For decades at this time of the year, the NASCAR Cup Series would travel to the rolling pine forests in the Sandhills of North Carolina to race at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham.
The 1.017-mile track came into existence in 1965. Curtis Turner won its first race on Oct. 31 of that year. It was the 17th and final victory of his career.
The track, which nearly everyone called simply “Rockingham,” became a familiar, popular part of every NASCAR season. With some exceptions, its two Cup events were held in March and October.
And therein was the problem. More about that in a bit.
Rockingham was unique. It had a bucolic setting among the evergreens. It was simple, not imposing. Fans enjoyed ample parking and the fact there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. They were also much closer to the on-track action, not unlike a short track but with higher speeds.
Competitors liked the track also. It was close to Charlotte, the home base for many teams, which meant travel wasn’t lengthy or expensive. Many drivers opted to go to their homes at the end of each day’s activity.
While most fans would say they enjoyed the actual racing, competitors were somewhat divided. Few complained about what they had to do on the track. Many, however, grumbled about how long they had to do it.
As said, Rockingham was a one-mile track. Its races were 500 miles in length. Average acing speeds were usually around 100 mph or a little more. It doesn’t take a lot of mathematical skill to determine that an event could last nearly five hours. It was accepted that four hours, 30 minutes was the norm.
The media, never an overly active bunch, took advantage of the length. There was plenty of time to catch a nap if need be. One writer, worn out after a night of “wine tasting,” watched the first 50 laps of a race, retired to a couch, fell asleep and woke up in time to see the final 50 laps. His race report earned him a first-place award from the National Motorsports Press Association.
There was also something else, as Darrell Waltrip observed after he won a Rockingham race.
Looking at the race statistics while in the press box for his winner’s interview, Waltrip said: “Four and one-half hours? I raced for four and one-half hours and I got less than $25,000?”
For years, Rockingham wasn’t known for generous purses.
But there was a reason for that. It didn’t have powerhouse investors. The marketing and advertising budgets were small — if not non-existent. Its principal owner was L.G. DeWitt, who, among other things, was in the trucking industry. As the team owner with whom Benny Parsons won the 1973 Winston Cup championship and the 1975 Daytona 500, DeWitt is part of NASCAR lore.
The speedway’s income was somewhat limited since attendance on a good race day wasn’t much more than 45,000, if that.
That number was often unattainable. Rockingham had a recurring problem: the weather.
With races in March and October, the weather on race weekends at Rockingham was often cold — and rainy. Rain, particularly in March, was a recurring problem. It was wet so often that some jokingly renamed the speedway “Rainingham.”
Rockingham was nearly always the third race of a season, as Las Vegas is now. March is during winter, and unlike balmy Daytona or the desert setting of Vegas, the speedway had to deal with the elements.
Rockingham didn’t have a wealth of season ticket holders and thus had to lure single ticket sales and walkup attendance. It did a good job of that, but when it rained on race Sunday, the damage was done.
In the years before NASCAR adopted a “next day” rule after a rainout, sometimes it would be weeks before there was a hole in a schedule that a postponed Rockingham could fill. And when it did, attendance was fraction of what it should have been.
But the speedway pressed on. During the ’90s — a time when NASCAR’s popularity soared and new, handsome speedways sprang up — it became obvious some of its older tracks in smaller venues were in danger of extinction. Rockingham was one of them.
However, it fought for its very existence. What was once a simple track turned into a shining behemoth complete with two stories of VIP suites, a new, multi-tiered press box, a greatly enlarged media center and a remodeled garage area.
It wasn’t enough. Because of lagging attendance exacerbated by recurring weather problems, Rockingham held its last Cup race on Feb. 22, 2004. It was won by Matt Kenseth.
But it didn’t go away. Former driver Andy Hillenburg bought the track and had a hand in staging a few races from other circuits. Sporadically, over the years, the facility now known as Rockingham Speedway has staged events sanctioned by ARCA, the K&N Pro Series, the X-1R Pro Series and the Camping World Truck Series. Kyle Larson won the last truck race in 2013.
The racing buzz still hums at Rockingham, called The Rock Racing and Entertainment Complex, for the March 5 Open House, which will feature cars and drivers from the past, music, food and other entertainment — all free of admission.
But that is certainly not the same as it was.
Fans who are part of NASCAR’s past or are familiar with it bemoan the loss of Rockingham — perhaps without the intensity given North Wilkesboro, but their voices are heard.
Nonetheless, it is a bit of a shame that Rockingham seemingly hasn’t received the demand for a rebirth given North Wilkesboro, which, from all indications, will bring results.
However, it has been said there is work behind the scenes to restore the speedway.
Perhaps, in time, that goal will be reached.
I hope so. And I’m not alone.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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