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Races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway
1122 Route 106 N, Loudon, 783-4744, www.nhms.com
Lenox 301, Thursday, July 14, through Sunday, July 15
Izod IndyCar Series, Friday, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 15
Sylvania 300, Thursday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 25
Tickets: Cost $39 to $110





Speed season
Summer is fuel-injected at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway

06/23/11



Driving down Route 106, you hear the roar of the lion long before the colosseum comes into view. It is a low, guttural sound, raw and loud, the dying groan as man conquers machine. Goosebumps light up your arms and then the trees part and New Hampshire Motor Speedway seemingly materializes out of thin air. It is race day and although they will begin with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” that vroom of the engine is truly America’s national anthem.
 

New Hampshire has a long history of auto racing but it didn’t enter the national conversation until 1990. That was when the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (then called the New Hampshire International Speedway) was built and NASCAR first descended upon our state. When it arrived, it found a surprisingly passionate fan base.
Auto racing, in fact, is principally a sport of New England, according to Dr. Dick Berggren, who hosts NASCAR Performance on the Speed Channel, is the lead pit reporter for NASCAR on Fox and played himself in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Berggren said the state is loaded with short tracks — quarter, half and three-quarter mile — and that if you added up their summer attendance from Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, stock car racing would be the biggest draw in New England.
 

This love affair dates back to the 1920s when there was a 1¼-mile board track in Rockingham. However, since the wood wasn’t pressure-treated it eventually rotted and thus ended the race track.
 

While there are short tracks throughout the state, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the epicenter of racing, according to Berggren. Part of that is because it draws NASCAR, a sport that is threatening to claim the crown as America’s most beloved pastime.

Field of dreams
 

The New Hampshire Motor Speedway broke ground Aug. 13, 1989, and officially opened on June 5, 1990, as the New Hampshire International Speedway. It was the first superspeedway to be built in the United States since 1969 and is currently the only such facility in New England. The track was the vision of Bob Bahre and his son Gary, who previously owned Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine. Bahre dreamed of bringing his beloved NASCAR to New England but quickly learned his Maine track wouldn’t get the job done. Bahre believed the Bryar Motorsports Park, which had a dirt road circuit, could become the home of NASCAR in New England.
 

“He is the Kevin Costner of racing,” said Jerry Gappens, general manager of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “If you build it, they will come.”
 

Bahre’s idea quickly paid off, as the first NASCAR race, the Budweiser 300, was held July 15, 1990. The combination of NASCAR, the popular Loudon Classic motorcycle race and a variety of other motorsport events made the track incredibly popular.
 

But Bahre wanted more. In 1996, he, along with Bruton Smith, purchased the North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina and moved one of its NASCAR races to New Hampshire. This second race is held in September and is part of the Sprint Cup’s 10-race championship series. Typically it is the first race in this series, but this year the Sylvania 300 will be the second. There are only 36 races on the NASCAR schedule, so each one is a coveted event, according to Kristen Costa, director of communications at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
 

When the Speedway in Loudon opened, it was new for everybody.
 

“It just introduced a whole other region to the sport,” said local racer B.J. Piekarski of Nashua. “You just get hooked once you actually go.”
 

It was billionaire Bruton Smith who bought the track from the Bahre family in 2008 for $340 million and renamed it the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, making it part of Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc., which also owns and operates Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Infineon Raceway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway.
 

“Obviously things changed a bit when Bob Bahre sold the facility, but I have not noticed a dropoff in race quality or the race experience,” wrote Joshua Spaulding, sports editor for the Granite State News, in an e-mail.

“However, I miss Hart’s Turkey Farm meals in the media center, those were a staple of Bob Bahre’s tenure and they were good.”
 

