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In Any Other Year, ARCA Absence at NHMS a Headline Story

Ty Gibbs passes Max McLaughlin, 9/21/2019
Ty Gibbs (#54) laps Max McLaughlin in last September's NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Apple Barrel 125 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With the lack of a race at NHMS this year, in many ways the renamed and retooled ARCA Menards Series East is leaving its Busch North heritage in the past. (Jeff Brown photo)

This week’s Full Throttle Fall Weekend was always going to be a big deal for New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Anchored by the Musket 200 for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, the two-day event was conceived as a locally-focused replacement for a Cup Series weekend that was realigned, in modern parlance, to another track.

This year, the event is big in a different way. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is only the second major stock-car weekend of 2020 for NHMS, the first and only visit of the year for the thrilling Modifieds. It also marks the return of the American-Canadian Tour to the “Magic Mile” after a two-year hiatus, and their first points-paying race on the big track since 2011.

And while the weekend already had a different look in store, with the ACT Late Models replacing NASCAR’s Pinty’s Series for what was to be their season finale, the schedule is a full race lighter than initially planned.

NASCAR quietly announced in late August that the ARCA Menards Series East event scheduled for the third running of the Full Throttle Fall Weekend had been realigned to Toledo (Ohio) Speedway, part of a combination format with the national ARCA Menards Series.

For the first time since 1990, the touring series once known as the Busch North Series will not race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

In any other year, this would be headline news.

Of course, this is not any other year. This is a year where global entertainment has been stifled by a public health crisis. This is a year where schedules published in January were made completely aspirational by May. This is a year where replacement schedules have been drafted on the fly, adjusted to meet travel restrictions and public-gathering limitations that change on a weekly basis.

In that light, it seems presumptuous to assume anything about the future based on this year’s cancellation.

But in the present, it feels like a watershed moment.

Last year’s consolidation of three similar stock car series into one cohesive ARCA Menards Series closed the curtain on one of NASCAR’s most beloved regional touring organizations. The Busch North Series was established in 1987 as a replacement for the dissolved NASCAR North Tour and as a regional counterpart to the national-tier Busch Series. A perfect intersection of prestige, opportunity and exposure made the Busch North Series the prime battleground for New England’s top racing talent.

The Busch North Series inspired a long-lasting fandom, an array of professionally-released souvenirs, and a legacy carried on through Facebook groups and iRacing tribute leagues.

In the early 2000s, though, NASCAR began retooling its myriad regional divisions into a hierarchical ladder system to promote driver development. Rulebook adjustments aligned the Busch North Series with the Winston West Series across the country. Schedule adjustments reshaped the Busch North Series into the East Series. And as the East Series’ schedule and driver base moved toward NASCAR’s aspirations of a driver development ladder, they moved away from the Busch North Series’ established roots.

The series was due for disruption, no question. A pandemic-afflicted year is hardly the year to judge whether that disruption will pay dividends in the long term. But even the most realistic Busch-era fans hoped that the new ARCA Menards Series East would at least hold dear to some fragment of the past, if only for nostalgia’s sake.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway was one of those fragments of the past. NHMS was not one of the series’ original tracks, opening a few years later in 1990. But as the only superspeedway in New England, it quickly became one of the most important tracks on the schedule. For New England’s racers, NHMS was Daytona. NHMS was Indianapolis. NHMS was where fifty and sixty cars would turn out for the big races, enough to require a last-chance race just to round out the starting lineup.

As the East Series grew away from its New England roots, NHMS remained on the schedule, one of the last vestiges of the series’ history. And for New England drivers looking to get attention on one of NASCAR’s big stages, NHMS still presented a familiar opportunity. Derek Griffith and Keith Rocco, both New Englanders with laps’ worth of experience on the flat oval, looked to the NHMS race as an chance to showcase their skill on a familiar venue.

Those opportunities will have to wait.

In fairness, the absence of the race itself will likely go unheralded by fans. The East Series’ faults were often laid bare at the “Magic Mile” in recent years. Short fields and drastic disparities in talent and equipment turned even 70-lap races into parade processions.

Indeed, last year’s Apple Barrel 125 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was a microcosm of the series’ promise and its struggles. A race that should have been a crown jewel of the schedule was attempted by only fourteen entries. The audience was captive, not captivated. The winner was a rising star with name recognition, but the series seemed devoid of an identity beyond that.

But fans overlooked the faults, as they often do, through the lenses of nostalgia. A major NASCAR weekend without the former Busch North Series’ presence, even in its current form, would still feel empty.

This is not yet a eulogy. The ARCA press release pledged to return to NHMS in 2021 and beyond. It would be unfair to bury the race’s chances altogether. But at this point, the one thing that anchors the series to the track is sentiment. And sentiment alone is rarely enough to ensure survival.

If the ARCA Menards Series does not return to NHMS next year, last year’s race could be the swan song of the on-track aura of the Busch North Series, a racing tour that introduced the national racing audience to drivers like Ricky Craven, Steve Park, Mike Stefanik and Martin Truex, Jr.

The Busch North Series deserved a far better sendoff than that.

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Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. A native of New Hampshire and a long-time fan of New England racing, Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional Late Model touring series.

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