Phoenix To New Hampshire: The Change Of Racing’s Landscape In America

Column By: JOHN DOUGLAS / RPW – LOUDON, NH – Regional racing and NASCAR have had a long understanding that both can be mutually beneficial to each other. Yet somehow over the last two decades, a disconnect seems to have formed in some areas while in others, new partnerships and new commitments are forming.

After the race two weeks ago in Phoenix, Kevin Harvick and his team owner Tony Stewart were asked in the post-race press conference about Harvick’s excitement to run a K&N West car at Kern County Speedway in California. Harvick was specifically asked why it’s so important to him to run that race. His answer was simple, yet seems to be lost on some.

“I think that needs to be a part of our initiative. A guy like Chase Elliott would love to run late model races at a late model track anywhere in the country than do sponsor appearances. That’s what pushes his buttons.” Harvick said, “ I would love to build that K&N West series back to what it needs to be and have that enthusiasm and get to the right race tracks and help those kids because to me it was an eye opener last year when I went to Sonoma and saw the impact that running that race had on the competitors and the series.”

Indeed, a big name coming to a regional event to compete against racers in those divisions is usually a great thing for promoters and fans alike. Ticket sales increase, the series that driver participates in will most certainly gain some recognition but even more importantly, young drivers no one has heard of, will have an opportunity to shine.

Harvick continued on his train of thought, saying. “ Some people might call it cherry picking, but no one would know who Will Rodgers is if it wasn’t for us running that race.”

Race Pro Weekly talked with New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s Executive Vice President and General Manager David McGrath for some perspective on a track which seems to be taking the initiative to bolster regional series in the wake of the loss of their fall NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race.

“I didn’t disagree that it’s an important element of our fan base.” McGrath said of Harvick’s Phoenix comments. “I’m pleased to know that SMI supports that and not just at New Hampshire but at a lot of their other tracks.”

McGrath, who’s background includes a management role with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Pro Divisions was reluctant to speak on the decisions of other facilities, however, he shed some light on the thought process he and others at NHMS must use to make viable events take place for the regional or local racer.

“Each track, regardless of who owns it, makes decisions that are right for each perspective track and I would do the same thing.” McGrath said, “I would say that we focus our energies and efforts (at NHMS) on the fact that we are honored to have racing on multiple levels at our speedway. At the end of the day we want to continue to provide our fans with a wonderful weekend of energy and excitement.”

NHMS is certainly putting their money where their mouth is as they have decided to invest on an entire weekend focused on the regional series that operate throughout the northeast. After losing the fall NASCAR Cup Series event in the 2018 schedule change, NHMS decided to hold and event focused on the K&N Pro Series East, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and NASCAR’s Pinty’s Series from Canada.

The most controversial statements from both Harvick and team owner Tony Stewart at Phoenix centered around the loss of K&N Pro Series West racing and the historic Copper World Classic.

“I’ve been mad at (Bryan) Sperber (Track President, ISM Raceway) here for the past few years because he won’t have the K&N cars come race here because it doesn’t help his budget.” Harvick said, “In the end, without those grassroots fans and grassroots people coming to race here, whether it fits your budget or not, ten years from now you better hope you have your ass some people that’ll sit in the stands up here and want to watch those races because those are your hardcore and grassroots fans.”

“One of the best things that happened for racing was when we had the Copper World Classic here. (at Phoenix)” Kevin continued, as Stewart grew a large grin. “We had midgets, sprint cars and it didn’t matter how many people sat in the stands but as competitors, those guys, this was their Daytona. On the West coast this is what we thought our Daytona 500 was.”

New Hampshire’s new Full Throttle Fall Weekend looks to create that very atmosphere for drivers in the Northeast and Canada. Scheduled for September 22nd, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will move from a support class race for that weekend, to the headliner role.

“We know that Modified racing in the Northeast is religion. McGrath said, “We’re just proud to be able to host two of those races in July, with an All-Star Shootout on Friday and then of course the big Modified race on Saturday to help support the Monster Energy Cup weekend. Then to have a big 250 lap event in September, we just think that’s a real feather in our cap and a real bid toward the love this part of the country has for the Modified races.”

Is there an easy answer for why some races go away? No. Some go away due to decreasing ticket sales, like North Wilkesboro or Rockingham. Some go away due to financial troubles for either the series or the track, like the Copper World Classic at Phoenix (ISM) Raceway. Others go away due to political gamesmanship like the Syracuse Mile just two years ago.

The one thing that is certain? If we as fans want to see these special events continue for our regional racers so they can have their crown jewel races, tickets need to sell, the tracks and series need to gain financial stability and lastly, political games within the sport and from outside sources need to stop so the community at large can gain. When one form of racing gains popularity, others need to be able to take advantage of that. Not just for their own gain, but for the gain of the sport as a whole.