New Direction at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Saturday, May 10, 2008
The Union Leader

By Allen Lessels

LOUDON - Change is in the air.

And on the office windows, on the license plates, on the fleet of Chevrolets in the parking lot and the interior of the business offices inside.

New Hampshire International Speedway, the house of racing that Bob Bahre built, has become New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the track that O. Bruton Smith paid $340 million for in a transaction that closed in early January.

The racetrack is zeroing in on its first NASCAR Sprint Cup event as a member of the seven-speedway family of tracks run by Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. The Lenox Industrial Tools 301, the first of two mega-races that will bring Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to the state, is scheduled for June 29, seven weeks from today. Race No. 2 is in mid-September.

"One of my jobs early on was to come in and give reassurance that this change is good," said Jerry Gappens, the track's new executive vice president and general manager, in an interview Thursday conducted partly in the stands and partly in his office.

He was speaking first about reassuring the staff, later about reassuring the racing community, corporate sponsors, fans, the state, in short, all involved with the track and racing.

Gappens stressed one thing won't change at NHMS: The track will continue to have two Cup races a year.

That should come as welcome news throughout New Hampshire. Each NASCAR race weekend pumps about $80 million into the state's economy, according to Doug Blais, a professor of sports management at Southern New Hampshire University.

Master plan

Many of the early changes at NHMS will be cosmetic, for example the banners and streamers that will add color to the grandstands and grounds. Ten trams to move people have been ordered and signage will help improve the flow of fans and traffic into and around the facility for the first race.

Meanwhile, engineers and architects are researching and drawing and putting together ideas and options for the master plan. Perhaps, Gappens said, the main grandstands will end up on the other side of the track, where there is more room, which means a "Disney-like" street with a state-fair atmosphere might be more feasible.

At Bristol in March, the SMI folks sat down with Gordon and Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman -- all Cup drivers who have had success here -- and asked for their comments and input on what is good, what might be done better, at New Hampshire.

Smith has been known, Gappens pointed out, to move mountains, or at least hills, to change the configuration of a track or racetrack if the result was going to be better racing and a better experience for fans or sponsors.

Gappens also said he would like to revisit the agreement Bahre signed with local residents nearly 20 years ago that restricts the track from, among other things, putting in lights for night racing and concerts.

NHMS will list a capacity of about 105,000 this year. Looking into the future, Gappens sees bigger things.

"If I was looking in the crystal ball and saw what would be ideal capacity," he said. "I could see if you had smart growth, you could go up to about 120,000."

Meanwhile, some $200,000, Gappens said, went into renovating the offices.

"It's to give our employees a better environment to work in each and every day," he said. "It sets a tone. We want to do everything first class."

SMI, he said, intends to do that everywhere on the 1,100-acre property.

Smith came up from North Carolina last week for his first visit since sealing the deal with Bahre last fall and spent about 36 hours in the state between Tuesday and Wednesday, much of it exploring the facility.

He also had a 45-minute meeting in Concord with Gov. John Lynch where, Gappens said, the track officials made it clear that they feel to continue improving the facility and perhaps expand it, help from the state, particularly in the upgrading of Route 106, is essential.

Asked yesterday about the possibility of the state improving 106 between Interstate 393 and the track, a possibility that has been discussed for years, Lynch said he did not get into specifics or details with Gappens, but did talk in general terms about "how to make it a better experience than it already is for families who come to view the races."

"I stressed the importance of the races to New Hampshire and our economy, and I think (Gappens) understands that," Lynch said. "I told him I was willing to work with him to bring improvements."

NASCAR schedule

That no change is planned for the track's Sprint Cup schedule is the best news of all for race fans and those who count on the business the races bring.

Speculation ran rampant when Smith announced he had reached an agreement to buy the track back in November that what he wanted to do was to move one of the track's Cup dates to his facility in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has one Sprint Cup date now, and there is little question Smith still wants another Cup race there.

Any added race for Las Vegas is not coming from New Hampshire, Gappens said.

Gappens came to New Hampshire from Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., another SMI facility, where he had worked for Smith for 15 years.

The general manager said he had two questions for Smith when they first discussed his taking the New Hampshire job: "The first thing I asked is, 'What are you going to do to bring the facility up to SMI standards?' Because he does so many great things with his facilities. He does a real good job of trying to focus on the fans' comfort and the corporate sponsors' comfort.

"The next part was, 'What are you going to do with the dates?'" Gappens said. "(Smith's) exact quote was, 'You know, they are selling out both dates. I was taught that if it's not broken, you don't have to fix it.' I can't justify messing with anything up there in New England in regards to dates and the schedule."

The answer doesn't surprise Bob Bahre, who built the track with his son, Gary, and brother, Dick. He said back in November that he felt both races would stay in New Hampshire.

"I thought that way from Day One," Bahre said on Friday from the track where he has stayed on as a consultant and reports to duty most days.

"I could have sold it to the guys from Kentucky, and I knew they would take one race away. I wanted someone who would keep the two of them here. Gary and I, with Dick's help, built it, but it was the fans who made it. I thought we owed it to the fans to keep the races here."

NHMS -- busy from early spring even during non-NASCAR weeks with such events as this week's Vintage Car Celebration bringing traffic to the track -- is in the midst of change. Literally.

The foundation is in for the large sign out front that continues to welcome visitors to New Hampshire International Speedway, but by the first week of June should bear the new name.

For the first time, "New Hampshire" is written boldly across the white wall on the backstretch.

Gappens raved about the job the Bahres did in bringing their track this far and he thinks SMI can make it even better.

"There's so much land there, you could do a lot of things," Smith said when announcing his purchase in November. "Historically, we do things on a very grand scale."

How that relates to NHMS and its future remains to be seen.

The speedway has sold out all 26 of its Cup races so far. While tickets remain for the June race, sales are running similar to last year, when the race sold out in the days leading up to it, and Gappens expects this will be a sellout, too.

Counting more seats in the suites, he said, SMI is using a number of 95,491 seats, which is about 2,000 more than the track has listed before. The full capacity figure will be about 105,000.

The speedway also continues to have a high rate of season ticket renewals that Gappens estimated to be at least 85 percent.

Smith case history

Overall, he compared this situation to that in Bristol, Tenn., where Smith took over a dozen years ago.

"It reminds me so much of Bristol," Gappens said. "When Bruton bought it 12 years ago, it was family owned and operated. It was not a very large market. They were selling 67,000 seats at the time and had a waiting list. The actual facility was a lot like this. Obviously they had some success, but they still had so much more potential at that track."

The speculation was Smith was going to move dates from the track, Gappens said.

He didn't.

"Now he's totally rebuilt it and it's one of the crown jewels of any sports facility, let alone a motorsports facility," Gappens said.

Bristol has a capacity of 167,000.

"It's hugely successful and one of the most sought-after tickets in motorsports," Gappens added. "The community was behind it. The state was behind it. They widened roads. Everybody jumped on board and helped make that possible. I think this has the potential to be the Bristol of the New England area."

Not that he sees NHMS more than doubling in size as did Bristol.

"If I was looking in the crystal ball and saw what would be ideal capacity," he said. "I could see if you had smart growth, you could go up to about 120,000."

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