|Getty Images/Portland Press Herald|
One of the true giants of New England Motorsports was lost Friday, when New Hampshire Motor Speedway founder Bob Bahre passed away at the age of 93.
The Connecticut native began his racing career as a midget car owner in the 1950s and early ‘60s, before purchasing Maine’s Oxford Plains Speedway in 1964. He turned that facility into a showplace of northeast motorsports, hosting a series of big-money “Getty Open” Late Model events that brought full-fendered racers to the forefront of Northeast motorsports.
His monthly Getty Opens pitted wildly divergent classes of automobiles against each other, with NASCAR’s “by the book” Late Model Sportsman drivers traveling north to compete against the short-track based NASCAR North Late Models, Oxford “Saturday Night” Series drivers and a dizzying assortment of fiberglass-bodied Open Comp machines.
The on-track battles were second only to the off-track bickering over rules, with each camp lobbying ferociously for an advantage while complaining bitterly about the perceived advantage held by others. NASCAR stalwart “Terrible Tommy” Ellis summed-up the emotion of the series in the early 1980s, describing the Open Comp contingent as “Kamikaze cars,” saying “NASCAR should be embarrassed to have us racing against them.”
His Getty Open concept was not popular with his fellow track owners, many of whom believed that his lofty purses unnecessarily raised the financial bar.
"Damnit, Bob, why are you paying so much," asked one northeast promoter early in the process. "They'll race for half of that!"
Bahre was unswayed, however, paying teams what he felt they deserved, rather than what they would accept.
In 1974, using the successful Getty Open format, he posted an unprecedented $25,000 purse for his inaugural “Oxford 200,” luring top drivers and teams from throughout the northeast. Massachusetts youngster Joey Kourafas copped the $4,500 winner's purse that day for car owner Bob Curtiss, and New England Late Model racing would never be the same again.
The following year, he added 50 laps to the event; adding a live pit stop to the game plan and creating the legendary “Oxford 250.”
Bahre ran OPS until 1987, when local politicians stiff-armed his dream of building a superspeedway on the site. Angered by their refusal, Bahre sold the track to entrepreneur Michael Liberty and turned his attention to the Bryar Motorsports Park in Loudon, NH, a somewhat disheveled road course complex that had seen its better days.
In a matter of weeks, Bahre had purchased the property. Eschewing the traditional engineering-based approach, he hired a single surveyor to lay out the facility and plant a few stakes, before dispatching brother Dick Bahre to bulldoze the one-mile semi-banked oval now known as New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Like their counterparts in Maine, local officials threw up a few roadblocks along the way. But this time, Bahre was not to be denied. When neighbors threatened legal action over noise and traffic, Bahre called a meeting and began by ejecting the attorneys from the room. In less than a hour, a common-sense solution was reached that satisfied all parties and allowed construction of the speedway to continue.
When the local Fire Department worried that their ladder truck would not reach the upper levels of the track’s high-rise grandstand, Bahre is reported to have barked, “How much do the damned things cost?” Moments later, the Chief of the Department walked away with a check for a shiny new ladder truck, and NHIS was born.
Bahre built NHIS with no guarantee of a NASCAR race of any kind. It was a colossal gamble, since without NASCAR's headline Cup Series, the facility would almost certainly prove unable to turn a profit.
But in 1990, after just nine months of construction, Bahre brought he NASCAR Busch Series – now Xfinity Series – to the White Mountains, with a capacity crowd of 90,000 fans turning out to witness a race won (ironically) by Ellis.
Three years later, Bahre strong-armed longtime friend Bill France, Jr. into attending a race at the Loudon oval.
One look at the packed NHIS grandstands was all it took, and in June of 1993, Rusty Wallace won the inaugural "Slick 50 300" NASCAR Cup Series race in New Hampshire.
“Bob had a love affair with auto racing,” said Maine native Ricky Craven, whose victory in the 1991 Oxford 250 was instrumental in jump-starting his NASCAR National Series career. “He was a remarkable man who had the ambition, vision and commitment to make anything happen that he set his mind to. He was remarkably pragmatic. He could figure anything out and put things in perspective as well as anybody I know.”
|"Bob taught me a lot." -- Ricky Craven|
“Bob taught me a lot over the years,” he said. “One night, I finished Top-5 in one of his Oxford Opens and walked up to the tower to get paid. I had won at Unity Raceway the night before, and Bob asked me how many people were in the grandstands.
“I replied, `About 10,000,’ and Bob just went off.
“`BULLSHIT!’” he yelled. `You have never seen 10,000 people at Unity. Ever! Don’t try to BS people.’
“That was a big life lesson for me.
“Bob always dealt with me frankly. There was very little left to interpretation. Even though it was uncomfortable at times, I loved it. It was exactly what I needed. He was the first person I called anytime I needed advice.
“Even in recent years, Bob would call me every other week. He always ended our conversations by saying, ‘Keep in touch. I like you. I don’t know why I like you, but I like you.’ My life has been better for knowing him and for being his friend.”
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France commented on Bahre’s passing last week, saying, “Bob’s passion and belief in NASCAR helped bring our sport to millions of New England fans over the last three decades. As founder of what is now New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bahre’s bold vision helped set a tone for the sport’s national growth. Throughout his career, he was a trusted and valued voice in the industry and will be greatly missed. My family and all of NASCAR extends its deepest condolences to Sandy, Gary and the entire Bahre family.”
Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said, “What I’ll remember most about Bob Bahre will be his character, understated yet charming. Every time I saw him, he had on khakis and a white shirt. I always enjoyed our genuine conversations. He was very generous to people in the motorsports industry and to the New England communities where he did business. He went about things in a quiet, dignified manner and often times that simple approach is the most impactful. It’s truly an honor to have known Bob. He lived a meaningful life. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. "