The Track Experience

Earlier this year, I looked back at the history of New Hampshire’s largest sporting venue, New Hampshire Motor Speedway. What I wanted to do, before I slipped into story-telling mode, was to make a sales pitch.

And with the track’s final September race weekend a week away, and weather looking favorable for the moment, now is the time for that sales pitch. I want to see new faces in the grandstand this weekend. It can be Saturday, it can be Sunday. But I want to see new faces experiencing what I’m so fortunate to enjoy once or twice a year.

After all, there’s no better time than the fall to fall in love with something new.

Imagine any sporting event you’ve attended. From the party in the parking lot to the action on the field, it’s a day, or at least a few hours, of escapism. A race weekend is like that from Friday through Sunday evening. Whether you opt to sleep in your own bed or camp somewhere on the speedway grounds, it’s a whole weekend of activity just a step outside the real world.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a sport that offers more competition for your dollar. Friday at the track is qualifying and practice day. When I was younger, it was an opportunity to see all the top-level stars if you couldn’t get a ticket for Sunday’s race (back when there were waitlists to get a Sunday seat). Without any actual races going on, it’s more a day for the diehards and those already camping at the track.

Saturday, though, is a must-see. From sunup to sundown (and sometimes dangerously close to the latter), the track is alive. NASCAR’s Cup Series teams run their final practice sessions to prepare for Sunday’s race. In addition, you get three—yes, three—support races. Featured this weekend are NASCAR’s Truck Series, a second-tier series where young drivers get their first taste of speedway racing, and the New England-based Modified Tour, quite possibly the most exciting racing you’ll see on the track. The American-Canadian Tour closes out the day with the ACT Invitational, a bonus race for local racers with over $75,000 on the line.

In NASCAR’s Modified Tour, wins are often settled by inches and feet, not seconds.

Sunday, of course, is the main event, the 300-lap second round of NASCAR’s ten-race playoff system. With only one race on the day’s schedule, there is far more time for pomp and circumstance, from a pre-race concert to driver meet-and-greets and all other manner of fan activities around the speedway grounds. A mix of tents and trailers offers up a variety of souvenirs, from the predictable t-shirts and caps to race-used tires and sheet metal. A fan midway outside the speedway gates features sponsor hospitality tents, concert stages, a track-managed bar for those who forgot to bring their own beer, and even a go-kart track.

South of the track, the paved fan midway stretches out toward two of the larger camping lots beyond.

It’s easy to see why, even for those who live in New Hampshire, camping is often the preferred option. From the grassy hill overlooking the track’s backstretch to the gravel lots south of the grandstands, the track has acres of land available for camping. Some visitors opt for the full trailer, fire pit and gas grill ordeal; others prefer to set up a tent. Some visitors never quite make it from the camp site to the track, so I’m told. It’s a social environment, one I have come to envy on my walk back from the track to the car at the end of the day.

Early in the morning, the first arrivals have already set up their tailgating space for the day.

Those who prefer to drive in each day can still take advantage of the art of tailgating. The early arrivals stake their claim early, taking spaces along the edge of a lot and setting up E-Z-Up tents for shade as they grill breakfast and lunch and talk with other fans. After the race, many will grill up a quick dinner, letting the first wave of cars clear out of the lots before venturing home. The drive home is always a bit easier on a full stomach. And unlike many sports, racing allows at least some of the tailgating to continue within the gates: you can bring your own beer into the stands.

The other great thing about racing is the accessibility of the teams and drivers. Imagine being able to walk through the Patriots’ locker room hours before a football game or casually talking with a pitcher before the Red Sox take the field. Now imagine not having to be a VIP to get that level of access. A number of drivers will stage autograph sessions through the weekend, either at their own sponsor hospitality tent or at a souvenir trailer. NASCAR also arranges a session for its rising stars in the Truck Series before Saturday’s race. Sunday morning before the race, a number of drivers will stop through the midway for scheduled question-and-answer sessions at the numerous hospitality tents.

And there’s more. A few hours before the race on Sunday, members of the beat media will often host a semi-informal gathering with fans. The so-called “tweetups,” named because they grew through social media and particularly Twitter, often include a special guest, a driver who had an opening on their morning schedule or the race’s honorary starter or grand marshal. Imagine hanging out with writers from ESPN or NBC Sports before they go to work. (And, yes, sometimes news breaks during the tweetups.) The tweetups are hardly secret, but still small enough to feel like one.

Veteran beat reporter Jeff Gluck, in gray, introduced the notion of “tweetups” to racing several years ago. Here, fans get a casual moment to talk racing with rising NASCAR star Ryan Blaney.

Actual pit passes, allowing you direct access to the garage, are difficult to come by unless you “know someone.” But a Sunday-morning ticket will allow you access to pit road as the teams set up their equipment for the day. You wonder how the teams feel about working around a bunch of fans with cameras and cell phones, but most are more than accommodating for a kid asking for a picture or an autograph. The same ticket allows you to stay on the track for driver introductions. It can be a mad scramble to get to your seat afterwards. It’s still quite an experience and a privilege.

A team sets up its pit equipment on race morning, as fans look on and get a few moments to interact with the crew.

Unlike many sports, the grandstands are still the best place to watch a race. On television, you see a mix of what the director thinks will draw the most eyeballs tempered with who’s paying the bill for that exposure. In person, you see all forty cars, and you can watch the race you want, whether it’s a battle for the lead or a battle for twentieth place. Add a scanner and a set of headphones, and you can eavesdrop on the race teams as they debate strategy and discuss their competitors, often in ways that belong far from a TV broadcast. Again, it’s about access, and race fans have as much or as little as they choose.

The biggest competitor any spectator sport has is itself. Why would I pay for a ticket when I can sit at home, dodge traffic, and have my own refreshments and bathroom? At the end of the day, I always say I’m there for the racing. If all the pomp and circumstance and mingling and mirth went away, and it were just the racing, I’d still go for that. But for many, it’s the sum total of the experience that makes it worthwhile.

And the racing experience, from start to finish, gives you more access to your favorite personalities in the sport, a greater perspective from which to watch the game, and a great way to spend a weekend in New England.

See you there on Sunday.

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