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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Time Is Now for a Return to the Rock

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.

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. 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 standalone ARCA competition, Joey Logano, Ken Schrader and the regulars of ARCA 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 fanbase 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.