News & Media

Inside NASCAR: Return to Rockingham a labor of love

April 11, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Returning Rockingham to glory has consumed Andy Hillenburg since buying it

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- It's Monday, and Andy Hillenburg is on the move. But then he's always been on the go, even more so since buying the former North Carolina Speedway for $4.4 million in 2007 and renaming it Rockingham Speedway.

Besides, this week is different. For the first time since the venue closed its gates following a Cup race on Feb. 22, 2004, NASCAR is returning to the Rock. The Camping World Truck Series will run the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 at the 1-mile, steeply-banked track Sunday.

"I'm pretty much running myself ragged 20 hours a day. I have not stopped and will not stop until we throw the green flag for the race."


For Hillenburg, simply scoring the race date is a triumph, a coup. But it's hardly the culmination of all that he worked toward since acquiring the track. Instead, he's looking at it as a glorious beginning, a rebirth for the historic track that first opened in 1965 and hosted NASCAR-sanctioned events for four decades before its closing.

So with the Truck race only days away, Hillenburg is hopping. One minute he's on the phone, trying to find out the name of the Special Ops paratroopers who will be part of the pre-race entertainment, so he can jump on another line and give that information to a radio talk show that requested it. The next, Hillenburg is showing a guest why Rockingham's control tower is considered one of the best in NASCAR, and the place on the roof above it where he frequently climbs at night to gather his thoughts and survey the grounds.

"Coming up here at night," Hillenburg said, "helps me keep my sanity. It also reminds me of how much we still have left to do."

There is no doubt Hillenburg wants to do this right. He frets every small detail, even lamenting that no matter how many times his skeleton maintenance crew washes the bird poop from the stairwells leading to the control tower and spotters' stand on the roof, the nasty stuff always seems to reappear within 24 hours.

For a former driver who twice ran Cup races at Rockingham and also ran in the Indianapolis 500 on the open-wheel side, nothing can be overlooked. This is his baby, his dream. And Sunday's race is another stepping stone to getting where he ultimately wants to go.

"I've been asked if I'm more excited about this event than when I competed as a driver. And the answer is yes, I'm more excited," Hillenburg said. "There's more effort. I'm pretty much running myself ragged 20 hours a day. I have not stopped and will not stop until we throw the green flag for the race.

After buying the track in 2004, Andy Hillenburg was determined to get NASCAR to return to Rockingham. (Getty Images)

"The excitement before came in that when I was running in a race, I was part of history. Now, as someone who is bringing back Rockingham to the racing forefront, I have a chance to make history or maybe even slightly alter it -- because Rockingham was forgotten by so many people."

Determined man

Wayne Auton, director of the Camping World Truck Series, said it didn't take Hillenburg long after buying the track in 2007 to contact NASCAR about the possibility of making a return there -- something it has done at only two other tracks, Watkins Glen International and the old Nashville Fairgrounds, in the past 26 years.

"When Andy bought the track at auction, about an hour after he purchased it, he gave me a call," Auton said. "Andy was an owner in the Truck Series garage at the time. And he called me up and asked what it would take to get a Truck race there. I said, 'First of all, you need to make sure you'll be able to meet all the specifics of hosting a national event. It's not just a matter of just throwing open the gates and getting them rolling on the race track.'

"I told him the first thing he needed to do was contact them at Daytona and tell them your intentions. But the first day he owned the track, he got started on it. He knew with the evolution of the SAFER walls, he knew he'd have to generate some revenue to afford that. He did a good job of getting the state of North Carolina to pitch in, and getting a lot of local people involved to help bring racing back to Richmond County at Rockingham Speedway."

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.

Hillenburg knew in his heart that it was only a matter of time -- and enormous effort -- before he could get NASCAR to race at the Rock again.

"The NASCAR event, it was a goal to have. I didn't know if it was possible," Hillenburg said. "We put the call in early on. I talked to Wayne, really, right away -- just to let them know that I had an interest in doing it. Being a former competitor in the sport, I felt like I knew 80 to 90 percent of what we needed to do to get ready.

