LOUDON, N.H. — It doesn’t take long to realize New Hampshire is New England’s NASCAR country.
Driving north on Interstate 93 with New Hampshire Motor Speedway as your destination, it’s hard not to be amused by the Busch beer billboard featuring Kevin Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang, just as you cross the border from Massachusetts.
The Granite State played host to New England’s biggest race weekend of the year, starting Friday, with Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 301 culminating three horsepower-powered days.
NESN Fuel was there to cover the weekend, and here’s a behind-the-scenes look.
It’s a relatively short drive with no traffic to here from Boston — about an hour and a half — but it might as well be another part of the country. That’s not a criticism, just an observation — as is everything that follows.
The NASCAR crowd cherishes its freedom of expression. Sitting at a red light to turn on to Route 106, we can’t help but notice the “Proud Redneck” sticker on the window of the car next to us. A few minutes later, we follow a couple of RVs into the NHMS parking lot and spot a “Panty Dropper Racing” bumper sticker.
Oh, and there was one more bumper sticker that stood out: the Bernie Sanders bumper sticker — in the media lot, of course.
Unsurprisingly, the noise is impossible to ignore. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an elevator or in the media center restroom, you hear and feel the cars all weekend.
Shortly after getting situated in the media workroom — located on the infield, behind pit road and between the haulers and garages for the Cup and Xfinity teams — you begin to realize just how much access you have. Anyone with a “HOT” pass is allowed access to the pits and the garages, allowing you to walk freely around the grounds, mingling with crew members and dodging the same cars you see on the TV every weekend.
There’s work to do, and the NESN Fuel crew starts its weekend with a series of interviews, including one with breakout stars Kyle Larson and Roush Fenway’s Ricky Stenhouse.
That interview takes place in the RV lot where drivers and owners park their massive buses for the weekend, allowing them to live the life of luxury even at the race track.
After the interview, we grab Stenhouse for a quick solo promotional video, and Larson’s son, Owen, shoots Stenhouse with a squirt gun as he speaks into the camera.
On the track, it’s a busy day, filled with practice and qualifying. The Whelen Modified Tour runs an All-Star exhibition race. The modifieds are a huge draw at Loudon, and even this short 30-lap race lives up to expectations. New England native Ryan Preece holds off Cup veteran Ryan Newman, as the two make slight contact on the final lap, prompting Newman to put Preese in a (mostly) playful headlock when he finds him in victory lane.
The Cup Series also runs its qualifying Friday afternoon. Martin Truex Jr. and Larson — Nos. 1 and 2 in the points standings — unsurprisingly finish first and second, respectively. Two-time NHMS winner Denny Hamlin qualifies ninth after a wreck in practice forces him into his backup car.
Larson’s day ends with a press conference in the media center, a session ultimately hijacked by Owen. The youngster takes his own seat at the podium and announces his desire for ice cream to the assembled media.
Larson smiles and picks up his little boy, but those smiles are probably short-lived. Moments later, it’s announced the No. 42 team failed post-qualification inspection, and Larson will start Sunday’s race from the rear.
You might think Saturday’s main event is the Xfinity race, which will feature Cup regulars like Larson, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. But Saturday at Loudon belongs to the modifieds.
The Cup cars wrap up their final practice session under clearing skies, as the sun makes its first appearance of the weekend. That’s just in time for the Eastern Propane & Oil 100, which is described — without any hint of hyperbole– as “the Super Bowl of the modified series” numerous times.
It exceeds expectations. Preece and Newman resume their battle, jockeying for first place for much of the race. Eyes remain glued to the track, except to notice billowing black smoke over the back straightaway. Speedway officials on the radio can be heard talking about an RV fire over the hill, and the smoke quickly disappears.
Newman ultimately starts a big wreck on Lap 99, taking him out of contention. Preece is in it until the end, but he’ll have to settle for second, as Bobby Santos makes a late charge to win. In an interview with NESN Fuel after the race, an emotional Santos can’t stop saying how “unbelievable” it is to win at Loudon.
The walk back to the media workroom from the grandstand press box makes for great people-watching. Like the older gentleman whose combination of long, white beard and hair make him look like a combination of Gandalf the Grey and a ZZ Top band member. He’s steering his motorized scooter through traffic with (presumably) a grandson on each lap while puffing on a cigarette. On the back of his cart is a Sunoco fuel sticker; he zipped by too fast to check whether he was on four fresh Goodyear tires.
The Xfinity race is a dud, and a flash downpour delays the run. With the race stopped under a red flag, hunger pangs hit Justin Allgaier. Not long after, an NHMS employee delivers a Wicked Whoopie pie from the media workroom in a made-for-TV moment on NBC Sports.
Allgaier takes a bite on a camera and gives his approval. The employee returns to the media workroom where he’s greeted with a friendly round of applause from his coworkers for his TV debut.