Smith poured millions of dollars into the track, which is now the largest sporting facility in New England, able to hold 93,521 in the grandstand and around 105,000 overall (roughly the same size as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium combined). Unlike some tracks, the infield is small in New Hampshire and so there is no room for fans to congregate. This is because the oval is actually relatively small. Its length is 1.058 miles, while other tracks are 2 or 2.5 miles. In New England, however, oval tracks tend to be a little smaller, maybe one-third of a mile. The oval, however, is only used by NASCAR and IndyCar. Ninety-eight percent of other races use the road course, which is 1.6 miles long. And while the track is small, the overall size of the property is a massive 1,100 acres. Yet, despite the size, Gappens said the track is not intimidating and is fan-friendly.
 

Recently, Costa said the number one complaint of race fans was the size of the infield scoreboard, which was so small fans in the grandstand couldn’t see it. In response, the track invested $1.2 million into a new, 80’-tall (20 feet taller than the famous Citgo sign at Fenway) electric scoreboard.
 

This summer there will be a lot to see. For the first time in 13 years, IndyCar will return to the speedway. These smaller cars (more like wheeled fighter jets) travel at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. The average speed in NASCAR is around 130 miles per hour and cars at the smaller ovals go 80 to 90 miles per hour.
 

“There is a new breed of speed here and fans are very excited,” Costa said.
 

This addition, combined with the traditional two NASCAR races, has led Gappens to proclaim this season to be the best schedule in 21 years. As with many involved in the sport, racing runs through Gappens’ blood. His father owned a short track in Indiana, one the great Mario Andretti once raced.
 

While NASCAR and motor sports in general are often characterized as a passion of the South, New England race fans appear to be just as die-hard.
 

When Gappens moved to New Hampshire from North Carolina, the heart of motor sports racing, he was surprised by how many passionate fans there were throughout the Northeast. He said while NASCAR dates back 60 years, racing has been in New England for only 20 years. While they waited for NASCAR, they fell for other types of racing.
 

“Racing in all its applications has an amazing following in the state of New Hampshire,” said James Phinizy, a vintage motorcycle racer. He’s been racing motorcycles since the late 1960s. Phinizy described vintage motorcycles as older than 15 or 16 years.
 

“They’re purist, and to some degree I’m a purist,” Phinizy said, adding vintage bikes are representative of motorcycles that were raced years ago. Some people are racing on 1930s-style bikes. He mentioned Indian and Vincent models. On a big weekend at Loudon, there might be 500 to 800 motorcycles competing. Even at smaller events, there might be 100 racers on a given day, Phinizy said. The motorcycle racing crowd spans ages, from late teens to people in their 70s, he added.
 

Costa said this love of racing is evident by the sheer number of events held each weekend. Costa said most tracks may have one or two races in a weekend, whereas New Hampshire Motor Speedway packs four to six.
Costa said one of the major misconceptions of the race track is that there is NASCAR and nothing else. Costa said this couldn’t be further from the truth. She said the race season is from April (in April there is a free open house where fans can go onto the track) through October and there is action on the track every day. This can include car clubs, which may have a show during the day, or bicycle clubs, whose members may ride their bicycles around the oval in the evening. Gappens said the track hosts driving and motorcycle schools, recently held The Renegade Playground Challenge, an adventure race, and hosted a statewide job fair. During the winter, they let the snow act as an insulator but open up their parking lot for teenage driving schools.

The experience
 

During the season people travel from all over the country and even out of the country, as the track’s proximity to Canada has encouraged international visitors. The Speedway has accommodated, translating its brochures into both French and Portuguese, as there is a large Brazilian population that enjoys IndyCar racing.
 

Part of this success is a result of the business model racing employs. These aren’t just races; they are events. Gappens acknowledged how precious and limited family time is. He tries to create an event that is appealing to everyone.
 

“You don’t even have to like racing to have a good time,” Gappens said. “At football games people tailgate for 3 to 4 hours. Here they tailgate for 3 to 4 days. It is a combination of Woodstock, extreme Disney and a family reunion.”
 

