News & Media

Caraviello: Don't squander Rockingham's second chance

April 11, 2012, David Caraviello,

It has become one of those places more cloaked in mythology than reality, three syllables that represent a kind of automotive paradise lost: Rockingham. The word all by its lonesome conjures images of a time when drivers wore mullets, crew chiefs wore mesh-backed caps, and races were broadcast on a country music television channel. Close your eyes, and you can almost smell the longleaf pine trees, feel the sandy soil shifting beneath your feet, and see Rusty and Dale battling off the fourth turn. The fact that for so long it was officially called North Carolina Speedway seems like a minor point of fact. Then as now, everyone knew it as the Rock.

And like many things, it became sort of deified upon its passing, its stature benefiting from a posthumous boost. In the eight years since NASCAR's premier series left Rockingham, there has been no shortage of wailing from fans who viewed the move as the sport abandoning part of its past. The further we get from Matt Kenseth's narrow victory over Kasey Kahne on that brilliant February day in 2004, the louder that chorus becomes. It's a nice sentiment, and it's proof that a great deal of affection still exists for venerable old Rockingham, and it's almost enough to make you forget that race fans gave up on the track well before the sanctioning body did.

More history awaits

Matt Kenseth's win in the final Cup race at the Rock in 2004 ranks as one of the track's most exciting. The Trucks are set to write the next chapter at the historical venue.

Strip away the revisionist history, and what remains is the bare truth surrounding a race track that knew the end was coming if attendance didn't pick up, and still was left to wither on the vine. No question, Rockingham's old Cup dates were tough ones, late winter and early fall weekends that could bring frost on one end and rain on the other. No question, industry in the North Carolina Sandhills took a hit well before the rest of the country dealt with a recession. No question, Rockingham had so much going against it, from the calendar, to a big backstretch grandstand that boosted seating capacity to beyond what the area could handle, to too much competition for the ticket-buying dollar from other race tracks within its own region.

And yet, race fans still had the power to save it, as they did a few years later with nearby Darlington Raceway, perhaps having learned from what they would let get away. But despite pleas from the facility's management and local government officials, attendance lagged, and the Rock was left vulnerable. The place was sold as part of a lawsuit settlement, and NASCAR pulled out, and current owner Andy Hillenburg bought it at auction. And in the years since, traditional race fans have stewed over the loss of a traditional track, even if that loss was completely preventable.

Now, that's not to say the Rockingham legend isn't entirely true. For four decades the facility Harold Brasington scraped out of the sandy soil of North Carolina's coastal plain was a real dandy, with an abrasive surface that made tire management key and had cars slipping all over one another. The last Cup race there, where Kenseth edged a rookie Kahne by one-hundredth of a second, summed up what the place was capable. It was where nearly a dozen Cup championships were clinched, including Kenseth's in 2003, and Dale Earnhardt's record-tying seventh in 1994. It was where Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver Steve Park tearfully clutched a DEI flag in Victory Lane one week after his organization's namesake had been killed at Daytona.

That's the Rockingham that makes so many fans' hearts skip a beat, or perhaps quicken in pace now that the track is getting something exceptionally rare in NASCAR -- a second chance. The Camping World Truck Series competes Sunday at the venue Hillenburg has rechristened as Rockingham Speedway, and the buzz over this event has resonated since the race was announced this past September. This is not the kind of thing to be taken for granted, since it's believed to be only the third time NASCAR's national division has left a speedway only to return after a prolonged absence. One was at Watkins Glen International, where NASCAR's top two series still run, and the other was at Nashville's historic fairgrounds track, which hosted both the Trucks and what's now the Nationwide Series for a time after the Cup tour departed in 1984.

Because the Nashville track is a much older, publicly owned facility that adjoins a neighborhood, those races couldn't last. The Rock is different. When NASCAR last raced there in 2004, the facilities were modern, and in better condition than those at some tracks that hosted two events a year. The big backstretch grandstand that made the place look so empty is gone, relocated to the drag strip at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hillenburg has made $1 million in updates, including soft walls. There's every reason to believe that Rockingham's second life as a NASCAR host venue can be a rousing success -- if the fans show up. As was the case the last time, ultimately the ticket-buyers hold the key.

"I really hope the fans in that area really roll out Sunday and support the Truck Series and support NASCAR. The more the fans support that track in that area and support Andy and what he's done, it's just going to help the future of that race track," said Elliott Sadler, who'll be at Texas Motor Speedway competing in the Nationwide tour this weekend, but is admittedly jealous of the Truck Series drivers.

"I won my last Nationwide race in 1998 there until I won again [this year] in Phoenix, so it's a pretty special place here to me. I still have the trophy from the Rockingham race track here in my office. It's just a neat race track, just one of the first places I ever went to test a Nationwide car way back in I think 1996, and it's just a place I used to go to as a fan because it's so close to home. But I just hope the fans turn out. It's a great race with a great race track because the Goodyear tires wear out quickly there. It has a lot of falloff, the grooves move around a lot, just always creates some really good finishes, and hopefully they'll have another one there on Sunday."

Early indications are hopeful. "I talked to Andy, and Andy says it's amazing how many motor homes he's going to have here, and the grandstands are going to be pretty full," Truck Series driver Ron Hornaday said. "They really love their racing down there, and I just can't wait to put on a great show for them, because when you used to watch it on TV and you watched the Allisons and the Pettys and everyone, it always brought up the Rock."

Give NASCAR credit -- the sanctioning body absolutely does not have to do this, even if uniting one of the sport's best traditional tracks with its most rough-and-tumble division seems a match made in motorsports heaven. Now it's up to the fans, those same fans who have pined for a return to the former North Carolina Speedway since the day NASCAR last left it, not to squander Rockingham's second chance. Because there almost certainly will never be a third.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.