The Frontstretch: The Time Is Now For A Return To The Rock by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday August 5, 2008

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The Time Is Now For A Return To The Rock

Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday August 5, 2008


Editor’s Note: Regular columnist Danny Peters is on vacation this week, but the rookie will be back in action with a new Yellow Stripe to attach to his rear bumper next Tuesday. In the meantime, enjoy this fill-in column by fellow Frontstretch columnist Bryan Davis Keith.

With the fiasco at Indianapolis and an adventurous race in the Montreal rain making headlines, one story that has perhaps been underattended to is the news that the NASCAR Nationwide Series will not return to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City for the 2009 season.

NASCAR’s decision not to return to the Mexican road course was definitely the right call. With money tighter than ever in the second-tier series, a trip to Mexico City was a larger and larger burden, — especially for under-funded, independent teams. Attendance was noticeably down, having declined every year since the inaugural event; and — perhaps most importantly — the NASCAR Mexico Series has established NASCAR within Mexico as a legitimate and thriving motorsports entity. That meant there was no longer a need for a trip south of the border unless the event itself justified it, and the declining prestige of the Corona 200 weekend no longer justifies one of the most expense trips of the Nationwide schedule.

Darlington’s Lady In Black is also one fine facility, but several other tracks offer great additional racing for the Nationwide Series — including Rockingham.

Now, the more intriguing question has shifted to which venue will pick up the open slot on the Nationwide Series schedule. The general consensus has been that the newly developed Iowa Speedway, a state of the art .875-mile oval that is already hosting IndyCar and ARCA Re/Max Series races, will take the date. Advocates of the Iowa track picking up the date do have a strong case to make, though. They’re already proven able to produce excellent stock car racing, as seen in the track
s ARCA race in April and last season’s thrilling NASCAR regional series race. The facility is new and fit with loads of RV spaces, suites, and a corporate hospitality village. Once pressured, it’s even capable of quick expansion to 40,000 seats. But Iowa Speedway is not the track that should find itself on the Nationwide Series schedule for 2009.

No, that honor falls to none other than the Rockingham Speedway.

Thanks to the hard work of long-time ARCA racer Andy Hillenburg, racing returned to Rockingham this May with the running of the inaugural Carolina 500 ARCA Re/MAX Series event. Before an exceptionally large crowd for a stand-alone ARCA competition, Joey Logano, Ken Schrader and the regulars of three did what the regulars of the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup series used to see at the Rock every year: put on a fast and furious stock car race. The Carolina 500 produced large amounts of side-by-side racing and was a worthy return to racing for the region’s fanbase, proving convincingly that The Rock as a track has lost nothing since Matt Kenseth narrowly beat Kasey Kahne to the line to win the venue’s last Cup race in 2004.

While Rockingham’s on-track product is certainly capable of competing with that of the Iowa Speedway, it’s not on the same level on everything. Though I have not been to the Iowa Speedway myself it is clear, even from photographs, that in terms of facilities the Midwestern short track has got The Rock pretty well licked. It will take a good deal of work (and money) to bring Rockingham Speedway up to the level of NASCAR’s newer venues — including the Iowa Speedway — in terms of fan amenities. It is worth noting, though, that the sightlines for fans in the stands at Rockingham are absolutely fantastic. Clearly, there isn’t a comfort out there that can trump a great view of the track.

What Rockingham also has that Iowa does not is a location and a heritage steeped in NASCAR tradition. Strolling up to the front of the track and seeing the large “Rock” engraved with the names of winners such as Dale Earnhardt, Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace was chilling for me as I saw it for the first time. It was a vivid reminder of the names that have taken to, and the events that have transpired on, the gritty North Carolina oval.

The track is also in the heart of NASCAR country, a stone’s throw from Charlotte and the majority of the Nationwide Series race teams’ headquarters. It’s a far less expensive trip for its teams to make, as well as a more reachable venue for developing drivers and independent teams in the Charlotte area. Much like Martinsville Speedway, Rockingham is a link to the past, a living, breathing reminder of where NASCAR began and still remains; it’s a raceway dripping in character.

Bringing NASCAR racing back to The Rock would return a truly unique track with a unique configuration (and some very abrasive asphalt) to the schedule, a track that has a long history for being able to produce compelling racing. It would return racing to a region that wants it back, which seemingly cannot be said for every region that NASCAR has troubled itself to expand into over the last few seasons. Anyone that doubts that didn’t attend the Carolina 500 this spring; every single fan in the stands was both grateful and enthralled to have racing of any form back, even if it was for a lower-level series with a predominantly Midwest driver roster.

If such a move happens, it would be, in the truest sense, a tangible return to the sport’s roots — something that the all-powerful France family has been promising its fan base since Day One of the 2008 season. And what better way to reach out to the fans that have rightfully felt alienated than to return a race date to one of its best known and celebrated regional tracks?

Iowa Speedway has a bright future in motorsports, but The Rock is right for the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2009.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Mike In NH
08/05/2008 09:44 AM

“Exceptionally large crowd for an ARCA race”? That’s not the feedback I heard from several other sources, or from what I saw on video. The Rock lost its races because of attendance issues, and for a grand track reopening, the Carolina 500 should have had a lot more people at it.

And at the least, Andy needs to put SAFER barriers in there – not a small investment – before NASCAR will go back there.

08/05/2008 10:06 AM

I love The Rock, saw many a Cup and Busch race there. I don’t think it will happen, but it would be cool if NA$CAR gave it a shot. It was some of the best racing on the circuit!

Steve Cloyd
08/05/2008 11:53 AM

NASCAR should never have left the Rock. It provided excellent racing. Butts in the seats shouldn’t matter to NASCAR, ratings should. Personally, I’d rather watch a race on TV there than 80% of the tracks on the schedule now. Bring back the Rock!

Brian France Sucks
08/05/2008 12:04 PM

NA$CAR won’t go back to the Rock because Brian is too stupid to see that it would be a win-win situation. Less traveling cost for the teams and a great track with exciting racing, something that is altogether uncommon in this day and age. The only reason Rockingham lost their race dates in the first place was the idiots who contrived the schedule. Everyone with a brain knows that North Carolina in late February/early March, and late October is cold. You don’t need a climatologist to figure that out. It would be like holding a race in the California desert around Labor Day and expecting it to be cool and the seats to be full… oops ole Brian already did that. Morons running the show, and people wonder why ratings and attendance is down. Bring back tracks worth watching and tires worth racing on.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
08/05/2008 01:25 PM

What killed Rockingham was poor scheduling (even though it had the same dates forever….), and going up against the NFL in the fall was a losing proposition. That and there’s not a whole lot to do in Rockingham besides go to the track, and the last time I checked…aluminum isn’t very warm when it’s cold out.

Too bad. Great track, good memeories, but it feel behind the times like so many venues have. The SAFER Barriers are a must at minimum. Having said that, a Truck or Nationwide race there should be mandatory.

Tim King
08/05/2008 01:45 PM

I’m offering my vote for the Iowa Speedway. It’s the closest to Minneapolis & St Paul and from what I’ve seen on TV offers great racing. It would have to be scheduled after May to be assured of good weather. Give Rockingham The Milwaukee Mile date if they are crazy enough to close the track.

08/05/2008 05:43 PM

I would love to see it but if anyone thinks that any Na$car series is going back to the Rock your nuts. When a track gets sold by on of the big boys ISC/SMI for 4 million bucks back its dead to them and they will not allow anyone to prove the wrong.