A race weekend usually begins on Thursday, when the lesser-tier racers, like the Whelen Modified Tour or the K&N Pro Series East, practice and qualify. On these nights there is also a fanfest, which includes a concert and is entirely free. On Friday, all the other series arrive and there are practices and qualifiers and then the K&N Pro Series East will race. On Saturday, more qualifying and more races from the series below Sprint Cup. Then on Sunday, there is typically a pre-race concert or a stunt show followed by the granddaddy of them all, the Sprint Cup race.
 

Costa said ticket prices range from $39 to $110 and there are flexible payment plans. Costa said fans don’t have to pay the entire cost up front. Besides the low prices, there is also value added off the track. Behind the grandstand there are souvenir stands and hospitality tents. There may be a go-kart track set up for families and kids. Parking is free and fans can park their RVs and stay or camp out over night. Costa said communities have developed and people make friends whom they look forward to seeing year after year. The hotspot for RVs is the hill, which overlooks the track.
 

While Red Sox fans universally complain about the price of a beer at Fenway, race fans run into no such problem. Fans can bring their own food and drinks into the stadium.
 

It should be no surprise then that people come not just for race day but often for a week at a time.
 

“This is a lifestyle and a destination,” Costa said. “People come to the track for their vacation.”
Gappens said at the racetrack the stress of life can melt away for at least a few hours.
 

“The neat part of my job is that I get to put technicolor into our black and white lives,” Gappens said.
In an effort to keep a local feel, a 25-pound lobster is given to the winner of the Sprint race and the start and finish line is a slab of Granite. The mascots for other race tracks are race-related, like a lug nut, but New Hampshire Motor Speedway is represented by a moose.

Local impact
On race day, New Hampshire Motor Speedway becomes the largest city in the state. That is quite a boom to the sleepy town of Loudon, which, according to the 2010 census, has a population of 5,317 people. Costa said the relationship between the speedway and the town is “pretty good” and that she doesn’t consider the track the “big, bad speedway.” She said Loudon was a great community for the track to be a part of and the town gets great national and international exposure because of the races. She said New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the town’s highest tax payer, paying $750,000 a year in taxes, and the town’s largest employer. Then there is the economic boom that arrives on race weekend, with race fans staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and shopping in stores. Costa said the Speedway generates $400 million for the state economy on an annual basis and that number was before the Indy race came back to the track. So she predicts it will be higher this year.
 

“We do whatever we can to be good neighbors,” Costa said.
 

A dispute over the cost for police protection made headlines last year, as the race track and the Loudon Police Department had a $100,000 discrepancy in what they believed was an adequate cost for officers. But Gappens said such disputes often happen when new ownership comes to town and must re-establish relationships and good faith. Since then they’ve compromised.
 

Phinizy said the Speedway doesn’t take any racing crowd for granted, something motorcycle enthusiasts have appreciated.
 

“They’ve really afforded us a lot of track time,” Phinizy said.
 

Costa said the track has not been impervious to the high price of gasoline. She said it has affected fans, and as a result ticket sales have been a little off. She attributed this to the economy but also to an aging fan base. Motor sports, and NASCAR in particular, skyrocketed in popularity as a sport enjoyed by fathers and sons. Costa said sons would grow up adoring drivers their fathers loved and loathing the ones their fathers hated. Over time this has changed a little. Now 40 percent of fans are female but while the demographic has changed, the passion has not.

Fandom
 

“Our fans are as passionate as ever,” Costa said. “On a race weekend many cars on the highway will have NASCAR stickers or decals.”
 

“The demographics seem fairly split as far as racing at NHMS goes,” wrote Spaulding, who has been covering the NASCAR races in Loudon since 2004. “I see a lot of young kids and parents, but there’s also the older race fans as well, those that follow the circuit around the country in their motor homes. It’s an interesting cross-section of America.”
 

Berggren said racing is not exclusive and it appeals to everyone. Gappens said it is not a “redneck sport.”
 

