I’ve long held to the belief that a venue is as much of an ingredient to the success of an event as the entertainment taking place within its confines. The where plays into the overall atmosphere we experience, and long after, we remember the where as much as the who or what. Woodstock, for example, wouldn’t have been the same had it been held inside of a then-modern hockey arena, and the unmistakable aura of the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs would be entirely different had they played in a series of state-of-the-art ballfields for the last century.
Drag racing, following the lead of other forms of auto racing and athletic sports, has gradually progressed toward highly-modernized venues, which offer impressive fan amenities, but increasingly at the expense of access and charm. Today’s state-of-the-art professional sports arenas are virtually lifeless heaps of steel and concrete that, even with in-seat wi-fi, countless jumbo-screens, craft brew bars, and air-conditioned suites, are as forgetful as a bad season on the field. Nevermind they all look the same.
There was a time when drag racing fans could virtually stand on top of the cars as they launched off the starting line at tracks dotting the map. They weren’t modernized palaces fit for a king, but rather, a place to conduct speed contests. There were wooden grandstands of questionable integrity, perhaps a burger or hot dog hut, and if you were lucky, a semi-clean place to relieve yourself. And no one gave a flip. Today, we seemingly expect — no, demand — restrooms at racing facilities that all but wipe our behinds for us.
But in the midst of all that change, racetracks lost their charm.
As an Indiana native who frequented the place, I can remember fans for years referring to the Indianapolis Raceway Park — I know Lucas Oil is the title sponsor, but it’ll always be IRP to me — as a dump. They still do in fact. It didn’t have all the up-to-date amenities and cleanliness of other stops on the tour, but you know what it did have? Charm and history. It still looked a heckuva lot like the IRP of the 1960s and 70s, and if you ask me, that was perfectly alright. And while it’s indeed still Indy, with every structure they knock down and new one they add, it becomes a little less of the Indy we knew.
But what the fans have asked for is another lifeless concrete palace.
NASCAR, for its part, sold its soul in the name of progress years ago, disposing of many of its iconic raceways or altering the face of others to the point of unrecognition with glass-encased suites and stadium seating emblazoned in an array of colors to mask the fact that its attendance is increasingly sparse. Perhaps there’s a correlation.
I often cite Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park as prime examples of how charm, how intimacy, how history play into our psyche. Sure, these two ballparks have been modernized to the extent that they can be over the years, but they’re still the crammed yards with poor sight-lines and limited amenities, situated tightly in urban neighborhoods between local dive bars and homes, that our grandfathers and great grandfathers delighted in. And the fans of those two franchises, even with all the new stadiums out there taunting them with modern curb appeal, wouldn’t have it any other way.
In a lot of ways, the nostalgia and the romanticism of an older, smaller venue provides a refuge — even if only for a day — from the constant change, the fast-paced, smartphone-in-your-face world we live in today. Thankfully, our sport still has a handful of tracks that look as though they were plucked right out of the 1950s, and I for one hope they never change. The elders among us remember the many strips of yesteryear, as much for what went on there as they do for what they were: tracks with character, with the feel of a local dust-bowl where everyone knows your name. No offense, because they’re great tracks, but will we remember the Route 66 Raceway, the zMax Dragway, or Sonoma?
This week, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series heads to arguably the most quaint venue on the 24-race schedule, New Hampshire’s New England Dragway. Nestled into the suburban countryside, NED doesn’t have a state-of-the-art control tower, or grandstands tilting up to the clouds canvassing both sides of the strip with ergonomic seats and cupholders. What it has is character — fans elbow-to-elbow lining the fence a few steps from the guardrail, or situated on blankets and fold-up chairs on the hillside. They camp, they drink, and they revel in the show. This is their racetrack, and they wouldn’t have it another way.
The New England Nationals is perhaps the closest thing drag racing has to days-gone-by, when the magazine-cover stars peeled off the interstate to put on a one-night show at dimly-lit racetracks to earn a buck. And we should hang onto that. It’s the big-show at little venues, with the joint filled to the brim, the faded wooden signs falling off the tower and the hot dog stand running on empty, cars lining the roadway because there’s nowhere left to park, where you truly feel like you’re a part of something.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that tracks, new or existing, should skimp on the racing surface or safety. But beyond that, our sport could use some Fenway’s, some Wrigley Field’s. Throw down some wooden stands, a few port-a johns, invite mom ’n pop in to sell their cheesesteaks out of the back of a van, and let’s have a drag race, I say. Everything else is material.