In two and a half weeks, they’ll be back. The RVs, the haulers, and the television trucks that make their way up Route 106 in Loudon, New Hampshire, like a sort of automotive parade, then pack into New Hampshire Motor Speedway for New England’s only NASCAR Cup Series race.

And then, a few days later, they’ll be gone. And this time, for the rest of the year, they won’t be coming back.

That’s not the way it was before, when New Hampshire for two decades had races in the summer and then during the Chase for the Cup in the fall, making Loudon a pivotal NASCAR destination. But before this season, the ax that had long been thought to be hanging over NHMS’s head finally fell. The track lost its coveted September race, one of the first events of the Cup Series’ postseason, to Las Vegas, and became a one-race venue for the first time since its infancy.

It’s a loss for New Hampshire. But it’s also a loss for the whole New England region — including, and perhaps especially, Maine.

After all, Maine had a direct hand in the speedway’s existence. Former Oxford Plains Speedway owner Bob Bahre bought the property (then just a dirt track), built up the venue and in 1993 brought NASCAR to New England, providing a taste of the big time to the Northeast’s rabid racing fans. Those fans now had their Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium, and they just needed to make a short trip to see the sport’s biggest names.

And at first, they made that trip. Maine’s fans, as well as Vermont’s, and Connecticut’s, Rhode Island’s, Massachusetts’s and even Quebec’s and New York’s. They stuffed the joint. NHMS kept expanding and it kept filling, with crowds close to 100,000 for the Winston, then Nextel, then Sprint, then Monster Energy Cup Series races.

And then, first imperceptibly and then all-too-obviously, the buzz was gone. The masses dwindled, and where there were fans packed shoulder to shoulder, there was now the eyesore of empty aluminum bleachers poking through the crowd.

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc., which purchased the track from Bahre, noticed. After years of declining attendance and scarce sponsorships, they made the logical decision. They went where the money was.

So it’s not unfair. But it is sad.

It’s sad because it’s a step away from the spotlight for a region that still has racing in its blood. In Maine, the Oxford 250 is a celebrated event that has drawn big-name competitors, and some of the state’s native sons, such as Ricky Craven and Steve Letarte, have gone on to success in NASCAR. Connecticut is a hotbed for the Whelen Modified Tour, one of NASCAR’s developmental series. New Hampshire and Vermont drivers make up much of the talent on the American-Canadian Tour.

Racing enthusiasts are all throughout New England, and for its up-and-coming drivers, be they starry-eyed youngsters with NASCAR dreams or local gearheads just looking for any chance to get on a track and compete, the speedway in Loudon was their mecca. It was a chance to see the sport at its highest level, and for those who made it on, it was their shot to make a national impression.

Listen to Modified drivers talk about racing at Loudon. To them, it’s like getting to race around Daytona.

So it’s a loss for those local drivers and fans, who now have one less opportunity to see a NASCAR weekend up close or, if they’re in the game and fortunate, compete in one. They still have the summer race, but unless the crowds come back, it’s hard to imagine the needle for Loudon pointing back up anytime soon.

And if it doesn’t, it’s a loss for the area. The speedway always had New Hampshire in its name, but there’s a reason “O’Canada” is played along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before each race. The track belonged not to New Hampshire, but to the area around it, north and south of the border. And for a while, Loudon was important. Drivers had to be good there, and paid the price if they weren’t. The tricky turns were one of the sport’s biggest pitfalls. And every year, NHMS played a role in deciding the champion. Now, it’s a pit stop.

It’s not unfair. But it is a loss. For New Hampshire, for New England and beyond.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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