Story and photo by Drew Hierwarter
Every year from 1965 until 2004 the one-mile speedway not far from the North Carolina town of Rockingham hosted what today is known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And except for the first and last year, NASCAR’s top series made a regular twice a year visit to the track that was built by local peach farmer L.G. DeWitt.
By the late 1990’s however, with NASCAR looking to expand into bigger and better venues, a sagging local economy began to take its toll on attendance. International Speedway Corporation (A wholly owned subsidiary of NASCAR) bought the track in 1999 and in 2004, cut the schedule to only one race per year. The track was then sold to Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which immediately closed the track and moved its NASCAR race to Texas Motor Speedway.
In 2007, former racer Andy Hillenburg bought the track at auction for $4.4 million with the dream of someday bringing Rockingham Speedway back to life as a NASCAR track. After 78 Cup races, 42 Nationwide Series races, and eight years of rebuilding and running smaller events and talking with NASCAR almost from the moment he bought the place, Hillenburg’s dream has been realized and “The Rock” is back.
On Sunday, April 15th, 2012, 27,500 race fans witnessed the first ever race of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Rockingham Speedway. To say that the event was a success is an understatement. The excitement at the track was visible in everybody from the fans, the local merchants, the city leaders, the folks working in the media center, the competitors and their crews, all the way down to the security guards at the various gates around the speedway grounds. Even track owner Hillenburg could be seen seemingly in a dozen different places at the same time greeting people, shaking hands, making sure everyone was having a good time.
“I’m very proud of our effort, the team effort,” Hillenburg said. “. . . but now I also feel confident in saying that if I get a second chance from NASCAR, I can do even better.”
Regular Sprint Cup driver Kasey Kahne couldn’t do any better as he was the winner of the inaugural Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 presented by Cheerwine. Because Kahne was competing in the Nationwide and Cup Series races in Texas that same weekend, Turner Motorsports used Brad Sweet to practice and qualify the truck. Kahne flew to Rockingham after the Saturday night Cup race and, because of the necessary driver change, started the truck race from the back of the pack.
It took Kahne until the 155th of the race’s 200 laps to get to the front and he ran from there to the checkers notching his fourth win in five starts in the truck series.
“This is probably the best weekend I’ve had in a long time . . . I ran three hard races this weekend, and everything’s clean — not a dent on ‘em. …” Kahne said, referring to the condition of all three race vehicles.
So, will “The Rock” see another truck race? Given the fact that everybody you talk to was pleased and excited about the way this weekend went, I wouldn’t bet against it, or Andy Hillenburg’s desire to keep the momentum going.