April 17, 2012
By Doug Demmons
As much as we all love to point out when NASCAR needs to change/alter/tweak/eliminate something, we all must admit that occasionally NASCAR gets something right.
And sometimes not just right, but perfect.
The Truck series race at Rockingham Speedway was just such an occurrence.
Sunny skies, great racing and a huge crowd. And there wasn’t even a casino attached to the track.
NASCAR’s return to The Rock was a roaring success by whatever measure you look at it.
Fans who had quit attending 10 years ago were back with a vengeance. With the exception of the first few rows along the frontstretch, which weren’t sold, the grandstands were packed.
“I was lucky enough to be in the drivers’ meeting,” said Rick Allen, Speed TV’s play-by-play announcer. “And the crowd support in that meeting was incredible. When Andy Hillenburg was introduced as the president and owner of the track, it was almost an emotional moment because every single driver and crew chief stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Andy politely asked the crowd to remain quiet throughout the meeting but to voice their opinion of having the drivers return to The Rock. The crowd erupted into applause and cheers.”
Clearly, Rockingham is not just any other track on the schedule. Stand-alone truck races do not play to massive crowds.
Rockingham was a deep wound in the psyche of the NASCAR fan base. While it was shuttered up and slowly deteriorating after closing in 2004 it was, in many ways, a symbol of everything fans hated about the NASCAR of the 21st century -- chasing after fickle new fans with shiny new tracks far away from the Southeast and holding glitzy events in places like New York.
And then Hillenburg came along and bought the track at auction, saving it from one day becoming a strip shopping center or condos or Lord only knows what. He poured millions into the place without any guarantees from NASCAR that they would ever return.
He got an ARCA race but that didn’t last long. When he spent another estimated million to install SAFER barriers -- and when big holes opened in the Truck Series schedule -- NASCAR agreed to come.
And the racing was perfect thanks to tires that actually fall off on a track notorious for eating them up. What a concept! Who could have guessed that when tires wear out it takes more skill to control the car/truck and things get exciting.
It was the kind of old-school racing we don’t see much of these days.
Drivers loved it too. Denny Hamlin, who wasn’t in the race, tweeted that he was racing at Rockingham next year even if he has to build his own truck.
The only thing that could have been better was the fault of Nelson Piquet Jr., who stupidly got nailed for speeding on pit road after the last pit stop, even though his pit stall was up front.
That denied us the chance to see the two best trucks shoot it out over the last 10 laps.
It was assumed before the race that drivers who had experience at Rockingham would have a distinct advantage over those who had never been there before. Piquet -- who is more familiar with tracks like Monaco and Spa-Francorchamps -- proved that wrong by leading 107 of the 200 laps.
In some ways it was a magical weekend for Rockingham because it was the first time since that final Cup race in February 2004 when Matt Kenseth beat Kasey Kahne by the width of the paint job on his front bumper.
A whole cadre of NASCAR folks flew in from Texas the night before to be part of it. NASCAR President Mike Helton was there. Steve O’Donnell, the guy in charge of drawing up the schedules each year, was there.
That same magic is not likely to be repeated each and every year. But there was certainly enough of it that NASCAR has no reason not to return in 2013 -- not just with the Truck Series but Nationwide as well.
Doug Demmons is a writer and editor for the Birmingham News ~ he writes daily and weekly auto racing columns ranging from NASCAR to open wheel to Formula One, local tracks and more... you can read Doug's columns online at ALABAMA MOTORSPORTS
Follow Doug on Twitter: @dougdemmons
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.