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IRL returning to NHMS in 2011

Posted by Michael Vega, Globe Staff  June 21, 2010 04:03 PM

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IndyCars such as these will become a more familiar sight at NHMS next year
Danica Patrick will make her first visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race. But the next time the Izod IndyCar Series star returns to the Granite State she will be accompanied by her colleagues from the Indy Racing League, according to a league source who confirmed today the series would be returning to Loudon, N.H., next July 31, thus ending the IRL's 12-year exile from one of its flagship tracks.

Randy Bernard, the IRL's new chief executive officer, was not available for comment today, but a league source indicated an announcement would be made Sunday in conjunction with the track's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. It represented yet another major market the IRL planned to add to its 17-race schedule after announcing earlier this month a race in Baltimore in 2011.

Jerry Gappens, NHMS executive vice president and general manager, said today he and track owner Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., had engaged in a fruitful conversation with Bernard about bringing the open-wheel series back to New Hampshire for the first time since 1998.

"I'm pleased through the new leadership that Randy's providing, he's opened the dialogue and I think we're going to bring it home," Gappens said. "Right now, we're trying to cross the t's and dot the i's, but we feel really positive about it. It should add a third major weekend of racing to our schedule."

The IRL parted ways with New Hampshire following the 1998 season after then track owner Bob Bahre, who was the first to align himself with the fledgling league Tony George founded in 1995, became increasingly disenchanted with declining revenue and attendance of the four IRL events he hosted at his 1.058-mile oval from 1996-98.

Bahre wound up replacing the IRL date with a second, more lucrative, NASCAR date after he acquired half of North Wilkesboro Speedway and split its two NASCAR dates with Smith, who wound up buying New Hampshire's track from Bahre in 2007.

At the heart of the split between Bahre and the IRL was the lack of promotion -- by either party -- of open-wheel racing at New Hampshire. At the time, the IRL was in the midst of a major struggle to gain its market share following its nasty split from Championship Auto Racing Teams, which was the first racing series to sanction a major event at NHMS in 1992.

"Bob just got frustrated with it," Gappens said, referring to the CART-IRL split. "It was right about the time he got his second NASCAR date and he was happy to focus on the two Cup events and the revenue it brought."

When he was installed as the track's vice president and general manager, Gappens, a native of Indiana who had a great appreciation for open-wheel racing and Indy car racing, in particular, initially approached the IRL three years ago about adding NHMS to the schedule after the IRL's reunification with CART, but wound up getting turned down.

"They were still putting a lot of the pieces of the puzzle together after reunification," Gappens said. "In fairness to them, they were trying to take two schedules and merge them into one, so I better understood what they were trying to do."

When Bernard, the former CEO of Professional Bull Riders Inc., was hired March 1 to take over as the IRL's CEO it was his mission to help grow the sport through better marketing and promotion.

"Randy is trying to balance the schedule with ovals and road courses," Gappens said. "He wants to have a good bond with the SMI facilities and he appreciates how we promote [races] in the SMI family. Our livelihood depends on promoting auto racing and he realizes he needs the same type of attention we give NASCAR. If we can do that, I think we'll have a great chance to succeed."

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