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    Here’s why NASCAR’s playoffs are taking a final lap at New Hampshire

    Race fans watch practice for the NASCAR Cup Series 300 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
    CHARLES KRUPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Cup drivers will visit New Hampshire Motor Speedway just once in 2018.

    LOUDON, N.H. — New Hampshire Motor Speedway should be buzzing. 

    The ISM Connect 300 is NASCAR’s second Monster Cup Energy Series playoff race. Points leader Martin Truex Jr., fastest last week at Chicagoland Speedway, wants his first Loudon win. The screws are tight on the 15 other playoff drivers who wish to join Truex in the second round.

    Spirits, however, are not as high as they should be.

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    Sunday will mark Loudon’s final fall Cup race. Next year, the September date, along with the Camping World Truck Series race, will move to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Loudon’s 21-year streak of hosting two Cup races will end.

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    “I want to slow time down,” said NHMS general manager David McGrath, a Marlborough, Mass., native. “I want to enjoy this one. I think the team does, too. We are all consummate professionals. I know the team will hit all its marks and do all the wonderful things it does year in and year out for our race fans. But I think it’s a little bittersweet.

    “As I’ve always said from the moment the news broke of the decision to move the event, I look at it from the fans’ perspective and from the general manager’s perspective. I’m a fan of the sport. I’ve grown up loving NASCAR. So it’s hard. But I get it. I understand the business end of the way our business works. I completely support that.”

    From New Hampshire to the desert

    Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased NHMS from Bob Bahre in 2007. SMI owns NHMS, LVMS, and six other tracks that host Cup races. Of the 36 Cup races, 12 run at SMI tracks. Through consultation with NASCAR, SMI determines optimal race distribution among its eight facilities. 

    On March 8, SMI announced the transfer of Loudon’s fall events to LVMS. Las Vegas will join Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway as SMI properties with two annual Cup races. 

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    According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, more than 115,000 fans attended the Kobalt 400 at LVMS on March 6, 2016. Las Vegas’s approximate permanent seating capacity is 104,000, including 102 luxury suites.

    NHMS’s approximate permanent seating capacity is 89,000, including 38 luxury suites. They are not all filled. The track does not disclose attendance, but it has declined since its days of 101,000-seat full houses. In July 2015, NHMS removed seats from Turn 3 and turned it into Granite Ledge, a paved hospitality area for sponsors and clients.

    On July 17, 2005, Tony Stewart climbed the fence on the front straightaway to celebrate his win. Smoke from Stewart’s burnout could not have slipped between the fans’ shoulders. This past July, during the Overton’s 301, some of the prime seats at the start/finish line were empty. 

    In that way, moving the September race makes sense. But from a global view, Loudon’s struggles are not isolated.

    A changing audience

    According to SMI’s annual report, 2016 admissions decreased by $10.1 million (10 percent) in revenue from 2015. International Speedway Corporation, which owns NASCAR and 13 tracks, sold out three of its 19 Cup races last year: the Daytona 500 (Daytona International Speedway), the Cheez-It 355 (Watkins Glen International), and the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (Homestead-Miami Speedway).

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    In the report, SMI presented several factors in the downturn of admissions, event-related revenue, and viewership: uncertain consumer and corporate spending, high under-employment in certain demographic groups, absence of a stronger middle-class economic recovery, and high costs in food and health care. SMI also cited high lodging prices, minimum stay requirements, and increasing highway congestion to explain reduced travel and spending by certain segments of NASCAR’s customer base.

    NASCAR has also been battered by driver departures. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon retired after 2015. Three-time champ Stewart hit the rocking chair after last year. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are done. Matt Kenseth, 2003 champion, and crossover star Danica Patrick are out of their rides after this season. At year’s end, NASCAR will lose behemoth Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    NASCAR is developing its next generation. Kyle Larson (25 years old) is second in the standings. Chase Elliott (21), who replaced Gordon in the No. 24 car, is eighth. Erik Jones (21) will replace Kenseth next year. Alex Bowman (24) and William Byron (19) are taking over for Earnhardt (42) and Kasey Kahne (37).

    Despite Larson’s second-place status, longtime sponsor Target will exit Cup racing after this year. The Minneapolis-based company is focusing its sports marketing on Major League Soccer, Minnesota United FC, US Youth Soccer, and the US Soccer Foundation.

    The sport is also experiencing viewership changes. According to research firm Magna Global, the median age of Cup watchers last year was 58. In 2006, it was 49. Over the 10-year span, it marks the third-biggest increase in viewer age among major sports properties after UFC (34 to 49) and action sports (31 to 47). Magna Global did not include digital consumption, which younger NASCAR viewers are likely to prefer over a traditional three-hour broadcast.

    “Attention spans are challenged with all the options out there,” said Brian Hughes, Magna Global’s senior vice president of audience intelligence and strategy. “They expect to get the skinny quickly, with something like NFL RedZone. That caters more toward that audience. They want to get to the good stuff quickly.” 

    McGrath aims to get young and old fans in the door. He wants them to experience stock cars screaming down the front stretch.

    “It awakens every sense in the human body,” McGrath said. “You can feel it. You can smell it. You can hear it. The access we give you, you can touch it. Other than seeing Tom Brady run out of the tunnel, you’re not really getting close to Tom Brady on game day. But our fans can give a driver a high five right when they’re getting off the stage and into the intro trucks.”

    Improving the product

    On Sept. 25, 2016, Edwards, Truex, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski took turns leading the first 125 laps of the Bad Boy Off Road 300 at NHMS. Every lap was green until a caution for debris slowed the cars. Even hard-core fans struggle to watch cars turn left for 125 straight laps, especially on a 1.058-mile flat track that has not been friendly to passing.

    This year, NASCAR introduced stage racing. Bonus points are available after each segment. In July, Truex won the first 75-lap stage. Busch was fastest after Lap 150.

    “You’re not going to go 125 laps of green flag racing because you have stages now,” McGrath said. “You have a definitive stopping point, which creates a need for a driver to get there first, or be second and want to be first, or be third and want to be second. It just creates more racing moments. That’s working.”

    For their last two Loudon visits, Cup drivers have driven on PJ1, a compound applied to make the track stickier. Drivers have praised the addition, which has encouraged racing above and below the traditional groove. 

    Next year, if NHMS repeats its PJ1 application in September, drivers from three tiers will race on the compound. The track will host a Whelen Modified Tour 250-miler, a K&N Pro Series East show, and a Pinty’s Series race. NHMS projects 15,000 to 20,000 fans to attend the two-day event. Television coverage of any of the races is undetermined.

    NHMS officials promise good racing action next year. It’s just that it will involve only one Cup visit.

    “We’ll take all the focus of the team on the July race weekend next year,” McGrath said. “Where we were two races in 10 weeks, now we’ll be one. All that energy will be driven right at the heart of that event in July of 2018.”

    Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.