Over thirty years ago, Bob Bahre made a calculated gamble that forever changed New England’s relationship with professional auto racing.
This weekend, New England mourns the passing of one of the pillars of regional motorsports.
Reports published Friday, echoed by the condolences of those who were close to him, confirmed that the New Hampshire Motor Speedway patriarch and former Oxford Plains Speedway owner had died this week at the age of 93.
Bob Bahre has already been enshrined in multiple regional motorsports halls of fame, and with good reason.
As the owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, Bahre grew the western Maine oval track into the state’s most prestigious racing facility, welcoming NASCAR’s premier series to New England in the 1960s and setting the groundwork for what remains today as the richest short track race in the region.
After selling Oxford in 1987, Bahre redeveloped the former Bryar Motorsports Park in New Hampshire into New England’s first world-class superspeedway, reintroducing the Northeast to big-league auto racing and securing a place on NASCAR’s national series schedule.
But even as Bahre became nationally known as the father of what was then called New Hampshire International Speedway, he never lost sight of the roots of the sport.
Oxford Plains Speedway was already part of that ecosystem when Bahre purchased the track in 1964. Two short years later, Oxford and Bahre welcomed NASCAR’s Grand National division for the first of three visits to Maine as part of a mid-season Northeast swing. It was NASCAR’s first touring visit to New England in years, still a few years before NASCAR’s upper echelon would be refined into the national touring program fans recognize today.
In 1974, Bahre promoted a 200-lap open-competition show at Oxford, with Massachusetts’ Joey Kourafas taking home the win in the inaugural Oxford 200. The race was extended by 50 laps for its second running, won by “Dynamite” Dave Dion. Now in its 47th year, through a series of sanctions, the Oxford 250 stands as the speedway’s signature event. With an allure that draws drivers from well outside New England, the Oxford 250 is the premier short track event in New England and one of the most prestigious in North America.
When NASCAR organized the Busch North Series as a regional tour in 1987, Oxford served as an early home track for the newborn series. And through Bahre’s relationship with McCreary, the tire provider for Oxford’s open-competition shows, the Busch North Series adopted the cost-effective McCreary tire as its tire of choice for the next several years.
Bob Bahre never lost sight of the roots of the sport because, for so many years, he was a part of them.
Bahre sold Oxford in 1987, moving onto a new project with a goal of raising the profile of New England motorsports. The Bahre family acquired Bryar Motorsports Park, a multi-purpose facility in Loudon, N.H. known mostly for the road course that had hosted motorcycle and NASCAR North racing for years. Legend states that when Bahre asked NASCAR brass about the possibility of being awarded a NASCAR Cup Series date for a new speedway to be built in the area, he was told the possibility was “slim to none.”
Legend also states that Bahre’s reaction was simply “what the hell, they didn’t say no.”
Bahre razed Bryar Motorsports Park, crafting in its place a flat one-mile oval and an accompanying road course. New Hampshire International Speedway opened its gates in 1990, welcoming NASCAR’s Busch Series for its first spectator event. NHIS was the largest paved oval in New England, the region’s first superspeedway and one of its largest sporting facilities of any kind. With towering aluminum grandstands and hospitality suites and a developed infield, it was a professional facility for racers, supporters, and fans alike.
NHIS welcomed the CART open-wheel series in 1992, and the slim chances of a NASCAR Cup Series date were realized with the 1993 Slick 50 300.
But for all the pizzazz and polish afforded by New Hampshire International Speedway, Bahre strayed none too far from his short track roots.
After all, at barely over a mile in length, NHIS was still short enough to accommodate NASCAR’s regional series without being a back-breaking expense. The Busch North Series that celebrated its infancy at Bahre’s Oxford Plains Speedway found a new home at Bahre’s NHIS, often accompanied by NASCAR’s open-wheeled Modified Tour. The Modifieds, slowed by restrictor plates that also invited pack drafting of the sort seen at Daytona and Talladega, quickly became the must-see attraction of any race weekend, often outshining the Cup races of later years.
What Daytona International Speedway was to racers on a national level, New Hampshire International Speedway was on a local level.
In Bahre’s hands, NHIS was good to the racers. When fifty and sixty cars turned out for standalone Busch North races at NHIS, it was not uncommon for Bahre to add a few starting positions to the field, with 46 or even 50 cars taking the green flag to ensure that everyone made a few dollars for their efforts. For those who were not so fortunate to qualify, many said that Bahre paid tow money to make sure no one went home broke.
For those on the other end of the spectrum, a unique track championship rewarded the best drivers in NHIS’ three or four Busch North and Modified Tour visits each year.
And on top of the prize money and the prestige, NHIS presented an opportunity to New England racers to get noticed in a way they never had been before. Drivers like Ricky Craven, Andy Santerre, and Steve Park earned rides at the national level because of what they accomplished on the Northeast’s most visible and prestigious stage.
Few national-level tracks have the opportunity to directly influence their regional short track ecosystems. But NHIS was granted the opportunity, and the Bahre family took full advantage of that opportunity.
Even the holiday cards mailed by NHIS staff to season ticket holders were signed, personally, by a member of the track staff, often the Bahres themselves. It was a reflection of a personal touch that extended not only to the racers, but to the fans who made the speedway’s success possible.
The Bahre family sold the speedway after the 2007 season, with Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports acquiring the track and renaming it New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in line with their other speedway holdings.
Under SMI’s ownership, NHMS remains friendly to the short track world that made its success possible. The regular NASCAR regional visits and track championships and tow money are relics of the past; for that matter, the series now known as the ARCA Menards Series East is a far cry from what it was in the 1990s or early 2000s. The racing world is far different in 2020 from how it looked twenty and thirty years ago.
But to the extent that a superspeedway can play a role in short track racing, NHMS still does. And that role was curated through the vision of Bob Bahre.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s race weekends over the last few years have been opportunely timed for memorials. In 2017 at September’s Full Throttle Fall Weekend, racers and fans celebrated the life of driver Ted Christopher, who lost his life the previous weekend in a plane crash. Last September, similar tributes were in place for Mike Stefanik, whose passing transpired in an eerily similar way.
Next Sunday marks the 49th NASCAR Cup Series event at the track that Bahre built.
Next Sunday, racers and fans alike will gather in celebration of Bob Bahre’s legacy.
Thanks, Bob, for making it all possible.