The rain delay makes for a tighter schedule, as drivers in the day’s final race, for the K&N Pro Series, race not only each other but the setting sun. They get their 70 laps in before it gets too dark, and the day is just about done.
In order to leave the infield, you pass through a tunnel under the track. Traffic through the tunnel is heavier than expected. That’s because Austin Dillon, who drives the famous No. 3, has parked his golf cart just outside the tunnel to take pictures and sign autographs.
Raceday at NHMS couldn’t be any more perfect It’s a little hot, but not oppressive, and the sun is out, which makes the cars’ glossy paint almost look fake.
There’s commotion everywhere you look. The race teams are making final tweaks before inspection, while sponsors mingle with clients.
Again, it’s truly unbelievable how much access NASCAR grants. At times, it’s uncomfortable; you feel like an intruder. The garage area is flooded with people, and only a small fraction actually need to be there. You’re literally rubbing elbows with teams as they push the cars to and from the garage. As we wait outside one hauler, the No. 88 team stops for a quick inspection, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride is close enough to touch.
You try to be as respectful as possible and not get in the way, mostly to avoid being run over. They seem used to it, but they also don’t seem particularly enthused by all the company — except for one member of David Ragan’s team wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. He sees the NESN equipment and tells us he’s from Saugus, Mass., and is thrilled he can finally watch the games down in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, pit crew members for the No. 43 team get rubbed down on a massage table set up in the shadow of the hauler.
Among the track’s special guests Sunday are Boston Bruins players Brandon Carlo and Tim Schaller. They’re given a personal tour of the No. 17 hauler and get a chance to speak with Roush Fenway drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. It’s fascinating to see and hear the four professional athletes interact with each other, quizzing the others with legitimate curiosity.
Inevitably, the conversation with Stenhouse shifts to peeing in the race car. It seems like a question Stenhouse and the rest of his coworkers are used to answering.
Before the drivers’ meeting begins, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — Sunday’s pace car driver — stops and chats with NASCAR superstar Jimmie Johnson. Between the two of them, they’ve got 12 championships.
McDaniels and the Bruins players are introduced as special guests, as are a pair of military veterans. Without hesitation, every single driver and crew chief stands and gives them a hearty ovation.
The 3 p.m. ET green flag is rapidly approaching. The drivers are introduced — Junior gets the loudest ovation, the heartiest boos saved for Kyle Busch. Things get real when the command is given and 39 cars fire their engines.
Then it’s time for 301 laps around the Magic Mile. The green flag drops, and all of those cars barrel across the starting line, engines roaring so loudly you can feel it your throat. While NHMS is one of NASCAR’s “slowest” tracks, cars still whip by at speeds pushing 140 mph. You feel it in the pit of your stomach. It rattles you, in a good way. There’s no elegant way to put this: It’s just so badass.
The all-access press passes allow us to hang out in the pits during the race, which gives you an even greater appreciation for what’s happening. Each team takes a handful of pit stops per race, spending no more than 13 or 14 seconds on each (at most). It’s an incredible sight to behold up close, especially for anyone who’s been stuck in their mechanic’s waiting room all day on a simple oil change.
Race car drivers are generally on the smaller side physically, but their pit crews are a different story. Pit boxes are filled with enormous dudes who look like they belong playing football, not changing tires or filling gas tanks on Sunday. So it makes sense the gasman for Kasey Kahne (5-foot-9) is former Clemson offensive lineman Landon Walker (6-foot-6). He’s featured on the NBC Sports race telecast.
“You’ve just got to show up and do your job every weekend,” Walker tells NBC, unintentionally borrowing a phrase from one of New England’s biggest heroes.
In a Patriots-like effort, it’s Denny Hamlin (and his backup car) who holds off the hard-charging Larson for the win. Like the five-time Super Bowl champs, Hamlin and his team weren’t always the best Sunday, but they were the best prepared and they took advantage of every opportunity.
The top drivers eventually head to the media center for press conferences. It’s a free-for-all for the rest of the drivers, as the media is allowed out on to the track to get interviews. Think about that for a second: These guys just ran 300 miles in the July heat with about 5 minutes to unwind. Tempers sometimes boil over, as evidenced by a little argument between Trevor Bayne and A.J. Allmendinger, the specifics of which are far too profane to repeat here.
After a series of wild burnouts, Hamlin heads to victory lane, where his prize — an enormous lobster — awaits. He holds it up and then gets the heck out of there. Later, the now three-time NHMS champ talks about his “lobster phobia.”
All in all, it’s an eye-opening weekend, and it’s impossible to leave without a greater appreciation for the sport. No sport better exploits all the senses, and it’s enough to turn fringe fans into diehards.
Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images