Truckin' Thursdays · Amy Henderson · Thursday March 8, 2012
Author’s Note: I originally wrote this letter to race fans last fall, after the press conference telling NASCAR Nation that at long last, NASCAR racing would return to Rockingham Speedway. Race fans had been hoping, and locals praying, that NASCAR would come back to the little one-mile oval settled in the North Carolina sand hills. While Rockingham Speedway lacks the glamour of Las Vegas and the prestige of Daytona, it is an irreplaceable part of NASCAR history that has produced some thrilling races over the years. Fans responded enthusiastically to the announcement-finally, NASCAR was doing right by them. But it was critical that day and even more critical now, just a month before the engines roar to life at The Rock, that race fans take the next step: filling the stands and, for those who can’t make the trip, blowing the other Camping World Series races out of the water in the television ratings. The time is now-or-never for Rockingham and other speedways like it, there may be no tomorrow.
Dear Race Fans,
Today something happened that I, for one, never thought we would see. After seven years gone, NASCAR racing will return to Rockingham Speedway (formerly North Carolina Motor Speedway) in 2012 in the form of a Camping World Truck Series race on April 15. As recently as a few months ago, this seemed like a sheer impossibility, as the wounds appeared too deep to ever allow bridges once burned to be rebuilt. But thanks to a massive (and expensive) effort on the part of local officials, NASCAR, and track owner Andy Hillenburg, the once-silent speedway will again roar to life as a part of NASCAR’s present, not just its storied past. The one-mile banked oval will test drivers and thrill fans. The track has been sorely missed by NASCAR’s old-school fans and purists for the exciting racing its confines produced.
And at a time when it seems NASCAR has turned a deaf ear to the pleas of fans, on this one, they listened.
Now it’s up to you.
That’s right, race fans, the ball is in your court. And you must pick it up and run with it like you stole it. There is so very much at stake now.
You got what you have wanted for those seven long years; and now cheering as you read the news and Tweeting about it simply isn’t enough. Fans, you must go to the race. And if you can’t go, then you must watch on television. And you must keep coming and keep watching after the first-time feeling wears off. If you really want racing at The Rock, then you have to back it up with backsides in seats and TV’s tuned in.
And it’s not just Rockingham’s future you hold in your hands, but a lot of the sport’s future as well. If the fans don’t come back to Rockingham, and the next time there is a gap to fill on the schedule, NASCAR has no reason not to take the easy way out and simply slate it as another companion race on another cookie-cutter track. The short track is already an endangered species, and if fans don’t come to stand-alone races, there won’t be any left. And then, oh, then how fans will complain. But fans need to stop that from happening and there is only one way to do that: show up at the stand-alone races on the tracks you purport to love so much. Otherwise Rockingham will go the way of Nashville. And to be perfectly frank, race fans killed Nashville.
The fans in that area gave lip service to keeping their races, but lip service isn’t enough. There have to be people in the grandstands, and there have to be people watching on TV. To keep its place in NASCAR for years to come, fans will have to do their part by coming out every year, no matter what the weather, and showing NASCAR that yes, fans are as good as their word.
NASCAR has been much maligned recently for not listening to the fans. When they left Rockingham in 2004 (and make no mistake, that was NASCAR and ISC’s doing, not Bruton Smith’s, though Smith got the race date for Texas) it was because the fans, while saying how much they loved the track, weren’t coming. No, the February date wasn’t ideal, but the numbers were abysmal.
Now, fans, you’re getting a second chance. It could also be your last chance.
If fans don’t come to Rockingham, why should NASCAR listen to any complaints or desires in the future? Why should they move the Southern 500 to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend? Why shouldn’t they allow a date to be moved from Martinsville to Fontana? Why should they consider taking the Nationwide or Truck Series back to short tracks when just going to the cookie cutters is so much easier and the companion dates, boring races or not, have people in the stands.
Your voices were heard; now make sure they stay heard.
When Rockingham closed after that lone 2004 race, it was as though a piece had been torn from the collective soul of NASCAR Nation. That day was proof that the sanctioning body cared less about what had made it what it was — racing and race fans — and more about its corporate partners. The track was sold to Smith with one instruction: that it never hold a NASCAR-sanctioned race. So Smith bought it and moved the date and looked like the bad guy. For two years the track stood silent as nature slowly began the inevitable taking back of the ground that had been wrested from it a half-century before. And then came the auction.
The land where the track sat, decided its owners, was more valuable as a shopping center or a housing development than a derelict race track that housed nothing but mice and birds and ghosts. In 2007 the track and the land it sits on were put on the auction block. I remember that day; it sat on the calendar like a black cloud. And then, when it was over, a glimmer of hope, because the track had been purchased not by a developer with visions of a Lowe’s or a cul-de-sac of lookalike houses, but by Andy Hillenburg. A racer.
And so began the saving of Rockingham. Hillenburg poured money into his new track, and in 2008, the pavement sang with the music of stock car engines again as ARCA, UARA and the USAC Pro Cup Series came to be tested against the track so notoriously hard on racecars and especially on tires. Hillenburg hoped NASCAR would one day come back, but the prospect looked bleak. Hillenburg built a second track on the property that year, the half-mile “Little Rock” where many NASCAR teams frequent for test sessions. Only NASCAR stayed away.
Hillenburg now had three to four major touring races a year. Between that and the revenue from the NASCAR teams coming to test, the track was paying for itself. He didn’t need to do more. But NASCAR requires SAFER barriers for its national series, so Hillenburg, still hoping against all odds, committed a million dollars per mile to have them installed, which will be completed by January 2012. All the while, the fans still hoped, still dreamed of the time that NASCAR would see the error of their ways and come back.
And NASCAR, out of reasons now, did the right thing by you. Yes, they did right by Hillenburg too, and he should be a hero to the fans who have waited for this day, but they did right by every race fan who they hurt so deeply seven years ago.
Truly, the day NASCAR announced they were coming back was a great day for the sport and its fans.
So now it’s on you, race fans. The seats must be filled, and the ratings must be high. NASCAR can’t do that, the media can’t do that, Hillenburg and the public officials who worked tirelessly for this day can’t do that. Only you can do that. If you do, NASCAR will have come full circle in the best way, calling forth old memories and creating new ones at a place that’s been an integral part of its fabric since 1965.
If you don’t, NASCAR may never listen to the fans’ voice. The short tracks may disappear, the traditions float away like so much mist. And if it happens again, there will be no going back.
Fans, NASCAR just told you that you can go home again to Rockingham. Go. Fill the place to the rafters and send the ratings through the roof. This is your NASCAR. Make it happen in 2012, and make it happen for years to come. There’s more at stake than just Rockingham, and you won’t get a second chance.
Amy Henderson (a writer with hope)
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