Mike Neff · Monday April 1, 2013
We’ve heard this song before. The verses might be a little different, but the refrain is the same. I’ll set it up for you: NASCAR has left one of its historical tracks (we’ll say Track A) and it has been empty for a period of time. Now, someone has come in to revive the track, they’ve brought racing back and NASCAR has watched and listened. We’re here once again with that story, except it’s gotten farther than any previous one. The track in question, Rockingham, has even been thrown a bone, receiving a Camping World Truck Series race last season. That means now is the time where fans can decide its fate, the moment they’ve essentially asked for. If they don’t show up in substantial numbers, supporting it NASCAR will be able to point to the lack of success and use it as evidence that they were correct in leaving the track behind for the riches of bigger television markets.
Since the modern era of NASCAR began, the Cup Series has abandoned six different ovals. Two of those tracks went out of business, so there is no chance of going back. One of them, Texas World Speedway, is still in operation but does not host oval track races anymore. That leaves three venues that are still in existence who once held Cup races, only to lose them in the modern era. North Wilkesboro Speedway tops the list, dormant for 14 years. It opened for a year and a half from 2010 through early 2011. Unfortunately, it is now involved in political power play matches and senseless squabbles that will most likely see it never open again. Nashville Speedway, also known as the Fairgrounds Speedway is second on the list. Unfortunately, that short track is embroiled in a political battle as well. It’s one that could very well be cleared up in the near future but currently prevents the operators from making the capital improvements to bring a NASCAR National Touring Series event back to the historic track.
That leaves one left on the list, a one-miler that has been around since 1965 and has hosted 78 Cup Series races. Rockingham Speedway, also known in the past as North Carolina Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway, is in the low country of North Carolina. It last hosted a Cup event in 2004, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne separated by inches for the win but still unable to close a financial gap in profits other opportunities gave the sport. The dates were removed from the track, to be used at Fontana and Texas, respectively and have never returned since. The place was all but dormant, for three years after that before Andy Hillenburg and an investor group purchased the facility and brought racing back to “The Rock.” The first major race held at the track, after it was reopened, was the Carolina 500 in the ARCA/ReMax Series. The stands were packed and the story was truly compelling. Joey Logano passed Ken Schrader with five laps to go to become the youngest-winning driver in the history of ARCA — a perfect generational battle that compelled everyone in attendance. But the following year, the series held two races and ticket sales quickly dropped off. In 2010, there was only one ARCA event held there, attracting barely 2,000 people in the stands. After that, ARCA left, to be replaced by UARA and CARS. Hillenburg has continued to keep the faith, upgrading the track where he can and finally enticing NASCAR to come back with the Truck race in 2012.
While that event wasn’t a sellout, it was well attended and the racing was fantastic. Now comes the crossroads that lays before us, just two weeks away. NASCAR is watching, accountants in hand to see if the same amount of ticket sale dropoff occurs again. It would be a shame if it does; Rockingham is a great venue, in the heart of the original NASCAR country. On paper, you’d think attendance should be strong, especially after a quality debut race last year. The track is equally accessible from Raleigh, Charlotte, and Columbia, SC. There is no reason, with those three major population areas within a two-hour drive, that the race should not be sold out. When the green flag drops, on April 14th, the stands at Rockingham Speedway need to be nearly full, once again with the promise of future profits. Otherwise, NASCAR will be able to say, “We tried, the fans have proven they won’t support races at these smaller town racetracks” and they will be right.
NASCAR fans constantly complain that there aren’t enough short track races left on the schedule. They long for the days of the old races, where the likes of Petty and Pearson battled it out before the advent of all of the sanitized mile-and-a-half tracks that dominate the schedules now. They’ve also been especially vocal about losing tradition: the Darlington event on Labor Day Weekend, Rockingham’s two dates, and North Wilkesboro’s character to larger markets in different parts of the country. Well, on April 14th, the fans have a chance to make a statement to NASCAR. While Cup racing will almost certainly never come back to Rockingham, there could very easily be a Nationwide event there, too if the fans prove that they will support it. But if the fans choose not to back the North Carolina Education Lottery 200, with their wallets they have no one to blame but themselves when NASCAR never returns to an aging, “fan favorite” short track again.
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