“I’m not saying you won’t see a shirtless guy over-indulge in adult beverages,” Gappens said. “But for every one of those, you’ll see people in polo shirts and khakis.”
 

They all come because once motor sport racing is experienced, it is a feeling that is hard to shake.
 

“Once you go, it is the worst damn drug there is,” Berggren said. “I’ve spent my life watching races at the track or on television.”
 

When asked why he loved the sport so much, even turning away from a career as a college professor, Berggren said he often asks himself that very question.
 

“All I know is that my dad took me to a stock car race when I was 8 years old,” Berggren said. “I remember who won, what my favorite driver wore, the weather, the music that played. It was love at first sight and as I’ve gotten to know the sport more and the people who live it, my love has only grown.”
 

When you’re watching a race as a novice, if you just look at the race as a whole, it’s just going to look like everyone is going in a circle. But if you can zoom in on a particular driver, that will give it more meaning. Then it’s easier to get a feel for strategy. Think of drivers as part of a team, just like fans pay attention to a specific football or baseball team, Piekarski said.
 

“See what they do throughout a race, pit stops,” Piekarski said.
 

So pick a driver, and focus on him — and his team. People often don’t realize how much of a team sport racing is. People focus on the driver, and that’s obviously a big part of it, but just like Tom Brady needs supporting players, drivers do too, Piekarski said.
 

Gustavo Yacaman, a 20-year-old Columbian IndyCar driver, said for a team to win a race, everyone needs to be on, from the driver to the engineers to the people who unload the tires. He said even the best driver can’t win unless the correct tires are put on. But at the end of the day, it is the driver’s job to inspire his team and go out and win the race.
 

If you’re really interested in getting a feel for racing, go see a race in person.
 

“It’s 10 times different than watching it on TV,” Piekarski said. “You’re that much closer to the action. You get the smells that are associated with it. You get the different sounds, you get to really feel the excitement, the atmosphere of racing. It’s just like going to any other sporting event — you feel the excitement in the air with all the fans. … It’s just that much more intense when you’re actually there.”
 

Berggren said it is the drama of the event and the challenge of man versus machine that is appealing. He said advancements in technology have put the sport more in the hands of human beings. In the past, a particular driver or race team could come up with an advancement, like a bigger engine or faster tires, and keep it to themselves and then dominate a particular track or race. Technology has, in a sense, leveled the playing field, which now puts more onus on the skill of the drivers and the ability of pit crews.
 

“It is a people sport more than when I was a kid,” Berggren said. “Underdogs have a better chance of winning.”
As a result, much of racing’s success revolves around the drivers, who, like professional wrestlers, assumed larger-than-life identities and can become villains and heroes.
 

Gappens said when you see a driver in his (or her — there are now a few female drivers, led by the pioneering Danica Patrick) race suit with his helmet under his arm it conjures images of astronauts embarking on the famed Apollo missions. Gappens said fans can invest in these athletes because, unlike athletes in many other sports, they are not constantly in the headlines for controversies. Ownership seems to be aware of this fan-friendly vibe and have respected it enough not to force a lockout or labor stoppage (problems occurring in the NFL right now and possibly the NBA in a few weeks).
 

Perhaps the biggest hero racing today is Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of legendary racer Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.
 

“NASCAR fans have a favorite driver who they’re very loyal to,” Gappens said.
 

Gappens said NASCAR fans are 75 percent more likely to buy the services or products that sponsor their favorite car and driver.

American sport
 

Its popularity is due in part to the fact that NASCAR is so uniquely American. They are American drivers, in the majority, driving American cars, Dodge and Ford. While this has led to phenomenal success at home, it has, in part, stifled expansion abroad.
 

Berggren traveled with the Sprint Cup Series on exploratory trips to Japan and Mexico. He said in Japan no one showed up. In Mexico the first race was “a heck of a race” but the second race was empty — the Mexicans didn’t take to it, even though the cars in these races were driven by Mexican drivers.
 

