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Is New Hampshire Cup date slipping away?

29 June 2010

Within the circus that was New Hampshire Motor Speedway this past weekend—from new $1,000 shoes for Danica Patrick to Dario Franchitti's hot laps in an IndyCar—came a stark message.

Unless circumstances change—and change quickly—this may be the last time NASCAR's Big Top visits the Granite State in June.

It's no secret that track owner Bruton Smith is considering pulling one of two Sprint Cup dates from New Hampshire and petitioning NASCAR to move it to one of his other properties—either to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which already has one Cup date, or to Kentucky, which currently hosts Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events.

Don't doubt that Smith is serious about moving to greener pastures—and to Smith, greener pastures mean, among other things, a community where he feels welcome, a police chief that doesn't charge $175,000 for security during race weekends and something more than two-lane access to the racetrack.

Those are issues that have surfaced recently and will influence Smith's decision on dates and tracks when he finalizes his schedule requests to NASCAR. There are those who equate Smith's posture in New Hampshire with threats in 2007 to relocate Charlotte Motor Speedway over a dispute with the city fathers in Concord, N.C., and Cabarrus County.

"He's bluffing," was the refrain then. After Smith, the city and county settled their differences—at least temporarily—the track stayed put.

But Smith isn't bluffing now. It's far easier to move a Cup date than it is to move a speedway.

"I've always been an optimist, and we've had a lot of negativity here—which we don't like," Smith said Sunday at New Hampshire during a press conference to announce the acquisition of a late-July IndyCar date in 2011. "We have not liked it, still don't like it, and tomorrow when I wake up I still won't like it.

"So that's not good. You cannot do what we do, or anybody else in this business does … You have a very big event here today (Sunday's Sprint Cup race), and, yes, we have a lot of people here in this market, but we find—I don't care where we are—you can't do it alone. You have to have the blessings of the city, county, state in order to do what you do when you draw these huge crowds."

Before the press conference, Smith and track general manager Jerry Gappens held a question-and-answer session with New Hampshire fans in the Nationwide garage. Smith was asked no less than five times whether he intended to move a Cup date from New Hampshire.

"You haven't answered the question yet," said the third fan to inquire. "I'd like a 'Yes' or 'No'—will New Hampshire have two Cup races next year?"

Each time, Smith deflected the question, citing the necessity of meeting with NASCAR to discuss the schedule.

"When we have something to announce, we'll announce it," Smith said.

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, who appeared at the IndyCar announcement, was every bit as adept in sidestepping questions about what the state might do to keep both Cup dates.

"I want the race weekend to be successful," Lynch said, when asked about the state perhaps stepping in in lieu of the local authorities. "And as I said before, I want New Hampshire to be Mr. Smith's favorite venue for racing. And I'll do everything I can to make sure that happens."

But the clock is ticking. Smith had preliminary meetings with NASCAR president Mike Helton and senior vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell on Saturday at the racetrack. A follow-up phone call was on the docket for Monday afternoon.

New Hampshire may well be running out of time, and Smith's strengthened synergy with the IndyCar Series is a source of additional leverage for his Speedway Motorsports Inc., which will host as many as five IndyCar races at its venues next year.

As Gappens likes to say facetiously, there's Light Speed and there's Bruton Speed—the implication being that, when Smith determines a course of action, Smith moves faster.

On a local and state level, things just may not be moving fast enough to save one of the two Cup races at New Hampshire.


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