It will go down as the coolest gearhead non sequitur I have ever seen. Walking up to the old Boston city hall building, deep in the heart of downtown and seeing Bob Tasca III’s nitro funny car sitting there, swarmed with kids, sure made me smile. The flopper was there because the NHRA’s press conference announcing a Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national event at New England Dragway in 2013 was to happen a few feet away in a courtyard. This day, and more specifically the announcement that the Epping, NH strip would join the elite group of tracks that hold the largest drag racing events in the world marked the closing of a loop that was begun nearly 50 years ago when a group of New England hot rod clubs joined up to form a group with the expressed purpose of building a dedicated drag strip in the region. The New England Hot Rod Council is long gone, but their blood, sweat, and tears remain at the Epping strip.
New England Dragway is a special place for me because it’s where I got my chops as an announcer, was first published in the track newspaper, learned how to drag race, made lots of great friends, and it is a place that I consider my second home. For a few summers in college, it literally was my second home as I slept in the timing tower on the weekends after the track manager took pity on me sleeping in my truck. I’d get to the track on Friday, and leave after racing was done on Sunday, working on my school assignments at night in the back room. At some point, I am sure the little tower that now stands at the track will be razed for the construction of a zooty new one and that will be a sad day for me as I have spent many memorable weekends in there. It is small, cramped, and barely adequate to operate a weekly program, let alone a massive NHRA national event, but it is home. Like that first junky apartment you once lived in, it has a charm all of its own.
NED is one of the few tracks out there that has been sanctioned by every major drag racing body. It was unsanctioned for the 1966 opening season and then spent many years as an AHRA track, hosting their famed Grand American series. For many years the track hosted the Fall Funny Car Nationals which was an open format 32 car nitro funny car show that stood as the premier such event in the eastern half of the country. Anyone who was anyone would run there and Jungle Jim won more of them than anyone else. The track spent time with the NHRA and IHRA during the 1980s and 1990s, finally settling into a long stint as an IHRA facility that made it one of the anchor venues for that organization. The IHRA North American Nationals held each September drew fans and racers from all over the region and down from Canada in droves. The track’s 90′ of physical elevation above sea level meant that the cool September nights were always good for records to fall, especially in the mountain motor pro stock and pro modified classes. The first mountain motor cars to run in the 6.20s were at Epping and what a night that was.
Rumors have floated around this region for ages regarding the NHRA’s desires to host an event here. The naysayers would always shout the same tired refrains about NED’s shortcomings. They’d claim that there wasn’t enough parking, not enough physical acreage to get the racers in, the lighting wasn’t good enough, the track itself wasn’t good enough, and on and on. Then a funny thing happened. The track began a systematic and plodding infrastructure improvement program. It has been going on for years. From clearing land to upgrading the score boards, to adding huge Musco lighting towers, to upgrading the entire racing surface to concrete, to additional paving, and on and on and on. All of those individual steps were put in place to meet the NHRA specs for hosting an event. Tom Compton, the leader of the NHRA said at the press conference that it has been a 10 year process to get to this point, and I’ve been lucky enough to watch it happen. I remember a clandestine meeting years ago with an NHRA consultant that toured the facility with track leadership and gave them a report on what needed to happen to get an event there. This was long before the NHRA came back as the sanctioning body at the track.
Interestingly, in 2007 when Bruton Smith bought the controlling interest in the former New Hampshire International Speedway, the common thought was that he would quickly add a drag strip and get the event that NED now has. For a modicum of reasons, that did not happen. The largest reason is the supposed language in the track’s agreement with the town of Loudon, NH that they would never build a drag strip at the facility. Unlike the leadership of Concord, North Carolina, those Yankees would never relent and will never relent in the future. Have I ever seen the agreement and language barring a drag strip? No, but I have heard it from so many reliable sources up here, I believe it.
There are certainly risks involved with this move. There’s still a lot of money to spend and a lot of changes to be made. There’s financial risk a-plenty and there are many who think that this effort, spearheaded by older members of the track’s board who want to see their dream realized before it is too late, is a dangerous one to make in these uncertain times. Those concerns are certainly valid in my book, but the potential gains are significant as well. I love the place on an oddly deep level and certainly do not want to see it get into a hole it cannot climb out of, but the reality is that this was the natural final step in the evolution of the track. It has hosted national events for the IHRA, AHRA, many divisionals for the NHRA, and it is the only quarter mile strip in New England proper. Where else is there to grow?
The first event, to be held on June 20-23, 2013 will be insane. That is a guarantee. This is the first time an NHRA national event will be held in New England. So many make the trip to Englishtown and Maple Grove each year, and lots used to go up to Sanair when the NHRA raced there, so the pent up demand for this race is unmatched in every sense of the word. I am most looking forward to seeing the most insane, blow the fences down crowd in the history of the facility. I’ve seen some good ones, but this will take the cake by a very wide margin.
I cannot think of another track in the country that has been in business for so long before being awarded a pinnacle event. Tracks like Pomona, Englishtown, and Gainesville have been NHRA tracks since the beginning and have hosted events for decades. If anything, this nearly 50 year trip proves that us stubborn, hard headed Yankees never give up on anything. It will be a brave new world for NED over the next year as the facility once again morphs to meet the demands of this next chapter. Yes, some of the old timey character of the place will be gone, replaced with shiny new buildings, paving, and amenities. I’ll curse that a little under my breath, all the while realizing and understanding why it is happening.
I can tell you one thing though. Before they tear that tower down, I’m spending one last weekend sleeping in it. I won’t even have to do homework this time.