I'm a New Englander, through and through. I was born in small-town Maine and knew from the time I was 15 years old driving around short tracks that I wanted to race for a living. Though I've lived in North Carolina for several years now, there is nothing greater than coming home to New Hampshire Motor Speedway to watch the two Sprint Cup races held there each year.
I was living about ten miles south of Loudon when the track was being built. In fact, my in-laws were part owners of a pipe company and I actually delivered a few loads of pipe to aid in the construction. As a young driver from the region, it was important for me to stay close to what was going on at Loudon. It provided a venue to expand my skills and compete on a bigger track than I had previously experienced. And it provided an opportunity for me to get closer to the man behind it all -- Bob Bahre.
I've known Bob since I was a little boy. He owned and operated Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford, Maine from 1964 to 1986 and I grew up going to races there. But to build New Hampshire Speedway, Bob really put it all on the line. There was no guarantee that he'd get a Sprint Cup race. This was a "Field of Dreams" thing. It turned into a really great business venture, but I can honestly say that he was never in it for the business. From the time the concrete was laid and even after he sold the track to Speedway Motorsports, Inc. in 2008, he was all about passion.
Back in the early 2000s, Bob asked me to join him in his suite at the track. A Nationwide race was taking place, so I was signing a few autographs and hanging out with some people I knew when I saw this one gentleman literally sitting on the edge of his seat. The green flag was about to waive and he looked like as if his whole life revolved around what was taking place out there on the track. I've never seen someone so connected to a race. That person was Bob Bahre. To this day, that's one of my favorite memories of Loudon because it stands for the enthusiasm that New England fans have for auto racing.
The anticipation that surrounds a weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is incredible. I've never bought into the idea that it is in jeopardy of losing a race because the fans don't provide any wiggle room. When you live in the Southeast or even the Midwest, you have options. In New England, the extent of NASCAR fans' fix is these two events. They sell it out. But loyalty is only half of what makes these fans so great.
New England NASCAR fans are consistent with Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins fans. What they think, they're going to say. And no driver benefitted from that more than I did.
When I came to Loudon, I got a bigger applause than Jeff Gordon. That didn't happen anywhere else. I never had the numbers he did. But New England people take care of their own.
In 1998, Jeff Gordon had won three or four poles in a row heading into New Hampshire. I had been out of the sport for four months but returned for qualifying. Before anyone on the radio had confirmed that I won the pole, I could see it in the reaction of the fans. That Sunday, waiting to be introduced, I was sitting there with Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. Jeff turned to Mark and said, "Alright, we gotta go before these fans tear the fence down."
It was a great testimonial to how passionate New England fans are about NASCAR. And it's the reason I look forward to the races at Loudon more than any other races in the series. Even though I have responsibilities in the business, I'm still a fan of the sport. And for these two weeks, I'm home.
Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.