"Our staff started making notes and preparations toward that -- because I didn't want to waste their time, finally get into a meeting with NASCAR and have them give us a really long to-do list when I already knew 80 to 90 percent of what we needed to do. So we started doing a lot of that stuff, upgrading the facilities where we could, running some smaller races so we could show that we knew how to put on an event. When I felt like we were ready, we started having serious conversations last spring."

The track has held ARCA races that drew crowds of 18,000, and it has drawn 15,000 for the Polar Bear 500, a street stock race. But Hillenburg and his staff hope to do even better for Sunday's race at the facility that now officially seats 32,150 in the grandstands. There are no longer seats along the backstretch, where the grandstands were removed and shipped to Charlotte for use in the drag strip then under construction there. It virtually cut the Rock's seating capacity in half but created a more intimate setting that the Truck Series can appreciate.

"We went to Mansfield, Ohio, and it had 20,000 seats -- and it was standing-room only," Auton said. "I got back to the office and people were just ecstatic about how big a crowd we had and how excited the crowd was and what a great race it was. We went to Bristol and had 45,000 people and everybody was like, 'Damn, it looked like nobody was there.' So from that standpoint, you'd like to go to a smaller venue and have a full house, rather than having it filled to one-fourth capacity at a big venue."

Hillenburg took the Rockingham, N.C., city manager and mayor, along with a Richmond County commissioner, to meet with NASCAR president Mike Helton at Darlington, S.C., last spring, where they sold Helton on the idea that the community was behind the effort to bring NASCAR back to the Rock.

It was going to take more than a fresh coat of paint on the place though, and Hillenburg knew it. The final stumbling block proved to be installation of the SAFER barriers, which Hillenburg said "cost $1 million a mile." He committed to putting them in place in all the turns and along the backstretch.

"The thing that we had going in our favor was that the Cup Series was there in '04," Hillenburg said. "It was unlike building a new facility or one where it had been like 30 years since a car had been on it.

"But we've spent pretty much everything I have -- everything I could find and everything I could borrow -- to make this race track a success."

He added that he's "scared to add it all up" but estimated he's put nearly $3 million, or maybe slightly more, into the track since he purchased it. And it looks like it. Fresh paint is everywhere, the SAFER barriers gleam in their new resting places, and workers were putting final touches on NASCAR and Camping World Truck Series logos in the grass in front of the pit area.

Ty Dillon and his grandfather, team owner Richard Childress, have an appreciation for Rockingham's history. (Getty Images)

Even the air hanging over the joint dripped with anticipation.

The history

Ty Dillon, who will race the No. 3 Chevrolet truck Sunday, remembers coming to Rockingham races with his grandfather for years. Richard Childress, owner of Richard Childress Racing, which fields Dillon's truck, would drive over from Welcome, N.C., in his Corvette with young Ty in the backseat.

"It was just good times and good memories that I can remember with my grandfather being at a race track," Dillon said. "We didn't get to do that as much anywhere else. But Rockingham, being so close to home, we could ride up there together and have a little fun on the road, talking about racing and talking about whatever, and me just being a young kid trying to soak it all in."

Dillon won the season-ending ARCA Series race at Rockingham in 2010 and thinks he knows what it will take to win at the track again. He also said he knows what it will mean to the driver who gets to visit Victory Lane on Sunday.

Up to the fans

Rockingham is getting a second chance in NASCAR. David Caraviello cautions fans not to squander the track's new lease on life.

"Just the history that goes into the place is amazing," Dillon said. "The race track is worn out, so it's going to be great racing. These trucks have great races anyway. You can go out two- or three-wide on that race track, so I can't wait. All the history that goes into a place like this, if you can get a win, it's like winning at Martinsville or Daytona or the tracks that have been around for a very long time and have great tradition."

David Reutimann is looking forward to Sunday's race so much that he's one of two Sprint Cup drivers -- Kasey Kahne is the other -- who plan to drive in the Cup race on Saturday night in Texas, then in the truck race at Rockingham barely 12 hours later.

"Rockingham is a great drivers' track," Reutimann said. "Once the tires wear out, you have to find a fast way around this place. The bottom groove is only good for about 10 laps; then you have to find a new line. You will see guys all over the track."

And Auton is almost giddy over what he expects to see transpire on the track, especially after watching over a tire test by the Truck drivers March 6.

