Tragedies still fresh in mind as Loudon return looms
LOUDON, N.H. (AP) -- Not so long ago, New Hampshire International Speedway was known simply as The Magic Mile.
But like so much else in NASCAR in the past 14 months, some of the fun-loving spirit at this track has been replaced by a somber reality: Racing is a life-and-death business.
And business continues this weekend in Loudon, where Kenny Irwin was killed during practice last July. He crashed in turn 3, six weeks after Adam Petty died there in a Busch series practice. Both went nearly head-on into the wall.
Truck series driver Tony Roper died in October in Texas, then NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt was killed five months ago in the season-opening Daytona 500.
So, with all the talk of danger in the sport, New Hampshire can't escape being a focal point. Although the usual 100,000 will attend the New England 300 on Sunday, the track will no longer be remembered only for the good it has brought to NASCAR -- the way it opened the region for an ever-growing base of stock car racing fans.
Instead, it conjures memories of tragedy, something NASCAR would like to forget just two weeks after racing at Daytona for the first time since Earnhardt's death.
"It's a terrible thing, but you just hope things go forward," said track owner Bob Bahre. "We went 10 years here without a single problem. We hope another 10 years will pass with things going great. But this is tough. Let's face it, these were good kids."
Immediately after Irwin's death, critics said the track was simply too dangerous because of its long straightaways, sharp turns and rough surface.
Petty and Irwin apparently were victims of stuck throttles, a malfunction that could have happened anywhere, but one that can pose bigger problems at tracks like Loudon, where there is little banking to help turn the car and slow it down.
NASCAR is still drawing conclusions about the crashes, folding them into its ongoing investigation of Earnhardt's death. But they didn't wait for an inquiry last year, instead reacting almost immediately to Irwin's death by mandating a switch on the steering column to shut down the engine.
NASCAR also required restrictor plates on the cars when they returned to New Hampshire last September, making Loudon the only track outside of Talladega and Daytona to use the plates, which restrict air flow to the carburetor and rob the cars of power. The restrictor-plate requirement has been lifted for this race.
"We never pointed a finger at the facility itself," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "I don't know why it happened the way it happened. I have no idea how to answer that type of question."
Even though NASCAR doesn't blame the track, Bahre took measures in the last few months to ensure a better driving surface.
He hired two companies -- one that sealed some of the grooves in the track, another that used lasers to grind down the rough spots.
"I'm not going to call that place a hole," Rusty Wallace said. "I'm going to call that a place that has unfortunately had a couple of accidents, that needs a pavement job, and needs a bump taken out of turn 3."
That was a much more generous assessment than the one Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered last month.
Despite his father's death, there was never a question he would return to Daytona, simply because of its storied history. Then he added to its lore with an emotional victory July 7 in the Pepsi 400. But racing here doesn't move him.
"Loudon is a different racetrack," Earnhardt said. "If my father's death had occurred there, I'd be considering not going back."
After his son was killed, Kyle Petty didn't come for either race last year, and has said a decision on this weekend wouldn't be made until hours before qualifying Friday. Earnhardt will be here but not filled with enthusiasm about his surroundings.
"It's just not a very uplifting track to be at in the first place," he said. "The fans are great, but the track and the mood itself, with everything that's happened there -- it's just real dull."
That's not the endorsement Bahre is looking for as he tries to turn the page on a difficult 2000. But again, not much has gone as expected for the folks at the New Hampshire since Adam Petty's death.
"Some of the drivers love it here, but everyone is entitled to their opinion," Bahre said. "We're just trying to do the best we can."