I have no equity in New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but I am heavily invested. I watched it sprout from the ground as I lived a short distance south in the state’s capital city, Concord.
I competed in the first race at the one-mile track, captured a track championship and considered its founder, Bob Bahre, to be a mentor for nearly all of my auto racing life.
So the news that New Hampshire had lost its September date beginning in 2018 was personal. I was perhaps a bit more disappointed than others because the facility was home court during my NASCAR driving days.
I know many of the people associated with the track, and many others that qualified as life long season-ticket holders.
There shouldn’t be much debate pointed toward the question of whether or not this should have happened.
The attendance at each track weighs heavily into the decision, and New Hampshire’s attendance drifted the same as that of many other tracks since the Great Recession.
So I acknowledge and accept the outcome.
A more reasonable debate would be about this: Why haven’t the people returned?
New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the only facility in the Boston market, drawing from all of New England, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, should have easily supported two races each year.
But it didn’t!
You might draw a parallel between unemployment rising and attendance dropping beginning in 2008 or 2009, but I don’t believe we can say the same when the employment numbers reversed.
Unemployment today is roughly 5 percent, close to a historical average, but our attendance numbers aren’t even close. That’s troubling, because obviously folks have chosen to do other things.
The absolute key to NASCAR regaining its popularity and financial strength primarily comes down to the 40 men and women behind the wheels of those race cars.
No points structure, creation of stages or technical creativity on pit road will substitute for the curiosity, intrigue and draw of what race car drivers, and their personalities, will capture.
All of those previously mentioned things contribute to an enhanced television experience, but I’m not convinced they help to put fans in the seats.
We received a sample on Sunday of what does help at the track now hosting two races each season beginning next year.
On the final lap at Las Vegas, we witnessed two drivers stand their ground, neither willing to lift, not an ounce of surrender between them.
It was absolutely outstanding, because it was absolutely “real.”
Hungry drivers of all regions of the country help people buy into what we sell.
We have tremendous talent in our series, but do we have the hunger from our drivers?
I don’t know that we have the depth of what we once did.
We talk so often about how difficult it will be to recover from the departure of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, but I do not buy into that in its most obvious form (their retirement), I buy into how much we miss the Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart of 10-15 years ago.
These two are among our greatest ambassadors today, but they sold tickets a dozen years ago, and they lured people to the track with their refuse-to-lose attitude and explosive personalities.
I’m long-term bullish on NASCAR, but I’m not encouraged with the results we’ve gotten the last couple years.
We as a sport are not afraid of making changes, but our fan base appears fatigued by the constant change.
I spent more time than I would have liked last week explaining to people how a driver with an average finish of 15th (Kevin Harvick) was then leading the point standings, while a driver with a sixth-place average finish can be eighth.
It’s honestly not that enjoyable a practice when the people I’m explaining it to look at me as though I’m selling snake oil.
I actually see the value in what we are attempting with the stage racing, and regrettably, I accept that Las Vegas will probably create a better return with New Hampshire’s second race (at least until the next recession), but neither will contribute to the bottom line the way a weekly driver battle on the track will.
Drivers aren’t completely responsible for creating their rivalry; often the track has a lot to do with it.
Smaller tracks and road courses introduce contact, a more physical race, similar to what we saw from Kyle and Joey on Sunday. That lights the fuse between two competitors.
To be clear, we don’t need wrecks and wrestling matches every week to regain lost ground as a business, but we do need it!
We need more of that because we have lost tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, as well as the Darlington spring race.
These tracks were the earlier examples of what we experienced with New Hampshire last week. They became vulnerable, they were replaced. They were compromised geographically, but they produced action that drew fans.
We need more short tracks. We desperately need to interrupt the evolution of larger tracks replacing smaller ones.
Which leads to this one last point: Did we replace New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the correct facility?
Las Vegas acquiring a second date makes sense, but I’m strongly advocating we implement a shift away from a few other tracks the same dimension as Las Vegas. The scale tips far too heavily in their favor.
It’s the professional auto racing equivalent of death by a thousand cuts if we continue forcing these tracks on our audience.
The bottom line
We need more from our drivers in the way of action and excitement. Adding another mile-and-a-half track to the schedule may not be the help they need in return.