April 9, 2012
By Kim Roberson
It’s a weekend without racing. Do you know where your race fans are?
OK, so it really isn’t a weekend without racing. There have been hundreds of races across the country at local short tracks, where locals have had the chance to root for their favorite neighborhood racer.
Races with names like the “Easter Bunny 150”, the “Frostbuster” and at places like Tri-City Speedway, Farley Speedway, Paducah International Raceway, Ponderosa Raceway, Farmer City Raceway, and Hickory Speedway. (My local short track, Old Dominion Speedway, doesn’t open until next weekend, but they did have practice there this weekend!)
In most cases, if you were really feeling racing withdrawal, there was a way for you to get a fix if you were willing to go root at the local levels.
Next week we get a chance to revisit a race track that hasn’t seen a NASCAR sanctioned race since 2004: Rockingham Speedway. 2004 was the first year I was a NASCAR fan, and the final race at the track was held the week after the NASCAR bug bit me (February 22, 2004, and the winner was Matt Kenseth), so I haven’t had a chance to really understand what I have been missing by not having “The Rock” on the schedule.
But I have several racing friends who have made pilgrimages to The Rock since it’s closure, and who are not only thrilled to have NASCAR racing return there, but are taking the time to support the track in person and go to the race.
North Carolina Motor Speedway, as The Rock was originally called, was a one-mile flat oval track that held its first race, the American 500, on October 31, 1965. That NASCAR Grand National Series race (now known as the Sprint Cup Series) was won in dominating fashion by Curtis Turner, who beat Cale Yarborough by 11 seconds after leading almost half of the race. Between 1966 and 2003, there were two races held each year at the track, but due to dwindling attendance, the track lost one of its races in 2004 to California, and was shut down completely in 2005.
Not to say The Rock has been dark for the last eight years. Former NASCAR driver and Team owner Andy Hillenburg bought the track from Speedway Motorsports Inc. back in 2007 for a relatively small sum of $4.4 million. At the time, I remember the happiness from my racing friends, who were certain that having a race car driver and someone who loved the sport own the track, it would some way make a return to its former greatness and find a way back onto the NASCAR schedule.
Hillenburg started by immediately working to bring some form of racing back to the track, which had been unused for three years. He was able to lure the ARCA/ReMax and Hooters Pro Cup series to the track for races. Because both of those series were not NASCAR-sanctioned, it also allowed for Hillenburg to rent out the track to NASCAR teams for testing (which had been severely limited to only non-NASCAR sanctioned tracks in 2006).
As racing returned to The Rock, so did the fans. And as fans returned to the track, and remembered what racing was like, a wave of support began to rise to bring NASCAR back.
But before NASCAR could come back, Hillenburg had to make some major changes to bring the track up to “code”. SAFER barriers had to be installed, pit road had to be reworked, and the timing and scoring electronics had to be updated. Once the ball was rolling in the right direction, NASCAR agreed to host a Camping World Truck Series race at The Rock.
“In 2007, we set a goal to return Rockingham Speedway to its roots,” stated Hillenburg in a press release when the announcement was made. “The introduction of the truck series to Rockingham Speedway is representative of years of hard work and the support of the county, city and state government officials, who understood the positive economic impact a NASCAR-sanctioned race could offer to the Piedmont region. We are very excited about this news and know our supporters are just as proud to have Rockingham’s national racing roots become a reality once again.”
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President for Racing Operations, noted THAT IT WAS THE VOCAL CRY OF THE RACING PUBLIC THAT HELPED RETURN The Rock to the NASCAR schedule this season. “The fans and community have shown strong support and the track is making significant improvements to its facility. We appreciate all the hard work by Andy Hillenburg and his staff to get to this point. It should be a fun event.”
On the Rockingham Speedway home page, the banner reads “How about that? What goes around really does come around. NASCAR Racing returns to The Rock April 14-15.”
Kasey Kahne, who as a rookie almost beat Matt Kenseth in that last race at Rockingham, was excited about the chance to return to the track that brought him to the attention of so many fans so many years ago. "As soon as I heard that NASCAR was adding the Rockingham truck race to the schedule, I wanted to run it," said Kahne in a press release. “I think it is great for the sport and the fans that we are going back to Rockingham.”
One thing to keep in mind amidst all of the excitement of returning to The Rock is the fact that the fans have to remain committed to keeping a race there. It is all fine and good to have a packed house for next weekend’s race, and having all the fans say how excited they are to return to one of NASCAR’s “old school” tracks. But if this support only lasts until the drop of the checkered flag, and doesn’t return again next year, and the year after, then the track will once again lose its NASCAR backing, and Hillenburg will return to hosting non-NASCAR sanctioned races and test sessions.
So if you want to keep seeing racing at The Rock, make sure you either buy a ticket, or tune in to watch on TV. Show your support in some way or another, but make sure you stick with it. As we have seen in the not so recent past, NASCAR can easily take away a race and pass it along to another track that is clamoring to have its chance to prove they are worthy of the love and support of the fans. They have already done it once at Rockingham. Don’t let them do it again.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
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.