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First stop was a scorcher

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012

As NASCAR's top teams assemble for Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway amid the gathering autumn colors, it evokes a memory.

Each time they travel to the track near little Loudon, I recall going there for the speedway's Cup Series inaugural in 1993.

Back then the track was known as New Hampshire International Speedway and the race was held in the summer – July 11, to be exact – and it was a record-setting time across New England. The Northeast was choking through a heat wave with all-time high temperatures. The thermometer needles were topping 100 degrees daily. And air conditioning was the exception rather than the rule.

Many of the competitors found their lodging had no "air" either, and they weren’t happy.

Griping the most, however, were my peers in the press. Similarly lodged, they complained of restless, sweaty nights. The words "lack of modern conveniences" were uttered often.

Through sheer luck, I avoided the discomfort.

I'd booked a room at a Holiday Inn located in downtown Manchester. At the time it was billed as the tallest building in New Hampshire – and it was air-conditioned!

However, Manchester is some distance from the track, so the cool air amounted to a trade-off in that I had to face increasingly heavy traffic to reach the speedway. The route took me through downtown Concord, where the state capitol is capped with a gleaming, golden dome.

I repeatedly referred to the city as "Con-Cord," like the town back home in North Carolina’s Cabarrus County. Locals unfailingly corrected me. The pronunciation, they said, is "Conquered."

Bob Bahre, a crusty, silver-haired racing promoter of long standing, had built the 1.058-mile track amidst a thick forest on the gamble that NASCAR would award him a Cup date in an untapped major market. The speedway is located about halfway between the great metropolitan areas of Boston and Montreal.

In 1990, the sanctioning body announced the scheduling of a Busch series event at the track. That circuit is now the Nationwide tour.

As Bahre and NASCAR head honcho Bill France, Jr., walked to a press conference in Boston to divulge details of that first race, they passed a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. The man was asking for enough money for a meal.

Bahre gave the guy several dollars and then delivered a one-liner that ranks among NASCAR’s all-time classics:

"Bill," said Bahre, "if you don't give me a Cup Series date I'm going to be down there with him." Bahre and his New Hampshire track got that date in '93.

In celebration, Bahre hosted a cookout following practice on the first day the teams were at the track. The main dish was Maine lobster – all you can eat.

Dave Marcis, a driver almost as famous for his voracious appetite as for his victories, devoured a dozen. The unofficial runner-up with 10 was Tim Brewer, a crew chief with Junior Johnson’s operation. The feast made the diners temporarily forget the stifling heat wave.

Some officials feared fans would be at risk on race day. Bahre quickly allayed those concerns by installing misting devices under the grandstand where relief could be sought.

It was obvious there were going to be other problems, especially with traffic. The track was situated just off a single road, Highway 108, and it was only two lanes.

Just as expected, many fans were stuck in a miles-long, unmoving line of cars when the race began. Some abandoned their vehicles and walked the remaining distance to the track.

Such was the excitement about the first New England race at the Cup Series level since 1970. I had left Manchester at dawn and made it to the speedway without much delay.

Stopping at a rest area on Interstate 93 along the way, I was stunned by what I discovered. Only a few yards from the "facilities" within the rest area complex was a liquor store! Beer and wine were for sale, too.

I expressed my disbelief to a couple standing nearby.

"Oh, Interstate rest areas are where alcohol beverage stores are located all across New Hampshire," the woman said.

"Sort of contradicts 'don't drink and drive,' " I said.

At the track, there was trouble beyond the traffic.

On Saturday there had been a NASCAR Modified Division race, and these fast, ground-hugging cars had torn up the new asphalt, especially in the fourth turn.

Out there leading a crew in putting down new pavement was none other than Bob Bahre.

The emergency patchwork was completed for the race to start on time.

It went much as predicted, with flat-track standouts Mark Martin, the pole winner at 126.871 mph, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd in strong contention. Davey Allison and Dale Jarrett proved very competitive as well.

With a superb pit stop during a final caution with 30 laps to go, Wallace wrested the lead from Allison and was in front the rest of the way. Wallace, driving a Pontiac for Roger Penske, stretched his lead and took the checkered flag 1.31 seconds ahead of runner-up Martin.

Allison finished third. Jarrett and Rudd completed the top five.

Sadly, it was to be Allison's last race. The following day, Davey was gravely injured in the crash of a helicopter he was attempting to land at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. He passed away a few hours later.

Davey’s tragic death was to greatly temper the exhilaration experienced by most as New Hampshire staged its biggest Cup Series race.

However, it was unknown, of course, as fans, teams, officials and the press corps faced the daunting task of departing the track.

Traffic crawled on Highway 108 back toward the I-93.

Nevertheless, it was fun and enjoyable.

Folks had come out of their homes to sit and stand at roadside, chatting with people in cars and holding signs of welcome. Others waved from bridge overpasses.

I remember one sign, especially. Held up by two teen-agers, it was a tribute to the many Southerners who had been at at the race. Its message: "Y'all Come Back Now, H'eah!!!???" At the bottom was added, "PLEASE!!!"

For 19 years now NASCAR has returned, much to its benefit and that of New Hampshire.

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