News & Media

Caraviello: Now, as then, fans hold key for the Rock

September 08, 2011, David Caraviello,

Addition of Truck race brings NASCAR back to former North Carolina Speedway

In the summer of 2007, Rockingham mayor Gene McLaurin received a letter from then-Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Humpy Wheeler informing him that the big track outside of town was being put up for auction. A short while later, he received a message from Andy Hillenburg stating that he intended to bid for the property. McLaurin wasn't completely familiar with the former race car driver, so he did two things -- he looked him up on Wikipedia, and he called the family of the late NASCAR champion Benny Parsons.

Parsons, who had died earlier that year, always loved Rockingham. He raced out of there, his sons lived there, and he clinched his 1973 Cup championship at the track then known as North Carolina Speedway. Since McLaurin couldn't talk to BP himself, he spoke with Parson's son, Keith, who told the mayor just what he wanted to hear: "He was one of my dad's favorite people," Parsons said of Hillenburg.

Andy Hillenburg has invested mightily in Rockingham. (Getty)

Rockin' ahead

With Andy Hillenburg the driving force, Rockingham is back in NASCAR with a Truck Series date secure for 2012.

That was good enough for McLaurin. "When he said that," McLaurin remembered, "I knew then that was the guy we wanted to buy our speedway in Rockingham."

And Hillenburg did just that, purchasing the track in October of that same year, and breathing some life into a facility that had hosted NASCAR's big leagues from its opening in 1965 until 2004, when it was sold and eventually closed to help settle a lawsuit brought against NASCAR by a Texas Motor Speedway shareholder. Seven years later, after hosting events from a number of smaller series, the facility now known as Rockingham Speedway makes its boldest move yet with the announcement Wednesday that a Camping World Truck Series race will be held at the track in April of 2012.

It will be the first time NASCAR has competed at the Rock since the final Cup race at the old Sand Hills paper clip, an event won by Matt Kenseth on Feb. 22, 2004. The announcement of the Truck Series race follows a plan to install the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier at the track, an expensive but necessary process expected to be completed by the end of this year. And most notably, it's one of those rare times when NASCAR's national division has come back to a speedway after leaving it behind. It's not Cup, but it's NASCAR, and to Rockingham it feels like being welcomed back into the family after years in the wilderness.

"We've continued to hear from fans not just in the Carolinas, but throughout the sport, and they wanted to come back to Rockingham," McLaurin said. "That says a lot about the core fan base of the NASCAR fans, that they want to come back. Our community has certainly worked hard with Andy to help prepare for a day like this. We're excited and looking forward to rolling out the red carpet."

For this to work, of course, the fans have to come. As warm and hopeful a moment as this is, with NASCAR returning to a beloved traditional facility, it's worth noting that hosts of non-Cup "standalone" events often struggle mightily -- as the recent plights of Nashville, Memphis, Gateway and Pike's Peak would suggest. Then again, Iowa packs the house for everything, and Kentucky's sellout crowds for support-series races helped earn it a place on the Sprint Cup schedule. Maybe traditional fans, who have long complained about a dearth of traditional tracks on national-series schedules, will respond to Rockingham's renaissance in kind.

You would hope so, given the way venerable Rockingham was treated in its sad, final years as a Cup venue, when it was allowed to wither on the vine when everyone knew strong ticket sales were the only thing that could save it. It's one of the great conundrums in recent NASCAR history, why so many pine for the Rock, when so relatively few voted with their wallets to prevent it from becoming expendable. Don't think ticket sales can't make a difference -- they did down the road at Darlington Raceway, where sellout crowds in those first few Mother's Day weekend events ensured the track's future. Today Darlington survives, while Rockingham's former Cup dates reside in Fontana and Fort Worth.

Perhaps the Truck Series race will be different, the gateway to a grand rebirth. McLaurin said Rockingham is better equipped to host visitors these days, with more hotels and restaurants and an improved road system. The track's seating capacity has been markedly reduced, now that the oversized grandstand that once loomed over Rockingham's backstretch has been moved, chopped up and installed at the drag strip at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And then there's the calendar, and the benefits that come along with a springtime Truck race, as opposed to Cup events run in the late winter and early fall.

"I think, quite honestly, the biggest challenge we had when I was there, especially those last three years, was the February date that we were left with was just so susceptible to weather," said former Rockingham general manager Chris Browning, now president at Darlington. "I remember especially the last three February race weeks we had, we had ice and snow each week. It was just ridiculous, trying to run a race in that part of North Carolina in that time of year. I think that hurt us more than anybody realized, especially when you think about the fact that you could wait a month to the day almost, and come down here to Darlington in March, and see a race and stand a much better chance of having a better weather forecast, just from a comfort level."

Rockingham's fall Cup date, shipped out to California, was the first to go. Had the February date gone instead, the outcome might have been different. "Had we been left with the October date, things may have played out a little it differently in terms of the crowds," said Browning, whose Darlington track is not expected to host a Truck race in 2012. "But it was very frustrating, to be honest with you. ... If you put yourself in the position of the consumer, they weren't going to spend their hard-earned money knowing there was a pretty high probability they'd be sitting in the grandstands in 30-degree weather and possibly having to deal with snow and ice and stuff."

Indeed, those last few Cup events in Rockingham were frigid affairs. And yet, there may have been other factors at work, too. Like other parts of North Carolina, Rockingham and surrounding Richmond County deal with struggling furniture and textile industries, and were hit hard well before the recession walloped the rest of the country. Although the track has always been a source of immense local pride -- civic groups sold concessions outside the speedway, and there's talk of reviving the street festival that once accompanied the Cup races -- this also is a place where disposable income is at a premium. From its expansion in 1997 to its demise in 2004, Rockingham never sold out a Cup race. The current capacity of 34,000 seems more in line with what the region can support.

"We're a part of the rural South, and economically, we still have our challenges," McLaurin said. "But we also have a lot of positive things going on. There are more motels and hotels here than there were then. We've got more restaurants, and the surrounding communities have held their own, too. No doubt about it, there has been a decline in employment in textiles. We've had some other things that have happened that are positive. I think fans will be ready to come back. ... I'm not going to say this is a booming economy, don't get me wrong. That's not the case. But we're ready for the visitors, I assure you that. People will be excited and enthusiastic about welcoming them back."

And everyone hopes they come back, to a facility that hosted 78 events in NASCAR's premier series, saw 12 Cup championships clinched, and lives large in the memories of all who witnessed races there. NASCAR is taking something of a gamble by coming back to Rockingham. So is Hillenburg, certainly financially. Traditional fans have spoken so lovingly of the Rock in the long years since it disappeared from the NASCAR schedule. In the spring of 2012, we find out if they really meant it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.