The explanation may be cultural. Berggren noted that in both countries he wasn’t allowed to drive and was instead shuttled from place to place. He said the roads were narrow and crowded and it didn’t look fun to drive.
This is not true of New England, which has long stretches of highway on which a driver can enjoy the handling and performance of the automobile. Such intimacy with the machine is part of America’s love affair with cars. It also enriches a fan’s understanding of the sport. Most of us will never glide through the air like Michael Jordan, so the joy of a slam dunk is lost on us. But we’ve all weaved past a slow driver on the highway. So when Jimmy Johnson or Carl Edwards do these acts, at speeds well beyond our limits, we feel an appreciation unlike any in sport. We also get the benefit of Monday morning quarterbacking — I could have done that much better than Dale Earnhardt Jr.!
 

“Most of us have a passion for cars,” Gappens said. “We use them to go from point A to point B. And when we drive them fast we know there is an element of danger. Race car drivers are like modern day gladiators, and we have the colosseum. … Fans don’t know if the driver or the lion is going to win.”
 

Perhaps it is most accurate to say danger is America’s pastime. As NASCAR has grown, so too have extreme sports like snowboarding, mixed martial arts and skydiving. Gappens said motor sports racing is the ultimate extreme sport.
 

“When you miss a putt in golf, you tap in a birdie,” Gappens said. “If a driver misses a turn, he could be killed.

Those are the level of the stakes, and fans understand that danger.”
 

That bond has translated to popularity and fiscal success. In any given weekend since Jan. 1 this year, NASCAR has had the highest-rated television programming, according to Berggren. Attendance numbers are through the roof, as some of the larger tracks can hold more than 250,000 race fans. Gappens said the New Hampshire Motor Speedway has had consecutive sellouts for NASCAR races for the past 18 years. For those who argue NASCAR doesn’t have the popular support within the media that football and baseball do, Berggren would counter and say the contract between ESPN and NASCAR is anything but cheap and shows an investment from the worldwide leader in sports.
 

Yet despite their national popularity Gappens said professional motor sports are still relatively unknown in the greater Boston market. He said despite the fact that the race track is New England’s largest sports and entertainment facility, people in Boston have a better understanding of stick-and-ball sports.
 

Gappens said one of the promotional difficulties he faces is that, while racing has huge stars, he only has access to them a few times per year.
 

“I don’t have Tom Brady in my locker room every day,” Gappens said.

A view from behind the wheel
 

Piekarski’s father was always in the car business. He owns Toyota of Nashua. So Piekarski was brought up around cars. He began going to local car shows when he was 9. One day, his father saw two go-karts for sale and asked if Piekarski and his brother wanted to try them out.
 

“We said ‘absolutely,’” Piekarski said. “I was hooked on it from the very first time. From there, I just moved up the ranks, eventually up to stock cars.”
 

It’s the drive to succeed that pushes Piekarski.
 

“The biggest thing for me is the competition,” Piekarski said. “I’m a very competitive person. With racing, the majority of it is all in my control. The competition is definitely extremely intense. It’s really not even a second, it’s a constant focus. As soon as you are down in the car, you need to be focused every second. If not, that’s when accidents happen. The last thing you want is to get hurt in a race car.”
 

The level of concentration — racers focus in on the task at hand — is actually relaxing for Phinizy, he said, but taxing all the same.
 

“Competitiveness is the biggest thing that drives me,” Piekarski said.
 

Piekarski tried out stick-and-ball sports, “but I really didn’t find anything that struck me as ‘wow.’ As soon as I got into a race car for the first time, that was it.”
 

Once he’s behind the driver’s wheel, he’s a completely different person.
 

“It’s a whole different feeling,” Piekarski said. “The adrenaline really gets going. It was just the right fit for me.”
Piekarski has gone back and forth in a couple of different racing series. The two main types of racing are oval racing, which is essentially racing in a circle, and road racing, where there are left and right turns.
 

