New Hampshire in November sets some drivers to shivering


September 23, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - Winston Cup racing. New Hampshire. Late November. Which doesn't belong in the same picture?

If you are a driver or a fan, you might say all of the above.

If you are NASCAR, the answer is none of the above.

"I admit, if you took a poll of all the drivers in the garage, none of them probably wants to go to New Hampshire in November," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter.

But the New Hampshire 300 has been scheduled for Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving. The speedway, in Loudon, is about 84 miles northeast of Boston.

Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon says the New Hampshire oval "is one of the hardest to get tires to work on at any time," and he is concerned about how the race tires will react up north in what is likely to be cold weather.

"I think it was right not to race last weekend," Gordon said of the race, which was postponed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks affecting New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania. "And I think NASCAR is doing the best it can. It's the only date they have. But, at the same time, it could be a disaster for us. There is no place worse on cold tires."

Gordon's closest pursuer for the Winston Cup title is Ricky Rudd, and he doesn't like the idea, either. But, he said with a shrug, "We've had races in 10-degree weather. I'm sure we can deal with it, but I can't imagine it being very nice."

Before we forget, this is a sport that used to race in the snow in Richmond in February and in Rockingham, N.C., in February. Even Atlanta has had a good share of chilling races the second week of November.

"I think it's just a mental image of the Northeast that everyone has in their minds," Hunter said. "They're imagining piles of snow and a winter wonderland."

Gordon is certainly imagining a big chill. He had a chat with NASCAR president Mike Helton on Friday about possible tire trouble there and said he was told NASCAR might allow faster warm-up laps to heat up the tires or perhaps find a way to keep the tires warm before they're mounted on the cars.

"No one wants to go," Gordon said. "But it is a race we're expected to run, and we'll treat it like every other."

Hunter said NASCAR considered all of its options before making its decision. It thought about squeezing it in on a Wednesday - an idea popular with many, including Dale Jarrett, who suggested the race be run between next month's races in Charlotte, N.C., and Martinsville, Va.

"It would mean three races in a week, but we've got great teams, and we could do it," he said.

And NASCAR considered swapping dates with a warm-weather track - Phoenix, Ariz., or Homestead, Fla.

"But why split the misfortune?" Hunter said. "It would mean fans would have to make all kinds of different arrangements. Those with tickets for a certain date, say, in Homestead, would have to make plans to use those tickets in New Hampshire and vice versa. There were multi-day tickets sold, and this will be a one-day event. What do you do about that? It just didn't work."

In the end, NASCAR decided to simply make New Hampshire the season-ending event, because it was the next available date in a schedule that had only three open dates all year and none over the season's last 20 weeks.

Which, of course, lends itself to another discussion for another day.

Right now, it's just about going to New Hampshire the day after Thanksgiving.

Lost in all this is Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire Speedway, his staff and, perhaps, a lot of fans who don't mind the idea of sitting out in cold weather. After all, football fans do it, and high school football is big in the area. And, in the case of racing, a points championship may be on the line by the time the series rolls north.

"We're sold out, and we're hearing from fans who are excited," said track spokesman Fred Neergaard. "To all of us here, we're looking forward to this as a once-in-a-lifetime event - a chance to be the season-ending event and be the place where a lot of awards will be wrapped up and, possibly, even the championship. We'll be ready for our guests."

Neergaard said the National Weather Service reports the average New Hampshire temperature on Nov. 23 is 44 degrees and that over the past 120 years, precipitation has fallen on that date just 18 times.

Still, driver Mike Skinner can't help but let a smile escape from under his mustache.

"I like New Hampshire," said Skinner, who might miss the race because of knee surgery. "Maybe I'll be healed up enough to push the snow off the race track. Someone is going to have to push the snow off the race track to race."

Day of iron men

Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken is Major League Baseball's ironman, and driver Terry Labonte is NASCAR's.

Today, both will be at Dover for the MBNA Cal Ripken 400.

Ripken, who is retiring at the end of this season, is the race's grand marshal. Labonte will be making his 700th career start in Winston Cup racing.

Labonte will become only the sixth driver in the sport's history to reach the milestone, joining Richard Petty (1,177 starts), Dave Marcis (880), Darrell Waltrip (809), Ricky Rudd (721) and Bobby Allison (717).

Indy F-1 tickets

Will it be a success or not?

The second annual SAP United States Grand Prix Formula One race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is expected to have the 2001 F1 season's largest crowd, but seats still can be obtained for the Sept. 28-30 event.

Inexpensive Friday and Saturday general-admission tickets and reserved-seat tickets for Sunday, priced from $45 to $85, are also available.

Call the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ticket office at 800-822-INDY or 317-484-6700.

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