing is able to turn their obsession into a career, but ask any fan why they love it so much and more often than not they’ll be able to recall a childhood exposure to the sport that sticks in their minds to this day.
From there, it becomes an addiction.
“I spent my whole childhood mowing lawns so I could get enough money to be able to go to the races,” Berggren said.
For racer John Burke of Auburn, the need for speed is inescapable.
“It’s not just racing, it’s a way of life. I’ve been around the tracks all my life and there’s just not any other high or feeling you get than if you’re a driver behind the wheel competing against other people,” Burke said. “Once you get involved in it, you can’t get out of it. You’re involved forever.”
Yellow to Yankees means go
Folks like McGrath are convinced that perhaps the only thing keeping non-fans from becoming forever-fans is a TV screen or monitor. Seeing the races in person makes all the difference.
“TV does a wonderful job, but it is not the same as being live when those 40 cars take the green flag, what that feels and sounds like,” McGrath said. 
Berggren agrees, saying it’s easy to miss the drama of a race when you’re watching through a TV screen. The risks, the stakes, the tense competition and little things that happen in the blink of an eye — they are all more real in person.
“I mean, when you go to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and you see those first two cars going through the turn side-by-side at 165 miles an hour and neither one is willing to give the other even an inch, it’s a pretty dramatic thing,” Berggren said.
McGrath says there’s a common misconception that motorsports like stock car racing are more of a Southern thing, that New Hampshire fans and New England fans are just a watered down version of the racing fans in other parts of the country.
“And that’s just not true. There is and always has been a very, very long-standing relationship with motorsports and auto racing in New England and in New Hampshire in particular from the days when they had an elevated wooden track down at what is now Rockingham horse park in Salem,” McGrath said. 
And having two major NASCAR races each year in New Hampshire is no small thing.
“To have the upper echelon of American stock car auto racing in your backyard is just an awesome opportunity and the fans of New Hampshire have been huge supporters of this facility since Day 1,” McGrath said.
He says about 50 percent of the crowds that descend on the speedway and Loudon for the major NASCAR events are from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The rest are from all over the country and Canada.
If you count racetracks and road courses in the state, Berggren says the 10 tracks represent an “exceptionally large number” for a state as small as New Hampshire. 
For his part, racer John Burke is convinced New Hampshire’s racing scene is big enough to warrant high status in the world of racing.
“You have to definitely put our state on the list. [It’s] a racing state,” Burke said.
Vehicular visionaries
Amid the collections of photographs Berggren plans to display in the upcoming Northeast Motorsports Museum are old photos of the Rockingham Park track, when it briefly operated as a wooden motorsport track from 1925 to 1928.
“So many people came to see the races there on dirt that they quickly built the board track. The board track ran for just seven events and then it foundered,” Berggren said.
And Berggren thinks the state’s racing history predates that.
“We don’t have records of races in New Hampshire that are earlier than that but I’m absolutely certain that it went on,” Berggren said.
He says the roots of professional racing as a spectator sport are in New England, with the first organized race event taking place in Rhode Island in 1896 and the first purpose-built road course in Connecticut.
Even though Rockingham went back to horse racing, motorsports continued to grow and thrive in New Hampshire throughout the 20th century. 
In 1947, the Manchester Motordrome opened in Londonderry. It was a quarter-mile-long paved oval that was used for “Midget Auto Racing,” also known as “doodlebugs.” It closed in 1962 and was reopened in the ’90s as a go-kart track. 
Around the time the Motordrome closed, in 1960, a new go-kart track opened in Loudon called Bryar Motorsports Park. Its trajectory would eventually be the opposite of the Motordrome’s with larger cars replacing the go-karts.
By 1989, owner Keith Bryar sold the dirt course to Bob Bahre. Bahre and his brother Dick transformed it into a paved oval track known as the New Hampshire International Speedway a year later. McGrath said Bahre had a vision to make the track a host to a major professional stock car racing series.
“He had the inclination to know that this was a market that was important to NASCAR,” said McGrath. 
This, according to most, is the pivotal moment that changed the racing scene in New Hampshire forever. 
Today, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway is owned by SMI, which bought it from the Bahre family in 2008. McGrath says SMI Chairman Bruton Smith is the second visionary who helped shape the speedway into what it is today, by improving the infields, parking areas and drainage systems, plus building a new bathhouse, installing a new scoreboard and upgrading the suites.
It has capacity for about 100,000 spectators and each year attracts about 500,000 visitors and brings about $400 million in tourist spending to the state’s economy.
But McGrath says much of that success wouldn’t be possible without the existence of smaller short tracks throughout the state.
It starts with short-tracks
Berggren says the existence of several racetracks in New Hampshire is not only evidence of the sport’s popularity — the fans who attend races at short tracks are often the same people as NASCAR fans.
“Racing is something that people generally find at a local speedway. Something that is close to them,” Berggren said.
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as the largest track in the state, is a huge center of gravity for the sport, but McGrath says its relationship with local short tracks is symbiotic.
“Race fans get their daily fill of their love of the sport at short tracks all over the Northeast and they are an integral part of our business,” McGrath said.
A lot of the smaller tracks tend to specialize in different forms of racing. For example, Lee Speedway offers stock racing and supermodified racing. Supermodifieds are race cars with open wheels just like modifieds but they have an additional top wing in the back. Star Speedway in Epping also specializes in supermodifieds, which is what Burke drives. He says the 350 supermodified divisions in the state are unique in the country and are part of a larger feeder system for the International Supermodified Association. ISMA comes to New Hampshire for major races in Lee on Aug. 5 and at Star Speedway on Sept. 10.
Other tracks like Legion Speedway in Rumney specialize in sprint cup racing, Claremont Speedway specializes in modifieds and the White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock is host to regular races for dwarf cars, tiger cars, late-model cars and kids’ trucks.
Racing’s recovery
The road hasn’t always been smooth for racing in the state. The Great Recession dealt a big blow to the industry everywhere and New Hampshire was no exception.
Even the New Hampshire Motor Speedway felt the impacts.
“We all took a hit back in the Recession … but we’re pulling that back too, we’re winning that battle,” McGrath said.
Some of the sport’s troubles go back further, according to Bob Webber Jr., the president of Star Speedway. He says the golden age for racing was back in the 1970s, and there used to be a lot more short tracks here in New Hampshire back then. Webber estimates the state has seen about a third of those tracks disappear over the decades. 
And the short track culture is not as fleshed out as it used to be with local stars and compelling backstories.
“When I was a kid there used to be the rivalry. [But nowadays] there’s not the bad guy, the guy you look up to, the heroes,” Webber said.
As a result, he says, it’s harder to attract visitors than it used to be, and he blames the advent of the internet, video games and social media.
But Burke, who races at Lee and Star Speedway, is optimistic that things are turning around.
“I would say it’s definitely on the upswing. It’s coming back around,” Burke said. 

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