Piekarski has raced extensively at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Lee USA Speedway in Epping, and the Seekonk Speedway in Massachusetts. He’s run periodically this year with the American-Canadian tour, which races all over New England. The Seekonk Speedway is his favorite oval, but the New Hampshire Motor Speedway is where he’s most comfortable on a road course, which he prefers.
 

Drivers get a feel for how a car is handling on a certain course in a certain race. Maybe it’s feeling like the car is on the verge of spinning out or maybe it’s feeling like it’s always pushing up to the right. Drivers are trying to find a balance, Piekarski said.
 

It’s not a free-for-all out there on the track.

“You’ve got to be able to plan ahead, plan your moves, plan out a race strategy,” Piekarski said.
For example, he said, if you’re starting in the back, you need patience.

“If you just go out there and try to get up front right away, mistakes are going to happen. You’ll probably get involved in a wreck,”  said Piekarski, who was slated to have a particularly busy month in July. His biggest win came last year in the Oktoberfest race in Lee. “So you set low goals. Most of the time you can achieve it if you take it step by step.”

To excel, a driver must train both his mind and his body. Richard Campollo, a former driver on the youth circuit who is now a student at Boston University, said drivers must work tirelessly on their core (lower back and abdomen) and neck muscles to be able to handle the 3 to 4 g (units of gravitational acceleration). To put that in perspective, fighter jets typically go 6 g’s, according to Campollo.

“You’ve got to be fit enough to take the car to its maximum potential,” Yacaman said. “When you’re on the track, your heart rate can get up to 180, 190 beats per minute. That is like sprinting 100 yards for an hour. But you can’t think about being tired. If you are, then you’re not thinking about winning.”

What’s really an extreme workout is being the passenger in a sidecar race. The passenger and the driver need to be in sync, with passenger moving side-to-side with the flow of the race and the turns. Older sidecar models are less aerodynamic and so require even more positioning by passengers, Phinizy said.

“Sometimes you get tumbled around a bit,” Phinizy said. “It’s an amazing amount of teamwork.”

In racing, the difference between first and fifth place can be 1/10 of a second. The difference between life and death or severe injury can be even smaller. Campollo said some drivers just don’t care; they are wild and reckless. He said others know the danger and have genuine fear and that is what drives them.

“I like the speed,” Yacaman said. “I like feeling in control of something bigger than me.”

“Speed is just relative,” Piekarski said. “Everyone around you is going the same speed. The biggest thing, you’ve got to maintain your focus. You’re focusing on how your car feels, how you can react to that, as far as physically, basically the race car is an extension of your body when you’re racing. You can feel everything it’s doing.”

From a motorcycle perspective, the road course at Loudon is commonly referred to as a technical track, meaning it’s difficult to track and to learn, for its size. That can make it more difficult to maintain a level of pace, particularly for people new to the track.

“There’s never a dull moment,” Phinizy said.

Depending on the motorcycle, bikes will travel as much as 120 to 125 miles per hour. The more classic vintage varieties will travel around 100 miles per hour, Phinizy said.

“Any kind of vehicle competition is dangerous,” Phinizy said. “I actually think road racing is safer than riding on the street. I used to be a legislator for 10 years. It’s safer than politics because everybody’s going in the same direction.”

In all seriousness, though, there is a predictability in races. Except for novices, racers are very careful, extremely well-trained and riding well-prepared vehicles, Phinizy said, adding he wasn’t saying riding on the street is exceptionally dangerous, but on the track, racers are “encapsulated and in control.”

“There’s a very, very slight chance of anyone darting in front of you in an unpredictable manner, oddly enough at a race track,” Phinizy said.

“Plus, it’s a helluva a lot of fun,” Phinizy added.

One quarter mile of speed
Doug Adams pulled his silver Jeep a few feet from a line of cement barriers. An ambulance and two EMTs stood nearby. Engines pulsated like the slow, rhythmic beating of drums.

