Left for dead in 2004, the track known as "The Rock" is enjoying a resurgence under the leadership of an ex-driver who had never promoted a race before winning the track at auction
Andy Hillenburg hasn’t driven in a NASCAR race since 2004. In 29 starts combined between the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series, he has one Top-5 finish (at Daytona in 1999). He was almost always racing in equipment that required him to struggle just to make races.
But for one Sunday in April of this year, Hillenburg became NASCAR racing’s favorite son. Of course, Hillenburg has always been a popular figure among knowledgeable racing fans and competitors in the garage area because of his friendly nature and blue-collar attitude, but when Hillenburg brought NASCAR racing back to the track known as "The Rock" after an 8-year absence he reached a level of popularity that can only be described as "Earnhardt-like."
And that’s no exaggeration. NASCAR President Mike Helton said Hillenburg was the "Governor of North Carolina for a day." Many reporters who normally travel with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series skipped the Saturday race at Texas in order to be in tiny Rockingham, North Carolina, for the Sunday truck race because they considered it the bigger event. And race winner Kasey Kahne, who had flown in from Texas for the race the night before, said he was so excited to drive in a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the one-mile track he had trouble sleeping the night before.
"I got about four-and-a-half hours of sleep last night, and that was plenty," he said after the win. Coming to The Rock, I was so excited I woke up early . . . and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I had tons of energy, but I’ll sleep good tonight when I finally decide to go back to sleep."
The story of how Hillenburg revitalized Rockingham Speedway has all the elements of a Hollywood production--the unlikely hero, the track that had been abandoned and left to die because of corporate greed, the townsfolk who banded together for a common cause--except it’s all true.
Rockingham Speedway, at the time known as North Carolina Motor Speedway, held two races every year for NASCAR’s top series from 1966 until 2004. But that was also the time of NASCAR’s great track-building boom, and the available facilities soon began to outstrip viable dates. Unfortunately for The Rock, the track is located in Rockingham, North Carolina, a city that has struggled since the cotton mills, which had been the lifeblood in that area, moved overseas in the ’70s and ’80s. The area simply didn’t have the population density of a major metropolitan center. So in 2004, in a series of moves, International Speedway Corp stripped one of The Rock’s race dates and gave it to California Speedway, then sold the facility to Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI) which immediately petitioned NASCAR to give the track’s last remaining race date to Texas Motor Speedway.
After an 8-year absence, NASCAR...
After an 8-year absence, NASCAR finally returned to the track known as “The Rock” to packed grandstands.
The one-mile oval was always...
The one-mile oval was always known for tight racing during its heyday when NASCAR’s Cup series was a semi-annual visitor, and the Trucks proved that still holds true.
Race winner Kasey Kahne flew...
Race winner Kasey Kahne flew overnight from his NASCAR Cup race on Saturday in order to be able to compete in the Camping World Truck Series event on Sunday afternoon.
Within a year, one of the most historic tracks in NASCAR had been unceremoniously stripped of its race dates and mothballed. It stayed that way until 2007 when SMI sold the track and the grounds it sat on at auction. Many thought the facility had seen its last days as a racetrack and its greatest value was to sell off the stands as scrap.
But that’s when Hillenburg came into the picture. The former driver who had transitioned into the owner of the Fast Track Racing School put in a surprise winning bid of $4.4 million dollars and immediately began laying out plans to turn The Rock back into a functioning racetrack.
Hillenburg renamed the track "Rockingham Speedway" although most still simply refer to it as "The Rock." The first race at the revamped track was an ARCA event in May of 2008, and it made quite a statement about how Hillenburg planned to operate. The "Carolina 500" paid the highest purse of any ARCA event that year and started an astounding 50 cars.
But the track also quickly became known as a haven for Street Stockers. Hillenburg partnered with Frank Kimmel to bring the nine-time ARCA champ’s Street Stock racing series to the one-mile track. The Frank Kimmel Street Stock Nationals have raced several times at Rockingham, both as support races and main events, and have proven quite popular. Kurt Busch has even driven in one of the races in a car built originally by Circle Track.
Promoter and track owner Andy...
Promoter and track owner Andy Hillenburg also normally tries to help lower-level racers get a share of the limelight. As support events for the NASCAR Trucks, he also invited UARA Late Model Stocks (shown) which put on a great show racing fender-to-fender for 75 laps and the Frank Kimmel Street Stock Nationals.
Getting to watch old-school...
Getting to watch old-school stock cars stretch their legs on The Rock’s one-mile oval is always interesting. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because these drivers are also plumbers, mechanics, school teachers, and office workers during the week that they can’t put on a heck of a race.
Here’s an interesting sight...
Here’s an interesting sight we spotted while cruising the garage area for the Street Stockers. This engine is an old Dodge 360 in a ’71 Charger frame, complete with torsion rods instead of conventional springs. The body is an ’88 Lebaron. Who says everybody races Chevrolets?
Besides racing, Hillenburg also looked to other avenues to make the track financially viable. The track became a home base of sorts for Hillenburg’s Fast Track Racing School, but the facility was also rented out as a location for movies and, because it wasn’t a NASCAR facility, it also became a popular destination for Cup teams looking to test without having it count against their NASCAR limits. Testing at Rockingham Speedway became so popular that Hillenburg even built a second track that was a clone of Martinsville behind the backstretch grandstands that was nicknamed "Little Rock."
Of course, all those steps helped prove to the powers-that-be at NASCAR that Rockingham Speedway was a good option for hosting another race. Over the years several tracks have lost NASCAR dates including North Wilkesboro, Ontario, Riverside and others; none have ever earned back a NASCAR date. But that streak was broken when NASCAR awarded Rockingham a Camping World Truck Series event for April 2012.
Welcoming NASCAR back to Rockingham meant Hillenburg continued the pace of improvements to the facility. That included installing Safer Barriers which NASCAR requires for any of its touring series. Hillenburg also set about rebuilding the track’s place in the community.