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NASCAR returns to historic Rockingham in '12

September 08, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Hillenburg agreed to invest $1 million in track upgrades; tire test planned

Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina made it official Wednesday afternoon: NASCAR is returning to Rockingham.

Perdue announced that the Camping World Truck Series will run at the historic Rockingham Speedway on April 15, 2012, crediting the dogged determination of track owner and former NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg and the eventual support of local and state government officials with making it happen. Formerly known as North Carolina Speedway, the 1-mile track first opened in 1965 and hosted NASCAR-sanctioned events for 40 years before the last Cup race was held there on Feb. 22, 2004.

"This was a community effort. Our staff here at the speedway, NASCAR, all of the city and county and state officials ... all of it needed to fall into the right place at the right time in order for this to be possible."

--ANDY HILLENBURG

"It's a real big day for race fans around the country -- because anyone who knows anything about racing knows about the history of this fabulous track," Perdue said.

Yet it had fallen on hard times before Hillenburg bought it at auction from Speedway Motorsports Inc. for $4.4 million in 2007. Three years earlier, SMI had purchased it for $100.4 million with the idea of moving the Rock's final Cup race date to one of its other facilities at Texas Motor Speedway.

* Video: Rockingham back in NASCAR

In an ironic twist, the April 15 race date in 2012 falls on a Sunday at the tail end of a NASCAR race weekend that will include Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup races at Texas on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

"I didn't want to put the race fan in a bad position. I wanted to have a date when the [other series] were racing west of the Mississippi. Then, No. 2, you do want to hopefully have some of the Nationwide Series drivers and a couple of the Cup drivers hopefully want to and be able to compete," Hillenburg said. "So then you try to find the date that works for that. I definitely can tell you that I'm wishing for great weather for us, and I'm also wishing Eddie Gossage [president of Texas Motor Speedway] great luck on the weather for his events because I'm hoping to get a couple of drivers from his Friday and Saturday night shows at our Sunday afternoon race."

To help make it all happen, Hillenburg agreed to invest $1 million in track upgrades, with most of the money going to the installation of Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (or SAFER) barriers. Hillenburg said the SAFER barriers would be completed on the backstretch in time for a mid-November doubleheader of Late Model and USAR Pro Cup Series races, with the rest -- in the turns -- completed by mid-January.

It also took the cooperation of not only NASCAR and local and state officials, but also the sponsorship involvement of Good Sam Club and soft-drink manufacturer Cheerwine. Good Sam Club, the world's largest Recreational Vehicle owners' organization, will serve as the title sponsor for the race, while Cheerwine will serve as presenting sponsor.

The race will be named the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200.

"We've been working hard on getting bigger events to improve the speedway since the first day I was in that office," Hillenburg said. "This was a community effort. Our staff here at the speedway, NASCAR, all of the city and county and state officials ... all of it needed to fall into the right place at the right time in order for this to be possible."

Wayne Auton, director of the Camping World Truck Series, said Hillenburg was relentless in his pursuit of a NASCAR-sanctioned event from the day the former driver bought the track, which had sat dormant from 2004 to 2007.

"He told me personally the first day he bought the track that eventually he was going to need to do this to put on bigger-type races," Auton said.

"Until Dec. 31, this race track isn't really official on the schedule -- so teams can come here and test until then."

--WAYNE AUTON

Auton said a Goodyear tire test will be scheduled for the facility before the inaugural truck race can be run. He also predicted a highly entertaining race.

"I'm ready to go right now," said Auton, smiling. "Obviously we need Goodyear to come in here and do a tire test. ... Going off past history, it's a race track where drivers are going to have to have a lot of finesse. I believe it's going to be a driver who maybe doesn't have the fastest truck, but the one who takes care of his equipment and tires who runs up front."

Meanwhile, Auton confirmed that the sanctioning of the truck race will mean an eventual end to use of the main Rockingham track as a test site for NASCAR teams in all three national touring series. He said teams will still be able to continue testing on the half-mile track behind the main facility -- nicknamed Little Rock -- that was built by Hillenburg to resemble Martinsville Speedway.

"Little Rock has nothing to do with the race track we're racing on," Auton said. "We will allow teams to continue to come here and test until Dec. 31. All our sanctioning agreements run year to year. That being said, until Dec. 31, this race track isn't really official on the schedule -- so teams can come here and test until then."

Perdue also lauded economic projections that the race will generate between $7.2 million and $10.5 million in revenue for Richmond County and the state of North Carolina, plus more than 300 jobs. She promised to return on race day and predicted a sellout crowd at the facility, which now seats 34,500 (the back stretch grandstands were dismantled and sold to SMI as part of the auction deal).

But the biggest news of the day was that NASCAR-sanctioned racing is coming back to the place where Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and so many other legends ran so many laps in so many races.

"For us to be the first series to come back here, it's an honor," said driver Todd Bodine, defending champion in the Camping World Truck Series. "More importantly, for us as racers, we want to come back here to support Andy. He's one of us. We've all been friends with him, we've mostly all raced against him. He's such a great guy, we just want to support him. We can't wait for The Rock to come back to life with NASCAR."

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