It was very nearly perfect.
Stock car racing returned to the too-long-silent Rockingham (formerly North Carolina) Speedway last week on a picture perfect early summer day. All eyes were on Joey Logano, the rookie phenom who won easily from the pole in his ARCA Re/Max Series debut, but it was a veteran who truly epitomized the day-and the track itself.
Ken Schrader in a way, WAS Rockingham Speedway on Sunday, or perhaps Rockingham Speedway was Ken Schrader. Coming from a 31st-place starting spot to finish second, Schrader passed cars by using the track to his advantage. It was a brilliant performance by the veteran driver with the reputation of being one who will race anything, anytime. At one point late in the race, Schrader took the lead and proceeded to school Logano in the finer points of holding a lead-switching from the bottom-hugging low line in the turns to the high line, the only place where Logano was really able to make his best moves. It didn’t work forever, but it was great, clean racing, the way Schrader has run for most of his 53 years.
While Logano may well be the future of stock car racing at any level he chooses, Schrader is the epitome of its past. A true racer’s racer, Schrader raced for years in a time and place where it wasn’t about the money. In reality, he still does. Schrader races far more away from the glamour and excess of the Sprint Cup Series than in it and has for all of his career, even when he was top 10 in Cup points year in and year out. For Schrader, it’s never been about the fame or really even the money – although the money has been nice, giving him the cars for the real racing. The real racing comes at dirt and asphalt short tracks from one end of the country to the other, sometimes in ARCA, more often at the local level. And he nearly outruns the years at times in those races, although time grows short for Schrader and the few contemporaries he has left in Sprint Cup.
Rockingham Speedway is the same, really. The return of racing was right and good and long overdue. Even in the days when the southeast was still the breadbasket of big-time stock car racing, Rockingham, affectionately called “The Rock,” was neither as impressive as Charlotte Motor Speedway nor as prestigious as Darlington. It was, both figuratively and literally, a gritty little 1-miler where, by and large, wins were eked out of the rough asphalt, coaxed out of a threadbare set of tires, fought for and hard-won. Just outside the main gates, a monument to each of the drivers to beat The Rock (for you never raced the other drivers, only the track itself) still stands, each name literally carved in stone.
The fans returned in good numbers for a standalone ARCA race, with a hunger that has been gnawing since NASCAR pulled up stakes and tossed aside another piece of history like so much flotsam. The hunger was satiated on Sunday after journeyman racer Andy Hillenburg bought the track and, instead of turning it into a testing facility or housing development as the other bidders had planned, turned it into what it was always meant to be, a racetrack. As the cars made the first green flag lap, fireworks went up in each corner as the leader passed, celebrating the fact that this track, like the driver who drove the rest of the race so skillfully, was not done yet.
In many ways, time has passed Rockingham Speedway by. Even if the backstretch grandstand were reassembled, it’s unlikely that the facility could, without a major overhaul, host a Sprint Cup race in this day and age where the fans are new and expect upscale comfort even for a stock car race, and who don’t realize that Schrader, now more often than not a mid-pack racer or even a backmarker, was once-is still-a four time winner on the circuit and a perpetual face at the year-end banquet that then still honored only the 10 drivers who got it done week in and week out, all year long.
No, The Rock’s time at NASCAR’s highest level has likely passed. That’s not to say that if NASCAR really understood the fans and the ache for the type of racing that was once commonplace, the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series wouldn’t be a perfect fit. It’s also safe to say that Schrader can still win, still race with the best of them, though perhaps no longer in a series that has become far different than the world he entered those years ago.
Rockingham Speedway and Ken Schrader are, in many ways, made for each other, although Schrader never recorded a Cup win there. Perhaps that’s fitting. Perhaps NASCAR has passed Ken Schrader and Rockingham Speedway by. Perhaps both have transcended NASCAR… because both race on in a way that today’s NASCAR no longer seems to understand.
Either way, last Sunday, it was very nearly perfect.