It was February 22, 2004, when Matt Kenseth won the Subway 400 Cup race at a place affectionately known as The Rock, North Carolina Speedway and Rockingham, North Carolina. He held off, then rookie, Kasey Kahne on the last lap to win by only 0.010 of a second. That was the final Rockingham finish for NASCAR as the last race at this historic track.
Rockingham Speedway opened as a flat, one-mile oval October 31, 1965 and in 1969 was reconfigured to a high-banked, D-shaped oval measuring slightly over one-mile in length. Over the years, the track hosted NASCAR legends such as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Fred Lorenzen, Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Neil Bonnett, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon.
Andy Hillenburg, a native of Indianapolis, drove an open-wheel car in the Indianapolis 500 and made his first start in what was then known as the Winston Cup Series, on March 3, 1991. His Cup debut played out before a packed house of roughly 64,500 rabid NASCAR fans at The Rock. Little did he know then, how that Speedway would impact his life in later years.
As an acquisition of Penske Speedways in 1999, the speedway was sold to International Speedway Corp. (ISC). Then in 2004, one of its two Sprint Cup races including a crucial fall race for Cup, was transferred to ISC’s California Speedway. It left the track with only one date, in late February – a highly unpopular date for spectators due to the commonly unpredictable weather.
The facility’s final race date basically was bought and sold by Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, who used the purchase to secure a second annual Cup date for Texas Motor Speedway. The Rock subsequently sat dormant, ignored and largely forgotten, for the next four and a half years until SMI sold it at auction October of 2007.
On that date There were those who supposedly wanted to buy the historic track and sell it off piece by piece. There were rumors of the scrap deal, and there were rumors of it being used for government training exercises. And actually Cup owner Richard Childress did bid on it, with the idea of using the track as a testing facility.
Surprisingly, up comes Andy Hillenburg saying he always wanted to own a track, and wanted to purchase it for one reason – to bring racing back to The Rock. He promised to have cars on-track within 13 months.
Hillenburg did win the auction for $4.4 million and made good on his promise, bringing racing back to The Rock within 13 months of his purchase. In 2008, Hillenburg hosted the first of a pair of ARCA races at the Rockingham facility and has held the ARCA Racing Series presented by RE/MAX and Menards season ending premier race – dubbed the American 200 – every year since it’s reopening. In 2009 Rockingham held an additional ARCA race, however that race was not held in 2010. Rockingham also hosts the Carolina 200 and the finale for the CARS Pro Cup Series. In addition to these events, Rockingham has hosted the Chumpcar Word Series Legends and Bandolaro Racing.
|Andy Hillenburg – Speaking to the Media Mar 6, 2012
with the Camping World Trucks testing tires at The Rock
Photo – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
During the next several years Hillenburg’s dreams centered on drawing attention to the racing and getting NASCAR back to The Rock – he would not have to wait long. On September 7, 2011, it was announced – Rockingham would hold its inaugural Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 on April 15, 2012 – the first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race held at the track since the series’ inception. The announcement was made by track owner Andy Hillenburg and North Carolina governor Bev Purdue, who said the track would help the local economy by about $7.2–$10.5 million. But, before this could happen, Andy Hillenburg needed to invest even more money in The Rock to upgrade the track with SAFER Barriers to the tune of $1 million. He gladly did what was needed and more, sprucing up the place with a new paint job and lettering proudly displaying ROCKINGHAM SPEEDWAY.
For all the fans, a pre-race concert was provided by “Little Texas” on Saturday night. On Friday, the Town of Rockingham had their own pre-race celebration, entitling the event ThunderFest, with live music at the town square.
The excitement has been mounting in this area of North Carolina since Hillenburg’s announcement and on a beautiful sunny skies day, Sunday April 15, 2012 nearly 30,000 fans packed “The Rock” showing unprecedented support for NASCAR’s return. NASCAR President Mike Helton was impressed with the turnout, showing the fans’ love for the sport.
The call to start engines was proudly given by Andy Hillenburg. NASCAR legend Donnie Allison served as honorary starter, waving the green flag for the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 presented by Cheerwine.
The conclusion of Andy Hillenburg’s efforts could not have been any finer when a large crowd of race fans from as far away as California witnessed Kasey Kahne claim his victory. He took the lead on lap 155 of 200 after passing Matt Crafton, to notch his fourth win of five starts in the Truck Series. Kahne started in the very back of the field since he was not able to qualify his truck due to his race in Texas the previous night. After narrowly missing the win in 2004, this was a very happy moment for him and the fans.
Rockingham’s future is apparent, with a successful Camping World Truck Series debut bringing NASCAR back – The Rock Lives!
Guest Blogger – Stephen Wilder is an occasional blogger on http://follownascar.wordpress.com His favorite NASCAR race team is RCR. He follows Stewart Haas and Earnhardt Ganassi teams as well. His favorite driver is Jeff Burton, although he follows Tony Stewart and Dale Jr too. Stephen also enjoys other motor sports events like Grand AM and NHRA
Fans can follow Stephen on twitter @FollowNASCAR
After attending the race at The Rock on Sunday, April 15, 2012, Stephen is sharing his photos of this historic day. Fans can see them in his Fan at the Track feature. Stephen shares some great behind the scenes photos at the track and of the trucks, drivers and Danielle Trotta so enjoy!