Get Your Engines Ready, New Hampshire!
By Brian Willwerth
On the New England sports scene, we have the Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, (do we ever have the Bruins now), but for a couple of weekends each year, the focus turns, if not entirely to, auto racing.
Get ready, Loudon. It’s NASCAR time…again!
The stars of NASCAR’s top series roll into New England this weekend. There are races on Friday and Saturday, and then there’s Sunday’s headliner: The Lenox Industrial Tools 301, when there will be about 100,000 people at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a.k.a. the “Magic Mile.”
I remember when a co-worker invited me to my first race in June of 2007 at New Hampshire International Speedway (the “International” has since been replaced with “Motor.”). I had no idea what to expect, but decided to give it a try. I was wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt and beige pants – typical of a new race fan, I suppose. I remember rolling into the parking lot for the first time and seeing the tailgating. Oh, was there tailgating.
So what, you say? You can find tailgating at any football game. But once you roll into this racetrack (or any track for that matter,) it becomes pretty clear that this is not your average party.
I remember seeing a sea of multi-colored flags with different numbers on them: 88, 24, 48 and 20 just to name a few. I had heard a few of NASCAR’s names before: Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Stewart, but I didn’t know who the “good guy” was, and who the villain was.
At NASCAR races, there is no “home team.” Yes, Dale Jr. may be the sport’s most popular driver, but each fan has a reason for being allied with his/her favorite driver. I had no idea that some guy from Virginia named Denny Hamlin would be the winner of my first-ever race. For what it’s worth: I’m still waiting to see Kasey Kahne in victory lane.
Anyway, back to NHMS. The race fans of New England are passionate. The track had a long sellout streak halted a few years ago, and last summer there was more empty seats than usual, given the midst of the economic downturn. But this is a period when very few tracks sell out anymore. I don’t know whether Sunday’s race will be jam-packed, but I can assure you that you’ll find a lot more people there than you will at any Patriots or Red Sox game.
And then there’s the track itself, the “Magic Mile” (the actual length is 1.058 miles.) At a time when 1.5-mile tracks are dominant in the circuit, Loudon has carved out its own niche. Throw in the friendly hospitality of the track staff, and you’ve got the perfect destination for race fans. In terms of the weather: I’ve seen hot. I’ve seen cold. I’ve seen bright sunny days, and I’ve also been stuck in a downpour that made me more drenched than I’ve ever been in my life. I’ll never forget the image of beer cans “flowing down a river” under the grandstand that day.
I’ve been to several other tracks around the country: Las Vegas, Richmond and Charlotte. They’re all great, with terrific fans. But New Hampshire will always be special for me, since it was the first race I ever attended.
As for the Lenox 301 on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson won this race last year (Clint Bowyer won in the fall.) The 5-time champ hasn’t exactly been dominant this season. But when the Chase rolls around, he knows when to turn on the gas.
So the stage is set for a big day on Sunday. Oh, and about that Bucs’ T-shirt of mine? Not a chance. I’ll be decked out in my Kahne gear, hoping for the #4 car to pull off some magic at the Magic Mile.