News broke on Aug. 30 that Rockingham Propertires LLC had purchased Rockingham Speedway, formerly known as North Carolina Motor Speedway. The new owner said the intent is to have racing once again on the legendary track that hosted the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 1965 to 2004.
This leads to this week’s question: as soon as the track is ready to race on, and NASCAR is able to adjust its schedule, should the Cup Series immediately return to the track? Or should the track be tested out by lower divisions of racing first?
Between a Rock and an Empty Place
With the recent sale of Rockingham Speedway, it does appear like Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing could return to the track affectionately known as “The Rock.” The new ownership group has made it clear they intend to bring racing back. Ever since the announcement, the clamoring for a Cup event has grown to a near roar in some circles.
But let’s hold the horses for a second here.
NASCAR vacated the banked 1.017-mile circuit 14 years ago because it couldn’t draw a decent crowd in an area saturated by race tracks. So what’s changed between then and now? Other than the fact that fans have been overcome by nostalgia and are longing for days gone by, nothing.
Tracks still struggle to draw a capacity audience. There are still three other Cup-race hosting venues within a couple hours. The same hurdles that existed in 2004 will be presented once again should the series return.
It’s certainly a possibility that fans would now be more apt to support a vintage track like Rockingham, considering how flooded with 1.5 mile tri-ovals the schedule has become. But there’s a lot on the line with this. If the speedway is awarded a Cup race and can’t maintain successful attendance, it could disappear again. Race tracks don’t fall off the map only to make a comeback very often. The next time could very well be the last. Thus, it is important for this to be handled correctly.
Here’s a funny story: we’ve done this already once before. The Rock reopened to run a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in both 2012 and 2013. Initial interest was high, but, in the end, attendance was sparse with the announced crowd being less than half of what the final Cup race drew. As a result, the track was axed for a second time.
Instead of signing checks for a Cup race, something else needs to be done. I recommend a companion NCWTS and ARCA weekend. Maybe add a K&N Pro Series East race to make it a triple-header. This presents value to ticket holders but won’t break the speedway trying to come up with a massive sanctioning fee to host Cup.
There has to be some kind of gauge of just how desirable a race at Rockingham has become. It’s one thing to wish and hope for the good ol’ days to return. It’s a whole different story when it comes time for fans to open their wallets and load up the car.
That’s why it’s a good idea to start with a lower-tier race. You wouldn’t set the treadmill on the fastest speed before you climb on. No one wants the track to face plant right out of the gate. The next time it falls down, it will likely be the last. -Frank Velat
Go Cup or Go Home
NASCAR should instantly look at adding Rockingham Speedway to the Cup Series schedule as soon as possible, whether it be 2020 or 2021. The Cup schedule is stale and there is no change that would spice it up more while making fans happy than returning to The Rock.
If Rockingham is given a good date on the schedule then it will flourish. Part of the reason the track failed to get good attendance in its final year in 2004 is because it had a race date in February. Nobody wants to watch a race in the cold North Carolina conditions during winter.
Prior to that, Rockingham had a second race date in November. The track’s second to last Cup race was in November 2003, and it sold out. NASCAR didn’t take away that date because of low attendance, but rather because of a great many behind-the-scenes politics, such as the Ferko Lawsuit (Google it if you don’t know it) and the sport’s hunger for cookie-cutter, mile-and-a-half tracks in untapped markets.
NASCAR, ISC, SMI and fans finally realized that racing on 1.5-mile tracks is not that great, so a race at the unique one-mile Rockingham would be well received.
Even if the track only sold 50,000 of its 60,000 seats like it did in 2004, that would still be a better attendance than many tracks on the schedule today. It was estimated that only about 45,000 people were at the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week. Most people would probably agree on taking a race date from Vegas and giving it to The Rock.
Frank mentioned that the Truck Series tried and failed at Rockingham from 2012-13. The blame is put on attendance, but attendance for Truck races does not matter at all. If it did, then Texas Motor Speedway would not continue having two Truck dates every season. Have you seen the attendance for the Truck Series’ spring Texas standalone race? It looks like there is more people on the track competing than in the stands.
The reason the track lost the Truck race had more to do with the then-owners of the track, Andy Hillenburg and Bill Silas, getting into financial trouble than NASCAR losing money. The reason Hillenburg and Silas were losing money on the track is because they only had lower levels of racing on it. Had they scored a Cup race, then a lot more TV and sponsorship money would’ve been coming in.
So if The Rock only returns with Trucks, ARCA and/or K&N Pro Series East, then it will once again fail. If it returns to the Cup schedule, then, mark my words, the first race back will sell out. The rest may not sell out, but attendance hardly matters at tracks anymore. It’s all about the TV ratings, and a Cup race at The Rock would attract many old school fans to watch. -Michael Massie
About the author
Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.
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