Walking through the pre-race crowd on Sunday at Rockingham, there were a lot of things that caught my attention: beauty queens handing out watermelon, vendors of all kinds hawking their wares, people with bags and coolers and the colorful t-shirts you always see at a race. The ticket lines were long, a little over an hour before race time. A surprisingly healthy number of campers dotted the landscape. The twin rocks, one bearing the names of former Sprint Cup winners at the track and a new one that bears the name of the winners of various races since the track reopened under new owner Andy Hillenburg. But the thing I noticed the most that morning was an undercurrent of something more running through the crowd like a low-voltage electric current. It was almost palpable. It was an excitement that I haven’t felt among fans for a long time.
The current began as a buzz six months ago, when rumors first began to circulate in earnest. When the track announced the installation of SAFER barriers-a million-dollar project-there was a surge of hope. After all, NASCAR requires SAFER barriers for tracks hosting its three national touring divisions, while the series that the track affectionately known for years as simply “the Rock” hosted did not. It wasn’t required for NASCAR testing either…so did the sudden move to undertake an expensive upgrade mean what fans hoped it might mean? Could it be? Could NASCAR finally return to the little one-mile oval in the North Carolina sand hills after eight long years. Could we really come home again?
As it turns out, we could, and the announcement was made in October. NASCAR would roar back into the sleepy little town with a Camping World Truck Series race that the track would host in April. The track hadn’t been silent, but it hadn’t played host to NASCAR, either. The hope turned into a buzz. And by Sunday, the buzz was that deep current that flowed among the fans in the stands and the crews in the garage. It began driving through Rockingham, the sleepy Southern town that never stopped hoping, with the “Welcome Race Fans” banners that hung brightly in front of local businesses. The image of those proprietors dusting them off at long last was a strong one, though in reality they were probably new.
As race time approached, the current continued, flowing as skydivers floated to the frontstretch grass and as “Proud to Be an American” blared from the loudspeakers until you felt as though you would burst with it. Every seat in every row in my section was packed full. I can’t remember the last time it felt like this. It was something just out of reach of definition, but something almost physical. When the engines roared to life after those eight long years, it grew and spread into a feeling of deep satisfaction, of a sense that right now, today, things were right in this corner of the world. It was the way race day _used_ to feel.
And perhaps that’s the greatest compliment of all. It felt like it used to feel.
Oh, it wasn’t perfect. The race was good, but not great. There was tire strategy for the first time in a long while, and there was two-and three-wide passing all race long. It lacked the door-to-door finish that the final Sprint Cup race gave us in 2004, but it was a good race. It made the drivers work for it. The track reminded you that she could be deceptively mean if you didn’t treat her just right. And as the day ended with Kasey Kahne in the winner’s circle he was denied by a hairbreadth eight years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much confetti. (Or, in light of the race winner, is that ”konfetti”?) No, it wasn’t the race to end all races, but it was the best NASCAR race of the weekend.
Were there some things that weren’t so perfect? Well, frankly, yes. Old plumbing and 27,000 people don’t mix as well as one might hope, but that can be fixed. It’s easy to forget traffic patterns in eight years, and that could use some planning as well. But nothing took away from the feeling that this day was something special.
And after feeling something I thought I had lost forever, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer heartfelt thanks to some deserving souls.
First, to NASCAR:
Look, you get a bad rap for not always listening to race fans. I’ve been one of the first to criticize your organization for that. I hope you realize that the criticism comes from a deep love of the sport and the desire to see it be the best it can possibly be. But as quick as I often am to condemn, I have always also tried to find the silver lining.
This time, you nailed it.
The day you penciled in “Rockingham” on the CWTS schedule, you did right by your fans. You listened to their plea to come back home again, if only for this one week. You made right a wrong, and that’s not easy to do. You gave fans a chance to introduce their children to something that they might only have read about in a book or seen on a grainy videotape of past glory. You gave longtime fans a chance to relive a childhood memory of their own or to cross an item of their personal “bucket list.” That’s not something to be taken lightly. It means more than just another race on the schedule.
And now that all is said and done, you have an extraordinary opportunity in front of you, to keep this dream alive and grow it. A stand-alone Sunday truck race brought 27,000 fans, some who stayed the weekend. Just think what a full weekend of racing, with a truck race on Saturday and a Nationwide show on Sunday while the Cup Series is off would do. That would pack the place to the rafters.
We know deep down that a Cup race isn’t in the cards for Rockingham, at least not right now. But you have a golden ticket in front of you to make this feeling we all felt on Sunday grow and flourish instead of being a one-time thing.
Please let us come back to the Rock. Let us come every year. Put those empty years in the past and forge a future for the track and the race fans who held it in their hearts even when it was silent.
Next, to the race fans:
You did yourselves proud. It would have been great to see 32,000 of you, but you gave the day a special feeling. As you packed into the seats, gone were the complaints about boring racing, fuel mileage, debris cautions and all the things that you are often so vocal about (and rightfully so). There was a definite impression that you felt the same way I did in that old familiar moment when the engines fired and the air itself vibrated with something we had all nearly given up as lost forever. There was a camaraderie that I remember from once upon a time, a sense of all belonging to something more than just watching some cars spin left and left and left.
The crowd felt as though, if only for an afternoon, it had collectively brought back the deep affection for the sport that used to be so evident everywhere. It felt right. Every person I saw contributed to that feeling.
The catch is, of course, that if you want to keep that something-special feeling, you can’t just check Rockingham off the list and move on. You are the force that can determine her bright future or her return to what simply once was. Your support will ultimately determine if the Rock remains the vital thing it was on Sunday or returns to the pages of the history books. If that happens, this chance won’t come around again. You hold something very precious in your hands.
Finally, to Andy Hillenburg:
I remember the day that the then-North Carolina Motor Speedway was auctioned off in 2007. There was a sense of doom that day, and then it turned to a flicker of hope when word got out that you had bought the place, that you planned to bring back racing. If you hadn’t taken that giant leap of faith, the story would have ended that day, and the postscript would no doubt be nothing more than a shopping center or a housing development.
Your work was tireless. First there was that ARCA race where Ken Schrader showed us all that he still had it, taking Joey Logano to school before pit strategy intervened. From there, your racetrack grew and blossomed, hosting ARCA, Pro Cup, and other races. NASCAR teams came to test, but something was still missing and you didn’t rest until you made it happen. If it was NASCAR that allowed us to come home again, it was your unwavering determination that kept the way lit, even if at times it seemed we had wandered too far away to see it.
You give the credit away readily, and while you are right to share it with those who have shared your dream, it was your dream that made it happen. And your dream was our dream, too. If there are words to adequately express the debt of gratitude that we owe to you, they must be written by some other writer, for all that I have tried, I fall short. You gave those race fans back something that had once been written off as lost.
As for those not-so-perfect things like plumbing and traffic? They did nothing to cloud the day and what it meant to the fans. I have faith that they can and will be set right.
You gave NASCAR fans something that nobody else would have. You gave them not only the hope but the reality. From the bottom of my heart I thank you. And to that I feel confident that I can add one more thing with confidence: See you next year.
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