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New England Dragway excited about improvements

About 20,000 fans piled into New England Dragway last June for its first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Series event.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

About 20,000 fans piled into New England Dragway last June for its first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Series event.

Given the turnout of some 20,000 fans and the positive reviews New England Dragway received last year after hosting its first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Series event in Epping, N.H., Joe Lombardo, the track’s general manager, chuckled when asked what he planned to do for an encore.

“Give them bigger and better,’’ Lombardo said. “And more of it.’’

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That no doubt will be Lombardo’s objective when the NHRA returns to the Granite State next weekend for the New England Nationals. Lombardo said NHRA officials, who signed New England Dragway to a 10-year agreement to host a sanctioned event, “left here happy with the event and were happy to be coming back here in 2014.”

“The competitors were really happy with everything that we had last year,’’ Lombardo added. “We really didn’t want to change anything. I happened to have a talk with [NHRA legend] Don Schumacher and he said the racing was fine, and now we just have to focus on making the fan experience better.’’

To that end, Lombardo said track officials focused their attention on improving the facility.

“In front of the grandstands, there used to be dirt and gravel and now that’s all paved,’’ Lombardo said. “We widened the [reception] areas so that when people come through the main gate it’s easier for them to get to the pit area.

“We reconfigured the temporary grandstands on the right side of the track so that everybody will get a little bit closer to the track. Now, instead of being 30 rows up, they can get the full experience of the Nitro cars going down [the track]. Updates and things we weren’t able to catch up to in time for last year we were able to get done this year.’’

Asked if he was satisfied with the track’s parking and traffic mitigation, Lombardo said, “Not really.’’

The track implemented satellite parking and shuttled fans to and from the satellite lots.

“The buses seemed to work out pretty well,’’ Lombardo said. “A lot of people I know who left the track and went to one of the satellite lots were home before some of their friends who parked on the property. So that part of the process worked out pretty well.

“But the traffic part, coming into the facility, a lot of people ignored the sign boards that were out on Route 101 and used their GPS’s instead. That really clogged up Exit 8. So what we’re telling people now who are coming from the east, when they’re heading west on Route 101, is to use Exit 9 because it’ll get you into the facility a lot faster and will eliminate the bottleneck coming from the traffic on the western side of the state. So little things like that, we’ve been working with local police and state police to make that better.’’

Lombardo was also buoyed by the racing results, in particular Courtney Force’s victory over her father, 16-time NHRA champion John Force, in last year’s Funny Car final.

“That was really cool,’’ Lombardo said. “But you know what? One of the neater things that happened that weekend was that we have a guy who races all the time with us. His name is Sam Hurwitz and he lives in Newton, Mass. He used to race Pro Stock Motorcycles, and when he heard the race was coming up here, he got another Pro Stock Motorcycle ride to compete in this event and he wound up being the first person to qualify for an NHRA event at New England Dragway.

“We had an awful lot of fun watching him go down and make that first pass. He was trying to scramble around to get some track shirts for his crew and we had some that said, ‘New England Dragway,’ on them and let him use those. He’ll be back this year.’’

With more food locations on the property, and a new beer garden installed, Lombardo expected New England Dragway to draw more visitors this year.

“I think we’re going to see a 5-10 percent increase in the number of people,’’ Lombardo predicted. “Amazingly enough, despite all the advertising that was done last year, there were still people who didn’t know the event was here. Or that New England Dragway even existed. So I don’t want to get too optimistic, but I anticipate we’ll see a 5-10 percent increase in the number of people who turn out.’’

Junior’s circuit

June, it seems, is shaping up to be Junior’s month. Dale Earnhardt Jr. virtually cemented a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship by becoming the fourth driver to win twice this season with his victory in last weekend’s Pocono 400.

Now Junior will head to Michigan International Speedway, where he won twice before in 2008 and in 2012, snapping a drought of 143 races, brimming with confidence.

“Having two wins is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team, and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase,’’ said Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevrolet will don a Superman paint scheme for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400. “I mean, not only are we able to relax right now, but that’s got to be positive for our composure and psyche going into the Chase, not having to stress all the way through into Richmond [for the regular-season finale].’’

Earnhardt, evidently, was so eager to get to Michigan, he accidentally left Ryan Newman behind at the airport in Concord, N.C., after promising a ride to his colleague. Newman, who had been told departure time was 8:30 Friday morning, arrived at the airport to learn Earnhardt’s plane had departed at 8. Newman averted missing Friday’s practice by bumming a ride on Dale Jarrett’s plane.

“I forgot about Ryan,’’ Earnhardt said. “Even if we were taking off at 8:30 a.m. and he wasn’t there I probably would have left him. Yeah, he should have texted me [Thursday] night. I think he got a ride. That was unfortunate for sure, but it happens.’’

Bulling his way

Team Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo became the first non-Mercedes driver to win in seven Formula One races this season when the 24-year-old Australian captured the checkered flag in last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Ricciardo earned his first victory when he passed series leader Nico Rosberg with two laps to go when Rosberg’s Mercedes experienced engine and brake problems. “Obviously, Mercedes had their issues and that enabled us to close on them,’’ Ricciardo said in disbelief afterward. “It’s a bit surreal. Really cool.’’ Rosberg finished runner-up while defending Canadian Grand Prix champion Sebastian Vettel came in third . . . Juan Pablo Montoya, who left Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team last season to return to his open-wheel roots driving for Roger Penske’s IndyCar team, returned to Michigan to compete in his first of two Sprint Cup races this season. “It’s exciting to be back, especially with Team Penske,’’ said Montoya, who got up to speed in the new Cup cars by doing a test last week at Nashville Speedway, where he reported being within one-10th of the fastest time after eight laps. “I always run well here [at Michigan] and qualified really well here.’’ Montoya will also drive for Team Penske at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “This year we’ve got two really good shots [to win a Sprint Cup race],’’ Montoya said. “This is probably one of the best tracks for the Fords.’’

Material from personal interviews, wire services, sanctioning bodies, race teams, sponsors, manufacturers and track publicity departments was used in this report. Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBVEGA.
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