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NASCAR Doesn't Belong To The South02:52
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NASCAR fans stake out premium lawn chair space days in advance at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
NASCAR fans stake out premium lawn chair space days in advance at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

The New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the biggest sporting venue in New England. Capacity: 105,000. Take that, Foxboro, with your 69,000 seats, or Fenway, with your mere 36,000.

The fans arrive by car, by trailer, by pickup — some of them, even, by helicopter.

For some of the most committed fans, this isn’t just a day in New Hampshire, it’s a weekend-long event. Many families skip the bleachers and arrive days early to camp out in their RVs.

Before the race started, I ran into four young fans from Gorham, Maine: Whitney Emerson, 12; Travis Emerson, 10 (practically a savant when it comes to racing trivia); Alicia Deering, 15; and Renee Deering, 11 years old.

These kids are lifelong New England Nascar fans, and they say, they know a lot of other people think NASCAR is boring.

"How can you like this sport?" Alicia says of the uninitiated. "They’re going around – Turn 1, Turn 2, Turn 3..."

The thing they like most about it is the crashes. And there are plenty of them at the New Hampshire track, with its tricky turns and narrow straightaways.

From left to right: Alicia Deering, Whitney Emerson, Renee Deering and Travis Emerson, of Gorham, Maine, in the Reserved RV area of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It can take years on a waiting list to get a spot here. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
From left to right: Alicia Deering, Whitney Emerson, Renee Deering and Travis Emerson, of Gorham, Maine, in the Reserved RV area of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It can take years on a waiting list to get a spot here. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

"Also, me and my father have headsets, and we listen to our favorite drivers," Travis says. That doubles as protections for eardrums.

"Even in the stands you have to wear earplugs," Whitney says. "It’s wicked loud."

Kevin Heartjohn of Boscawen, N.H., is camped a few trailers away. Heartjohn is holding a cold Budweiser. (Every beer you see is Budweiser.)

This is Heartjohn’s 15th year coming to Loudon, since the very first race. He says NASCAR is a New England sport.

"I mean if you walk around the parking lots, you’ll see a lot of the plates are Massachusetts, or Connecticut, they’re Rhode Island, they’re New York, they’re definitely from all over the area," Heartjohn says. "The colors are brighter when you’re here. It’s nothing like TV, you get the sound, the smell — it’s a lot of fun.

Heartjohn pays $300 to rent the space for the weekend. He splits the cost with two friends, and then he pays $120 for a pass to access the grandstands and the pits — not to mention the cost of food for the grill.

But not all fans are so willing to pay that kind of money to come out, or even $50 or $100 for a seat in the bleachers.

NASCAR is feeling the pinch of the recession. Fred Neergaard is spokesman for the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He says corporate ticket sales have fallen in the last couple of years. So the revenue from individual fans is even more important.

"We’ve obviously worked with them with a number of programs, payment plans, lower ticket prices, ticket packages, and that’s made a great dent in the corporate business that we’ve had to lose."

Starting this season, fans can buy $39 seats — still three times as much as the nosebleeds at Fenway — and Neergaard says it has been a hit. The Speedway was at full capacity Sunday.

"I think a lot of times people don’t think of the Northeast as being supportive of motorsports and that’s probably the biggest mistake that they can make."

Larry Blakely works security for the speedway. Click to enlarge. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
Larry Blakely works security for the speedway. Click to enlarge. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

Did you know, for instance, that when the New Hampshire speedway opened, in 1990, there were more race tracks per capita than in any other state in the union? Big names race at small tracks across New England: Thunder Mountain in Vermont, Lee Speedway in southern New Hampshire, Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.

"People didn’t realize that, but when they turned on their TVs in 1993, in July, and saw our full grandstands, everyone said, This is something," Neergaard says. "There's something here, because this is the Northeast. These people shouldn’t be race fans."

Back at the RV, Kevin Heartjohn looks as though there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

A lot of people on a Sunday in New England are watching the Patriots. I ask Heartjohn, would he be tailgating at Foxboro if the Pats had been at home?

"I’d be here and I’d be watching it on a satellite dish," he says. "You gotta be prepared!"

It’s clear Heartjohn is a fan of New England sports teams. But when it comes to NASCAR, he’s a fan of the entire sport — the community of fans and families he knows he’ll find every year, here, in New Hampshire.

This program aired on September 21, 2009.

Andrew Phelps Reporter
Andrew Phelps was formerly a producer and reporter for WBUR.

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