“They don’t let you get too close here,” said Adams, director of the New England Dragway in Epping.
A minute or so later, an engine screamed. A few seconds later, a black blur zipped by.

“That was probably 120 miles per hour,” Adams said.

Soon after that, an older pickup truck roared by. Adams said he’s not a speedometer but figured the truck was running at 98 miles per hour. The driver had been making several runs that afternoon at that speed, Adams said.

After finishing runs, drivers idle over to a small booth, where an attendant hands them a sheet of paper with their time and speed.  In drag racing, speed is measured over a straight strip of a quarter of a mile. The average is, and this ranges substantially depending on the vehicle, about 14 seconds for the strip.

On Wednesday and Friday nights, regular street cars can swing into the Dragway, pay $20 and, provided they pass an inspection at the track, see how fast their cars can go. It could be a simple Hyundai or a souped-up Ford Mustang.

“What a lot of people will do is bring their car in, establish a baseline without any modifications and then go home, do some work on it ... and come back and see how the performance modifications work,” said Joe Lombardo, the track’s general manager. He said modifications could be any number of things, such as a new intake system or a new exhaust system.

“Then it’s just the thrill of racing down the quarter mile,” Lombardo said. “A lot of big names have gone down it in the past.”

The track had its origins with the New England Hot Rod Council, which initially began racing in Sanford, Maine, at an airport. When they could no longer race at the airport, Council members found a piece of property in Epping that fit the bill for drag racing. The first race was held at the Dragway in 1966.
Drag racing’s popularity is only increasing, officials say.

“It’s actually growing,” Lombardo said of interest in drag racing. “The economy hasn’t helped a whole lot but it’s stayed pretty strong. It’s not the 10- to 15-percent growth we saw for the past several years.”

The popularity of drag racing is obvious at the track. In the pits, there are rows and rows of trailers. Racers will park their enclosed trailers at the Dragway for the whole season and come up to hit the gas regularly.

“It’s a lot of adrenaline,” said Ron Heath, who has worked at the Dragway for 18 years. “You just want to go faster.”

For every car, the average is that five people come in to watch. During major events, several thousand people crowd the facility, which includes not only the drag strip but also a motocross course, a motocross course for little kids and what’s turning into a motorcycle trials course. On a Wednesday afternoon, the motocross course was crowded with riders.

Part of the aim with the Dragway’s street nights is simply to keep kids off the street. The track gives them a controlled setting where they can push their cars’ limits. The Dragway has a program for young drag racers, ages 8 to 18. The cars (which are similar to go-karts; think miniature versions of small drag racers) are smaller and the distance is an eighth of a mile. Adams said it really is a family sport as parents can go right down to the pits. 

Inspections depend on the car and how fast it can go. The faster it can go, the more safety requirements that are needed. Once a car reaches certain levels, drivers need things like five-point harnesses and flame-retardant suits. Just last week, a driver lost control of his car, crashed, but walked away with just minor burns. Without a fire suit, Adams said, he probably would have burned to death.

Inspectors had to turn away a particularly fast car because it had anti-freeze. Cars that are registered to ride on the roads can have anti-freeze but the real dragsters can’t.

“It’s worse than ice on the track,” Adams said.
All drivers must wear a helmet.

“We’re big on safety,” said Buddy Scurto, who runs the inspections. He’s also a racer so he has that perspective.

Snowmobiles whizz by as well. Adams pointed out that Kristen Stanley holds the course and world record at 157 miles per hour on a snowmobile.

“That’s a little to close to the pavement for me,” Adams laughed.

The sport is really geared toward the individual, though the track will set up “grudge” races when people want to race each other. But it tends to be more about seeing how fast you can get your car to go. On Friday nights, officials will handicap races between cars of varying speeds — they’ll give the slower car a head start, Adams said.

Cars pull up to an attendant and rev the engine as smoke billows from the madly spinning tires. The driver pulls to the line, the attendant gives a signal for all clear, and the car explodes down the track, disappearing, seemingly, into oblivion.






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