The first time I ever saw a NASCAR race at New Hampshire International Speedway (before its sale to Speedway Motorsports Inc. redubbed it NHMS, or 'Motor Speedway'), I was 10 years old. On a hot and sticky July weekend, my father and I drove down together from southern Quebec in his Chevy pickup to watch Tommy Ellis win the inaugural Busch Series race, then spent eight hours trying to get from the parking lot to the interstate as civilization collapsed around us under the weight of 50,000 sunburned stock car fans with exactly the same idea. After three years of record-breaking attendance Winston Cup came calling to the Magic Mile, eventually adding two dates a year to the calendar. My father and I have caught them all.
It's a different drive now, 27 years later, because while the route remains the same—Interstate 91 through Vermont to 93 in New Hampshire, Tilton exit to 106—the destination has changed. It's been close to a decade since NHMS could claim status as the biggest city in the state two Sundays each summer, with the peak era of 90,000 souls crowding around its 1.06 mile oval long receded in the rearview mirror. At the end of last year, Bruton Smith, CEO of the SMI empire, dismantled the bleachers perched above turn four, cutting capacity in a bid to cram more fans together for the TV cameras focused on the front straight. It didn't do much good: earlier this season the track was like a ghost town, with the UV-drenched July race bleachers showing so much aluminum you were likely to get a sunburn if you walked by them too slowly.
The situation is a familiar one to anyone who's followed NASCAR even casually in recent years as a shriveling fan base has contributed to both poor attendance and a rapid retraction in television ratings. At NHMS, however, it's reached a low point, and SMI has decided to pull the plug by declaring this September's event—the ISM Connect 300—to be the last late-summer spectacle for the remaining Granite State faithful. The track's second race date would be permanently moving to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another property owned by Smith.
It was with this in mind that my father and I decided to make our final almost-fall pilgrimage to New Hampshire Motor Speedway a little differently than we had in the past. Longtime tailgating veterans, we elected to leave Dad's pickup at home and instead travel the 400 miles door-to-pit-lane in the luxurious, if somewhat space-challenged confines of Jaguar's latest special edition F-Type, the 400 Sport. The seven cubic feet or so of cargo room carved out underneath the coupe's hatch would be called upon to handle a camp stove, two chairs, a set of radios, a cooler filled with vital breakfast and lunch supplies, weekend luggage for the pair of us, and a 9-foot by 9-foot pop-up canopy to keep us protected from whatever rain or shine might get thrown our way in the parking lot.
You're probably asking yourself at this point why anyone would trade the voluminous convenience of a modern quad-cab truck for the suitcase-size coffer of the admittedly sexy two-door Jag? Rest assured, there's a method to this packing madness.
As NASCAR's star slowly fades behind the horizon of apathy, another series rises ascendant in the motorsports sky. Formula E, which just a few short years ago was the iffy brainchild of a small, but dedicated group seeking to promote battery-powered open wheel racing, has suddenly over the course of the past 12 months become the belle of the ball, attracting significant commitments from automakers ranging from Mercedes-Benz to Audi to—you guessed it—Jaguar.
Of course, the F-Type 400 Sport has no racing politics one way or the other as it purrs down the highway through the state parks, mountain notches, and heavily forested asphalt sinew that connects the Canadian border with mid-state New Hampshire. Available exclusively for the 2018 model year, the 400 Sport bumps output from the F-Type R-Dynamic's supercharged 3.0-liter V6 from 380 to the titular 400 horses, adds yellow 400 Sport badging to the front, rear, and interior of the car, limits buyers to silver, black, or white color schemes, and installs 20-inch alloy rims hiding 400 Sport-branded black brake calipers.
Despite being available in both rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the 400 Sport forces the eight-speed automatic gearbox in place of the available six-speed manual, striking it off the lists of third-pedal aficionados. Personally, I'm a fan of Jaguar's ZF-built autobox, as it allows easy access to the crackling splendor of the V6's sport exhaust (a button that is always activated when I drive the car). Brap-brapping my way around town in the first few gears keeps my fingers busy on the paddle shifters and my neighbors awake at night, but it's an intoxicating aspect of the F-Type's personality, and one that never feels overly drone-ish when traveling at highway speeds. Its smooth character is a perfect match for the coupe's suspension, which walks the line between thudding over bridge expansion joints and confidently dispatching the next corner on the nearest convenient mountain road.
