Full Throttle – Raising a Rock from the Ashes
The story is familiar to most NASCAR fans. Rockingham Speedway opened in 1965 and hosted Cup series events for 37 years before the track was shuttered as part of the agreement between NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports which resulted in its final race date being moved to Texas Motor Speedway. Andy Hillenburg purchases the speedway in 2007 at an auction and vows to return the Rock to prominence in racing circles. Wednesday September 7th was the day when Hillenburg’s vow was officially realized.
In an announcement that featured the governor of North Carolina, the Mayor of Rockingham, North Carolina, the town council, county managers and members of the North Carolina Government, the Camping World Truck series revealed they would be coming back to the historic track in the Sandhills of North Carolina in 2012. The event will not only feature the Trucks but the UARA Late Model series and the Frank Kimmel Street Stocks, both series that have supported the track since it came back to life in 2008.
The changes in NASCAR over its history, especially during the boom years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, have always been difficult for hard core race fans to swallow and the resulting loss of sentimental venues causes hard feelings and bitter dislike on behalf of fans directed at the owners of the sport and the people who own the tracks that take their precious races away from them. That was very true with the fans of Rockingham who felt like their track was never given a fair shake. The track always offered fantastic racing, including the final Cup race that saw Matt Kenseth beat Kasey Kahne to the finish by one hundredth of a second, and was never given a race date during a time of year when the weather was comfortable for the fans. In the end the tracks race dates were treated like numbers on a page and utilized to settle a lawsuit and give the “undeserving” California fans a race.
Hillenburg brought racing back to Rockingham before it was allowed to fall into disrepair like another SMI property in Wilkes County. The track was still viable, although it did need infrastructure upgrades that were never done even before it was closed. Hillenburg begged, borrowed, and cajoled his way to getting everything he needed to make the facility on par with other NASCAR National Touring series host tracks. The final piece of that puzzle was the installation of SAFER barriers, which will take place in two phases during the Fall of this year and will be in place well before the Good Sam’s Roadside Assistance 200 on April 15th, 2012.
Rockingham is a special race track and Andy Hillenburg is a special track owner. The track is located roughly an hour and a half to two hours from every city of significant size without much from an entertainment standpoint anywhere close by besides Pinehurst Golf Resort. The economic downturn has taken a heavy toll on the region with unemployment rates running from 12 to 17 percent, and the result has been a difficult environment for a race track owner to put butts in the stands. However, Hillenburg has persevered and managed to put on some great racing events, from ARCA making the initial race start under Hillenburg’s ownership to UARA and Pro Cup this Spring, the racing at the track has been top notch. Hillenburg has been working diligently to make the track safer for competitors and has finally secured the financing to install the SAFER barrier system. That was one of the two pieces left that had to be ironed out for a national touring series event to take place at the track.
The other hurdle the track had to cross was the testing revenue that is generated at the facility. Both Rockingham and its cousin “Little Rock” host test sessions for teams in a multitude of racing series, especially the Sprint Cup series. A significant portion of the revenue for the facility has come from that testing in the past and, pursuant to NASCAR’s rules, testing is not allowed at a track that is sanctioned by NASCAR. With the announcement of the race in 2012, the testing ban will apply to Rockingham Speedway, but will not apply to “Little Rock”. The tracks are being treated as two separate race tracks so the half mile track behind the main speedway will still be allowed to host testing sessions, free of the limitation imposed on the big track.
Richmond County North Carolina and the surrounding areas are in dire need of some economic good news. The arrival of a Camping World Truck race is going to be a huge boon to the area, not only from direct spending at the race track, but from the influx of people purchasing gas, staying at area hotels, and eating at local restaurants. The true impact is always debatable based on which economist you tend to believe, but there is no doubt that the numbers will be in the millions of dollars. Provided the fans in and around the speedway and across the country make the effort to support the track and the attendance numbers maintain over years, it is going to make a huge impact for years to come on the hard hit area.
Now that the Truck series has been confirmed at Rockingham, the speculation has naturally turned to the Nationwide series. While Frontstretch inquired with several different people involved with the process and the facility, no one would confirm that Nationwide discussions were even underway. A well connected source said “Let’s get this Truck race established for more than one year to make sure it will be supported before we venture into multiple NASCAR races.” There is a rumor that negotiations are well along for one of the open Nationwide dates (two from Nashville Superspeedway) to come to Rockingham but at this time they are nothing more than rumors.
There are hundreds of race track owners all around the United States and they all approach the business with a slightly different tact. There is something special about a former race car driver who tries to make it work as an owner. They know what racers want and they know how to make the fans happy. Andy Hillenburg is working diligently to bring the best he can to Rockingham Speedway and make everyone’s experiences there memorable. Todd Bodine said it best after the press conference today, “Andy is a racer and knows what it takes to make good racing.” Andy also has a deep rooted love for Richmond County and Rockingham Speedway that transcends the race track and will hopefully continue to help the region in its long recovery from the economic downturn that has hurt almost every resident of the area.
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