"I think what we learned at the tire test is that Goodyear has done such a great job with the Goodyear Wranglers that we're going to see one of those races where you see trucks running at the top of the track, you're going to see them at the bottom -- and you're going to see them in the middle," Auton said. "It's going to be multi-groove track, and they're going to face some hard decisions as to which turn they're going to run on the bottom and which turn they're going to run on the top.

"From the experience of the tire test, it looks like the trucks are going to try to run from the middle groove on up in Turns 1 and 2, and down on the bottom in 3 and 4. So for the drivers, it's going to be a challenge -- which they love. They're going to have to figure out where their truck handles the best on which particular turn. That's not necessarily going to be at the top all day long, or at the bottom all day long, like at a lot of other race tracks."

The banking at Rockingham is 22 degrees in Turns 1 and 2, and 25 degrees in Turns 3 and 4. There is 8 degrees banking on the straightaways. Auton was so fired up recently that he took his car onto the track for a few fast laps.

"I may have to get me a mouthpiece," Auton said, laughing. "It's pretty bumpy. It's got a lot of character, let's put it that way. The drivers will absolutely love it. The ones who have raced there before can't wait to get back; and the ones who have never raced there can't wait to get there and see what it's like.

Andy Hillenburg's dream is to have a race car running at Rockingham every day except Christmas. (Getty Images)

"I'm like a kid in a candy store. I can't wait to get there and I can't wait for us to get on the race track."

The future

Hillenburg will be waiting on them. As last Monday afternoon faded into early evening, he found himself manning the ticket office for a spell.

"The phones are ringing. That's a great sign," he said.

There were several people in line to buy tickets as well, pressing Hillenburg into yet another role for which he had no previous training.

"I'll do this all day and all night, if that's what it takes to fill the place," he said.

"My idea here is to make a racing version of Disneyland ... I want a race car running here every day except Christmas."


Later in the night, when he needed a break, Hillenburg knew he could head to the roof again for a little reflection. Sunday's race will be validation of how far he's come already, but he fervently hopes it is only the beginning of the Rock's resurrection.

"My idea here is to make a racing version of Disneyland," he said. "I know that sounds somewhat silly and seems far-fetched. But I want a race car running here every day except Christmas, whether it be a Legends car, a go-kart, a NASCAR Camping World truck, an ARCA car, a Frank Kimmel Street Stock. I want something there every day that pertains to racing."

Hillenburg already has built a 0.5-mile track out back that is used for testing by Cup regulars before they go to Martinsville. He's built a 0.25-mile track for smaller cars and refurbished the road course in the infield of the big track. He runs his Fast Track High Performance Driving School out of the place, along with out of an office down the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway 90 miles away and occasionally at other venues on the NASCAR circuit.

He cashes checks for renting out Rockingham for use in television commercials and the occasional television show or movie, and he even works "about 25 days a year" now as a stunt driver in some of them and others.

"Hey, it used to cost me money wrecking cars. Now I get paid for it," Hillenburg jokes.

So he's busy even when he's not preparing the place for a Truck Series event. But this is bigger than anything else he's worked on in his life, Hillenburg said. He feels strongly about that, and about restoring Rockingham to at least a fraction of its former glory.

"You can't say enough about a racer being a racer, and that's what Andy Hillenburg is," Auton said. "Number one, to take on the task of buying a race track at the time that he did -- when other people were basically shutting other race tracks down and thinking the world was falling apart. He took a venue that many people thought would never see a race car on it again and has turned it into something special."

Hillenburg smiles when he hears such compliments. He said it makes all the hard work worth it. That includes the work yet to be done. Asked to put this event in proper perspective, the grin grew wider. "As far as accomplishments, number one, this race puts us back on the international stage," he said. "To host one of NASCAR's top three series puts you on the international motorsports stage. So that's really big right there.

"Number two, I think the sport needs this. I think there's a place for Rockingham in this sport -- and I think that's important. It's the right thing to do. And sometimes that defies common sense. Common sense said this was going to be hard, that you were going to work your tail off -- and that you can do something a lot smarter and a lot easier. But the reality is that I think the sport needs Rockingham, Rockingham needs me, and I need the sport. So we complete this cycle."