After spending the night in nearby Plymouth, NH, my father and I are awake pre-dawn, as is our custom, to ensure that we snag our usual tailgating spot in the private parking lot immediately adjacent to the track's turn four entrance (where our seats are located). Even this ritual, however, has become increasingly unnecessary due to the serious dip in attendance at NHMS. When we arrive at the lot before 6 am, we're the fourth vehicle there, and it's well over an hour before our corner of the paddock has begun to fill out.
It's a minor act of rebellion to show up in a car, let alone a sporty European job, to a NASCAR parking lot, which is almost exclusively filled with an endless sea of trucks, flags, and more trucks, their beds crammed with BBQs, cornhole, and homemade devotionals to favorite drivers. Still, the F-Type 400 Sport is a hit with the tailgate crowd, especially when they learn that we managed to stuff everything but a table under the rear hatch. Within 10 minutes, a folding table has been dug out from a neighbor's pickup and offered to us for the day, and five minutes after that the hood on the Jaguar has been popped so everyone can pore over its engine, questions flying one after the other about the car's design, the materials used in its construction, and its performance. Gearheads are gearheads, and cool cars remain cool cars regardless of which side of the Atlantic they hail from.
This is in part what makes the surging interested in Formula E such a surprise. The Spark-Renault chassis built by Dallara shares no kinship with any road-going model, and while the spec has been opened up for the coming season to allow for homegrown solutions to both car and electric drivetrain development, it's a long way from the F-Type to whatever Jaguar chooses to field on the FE grid. It's unlikely that anyone will gaze fondly at the hybrid Mercedes-Benz in their driveway after the marque chalks up a win, or pop the battery cover in the trunk to show off their kilowatt hours to friends after work. Other unusual aspects of the series—the need for drivers to swap cars halfway through a race due to battery restrictions, the relatively low 140-mph top speeds, the near-silent operation of each vehicle—would also seem to work against engaging the traditional racing fan.
It's important to understand, however, that racing is not a zero sum game. FE doesn't win because NASCAR is losing, and it's debatable as to whether there's any crossover at all between the two sets of fans (and whether you can even still credibly define stock car racing's core crowd at the national level). Weighed down by deliciously greasy camp stove fare and baking under the unseasonably hot 91-degree September sun, the race unfolds before me exactly as scripted by the torrent of rules and regulations that NASCAR has pushed through in a desperate bid to improve the product on the track. It's not working. The heat-style format is confusing, there's not a single pass for the lead during the entire 300 lap stint, and there are no surprises in the top 20 finishers as drivers plot a strategic, cautious race to avoid being wiped out of 'Chase' contention, the series' tedious playoff format that has further diluted competition.
Hold a mirror up to NASCAR and you'll see its opposite reflected in Formula E, which has been open to innovation in how the series is run since day one. The end result is a motorsport that has bypassed existing racing fans and instead embraced a brand new crowd, one that has little invested in the good ole days and just wants to be entertained. It turns out that the shorter races dictated by battery range, once thought to be the sport's Achilles' heel, actually turned out to be more family-friendly than four-hour, crash-filled super speedway slogs. Those quiet electric motors that pundits predicted would keep crowds away have a similar effect in attracting parents who don't have to worry about blowing out their kids' eardrums, with the bonus of actually being able to have a conversation regardless of how close to the track they might be seated. And what about those slower-than-everyone-else electric race cars? Just put them on road courses where no one will notice anything other than their three-second 0-60-mph acceleration, courtesy of instant-torque battery-powered motors.
Escaping the track after the final lap into the opulent confines of the (air conditioned) Jaguar's (ventilated) seats, I hit the ignition button and smiled as the twin pipes sang to life while the sweat began to evaporate off my upper lip. Sliding the shifter over into 'S,' with Dynamic mode engaged to accentuate the car's exhaust aggression, it occurred to me that, like Formula E, the F-Type 400 Sport also offers something that NASCAR no longer brings to the table: passion. The F-Type has always embodied a certain honesty in the luxury segment that cuts through the hype surrounding its rivals from Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Not the fastest key fob on the table, nor the best-behaved car when pushed near its limits, Jaguar's gorgeous ode to the joy of driving reminds you that true character embraces both flaws and strengths, and is all the better for it.
It's a lesson NASCAR's current iteration, with its manufactured-for-TV green-white checker finishes and bar room brawl shenanigans held between millionaires outside mammoth RVs, would do well to learn. The end is far from nigh for stock car racing in America, but until the competition seen on the track matches the potential for what it could be, and once was, all the rule-meddling and Car of Tomorrow templating in the world won't help re-ignite the flame that used to burn on circle tracks coast to coast.