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.
"There were a lot of hurt feelings in the community when NASCAR left. After all (Rockingham was), at the core of NASCAR for many years," he says. "And then, all of a sudden, they didn’t have NASCAR at all, and like I said, that left a lot of people with hurt feelings. Still, when the opportunity came to host a Truck race, this community really pulled together and that made the difference. It takes a lot of people just to open the doors, and everybody’s job is important. There’s no way we could have pulled this off if the community hadn’t really pitched in.
Although we won’t know for...
Although we won’t know for sure until NASCAR announces its touring series’ schedules later this year, from the fan turnout we’re betting this won’t be the last time you will see NASCAR Camping World Trucks racing at The Rock.
Chad Hall in the 1 car (Ed....
Chad Hall in the 1 car (Ed. note: nice decklid decal!) gets loose racing on the outside of Michael Brown (71).
Bobby East in the number 43...
Bobby East in the number 43 Chrysler Lebaron (yes, you read that correctly) leads a pack of cars through Turn 1.
"Just opening up the gates on race morning takes a tremendous amount of manpower," he continues. "We had 75 parking lot attendants, a couple of hundred security personnel, and ushers. I still don’t know the count on how many people helped us out running the concession areas. And the thing I’m most proud of is everybody was on the same page. They all wanted it to be successful with the fans, and I am very proud of and thankful for everybody that helped us. The fan response of everyone that I talked to was tremendous. I think that says a lot about the quality of the people in Rockingham and the surrounding area."
Currently, Rockingham Speedway’s capacity is right around 30,000, and NASCAR’s report for attendance for the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 that Sunday afternoon in April was 27,500 people. By all accounts, the weekend was an unqualified success--both in terms of attendance numbers, the quality of the racing on the track, and even customer satisfaction. Many of the fans we spoke with said they enjoyed the "old-school" feel of the event, meaning the race lacked the corporate feel that seems to have overtaken many of the larger tracks hosting NASCAR races.
For his part Hillenburg, who had never promoted a race before becoming the owner of one of the largest sports venues in North Carolina, says it’s simply a matter of trying to put on a race that he’d enjoy seeing.
"I’m a blue-collar guy. That’s just me. Before you called to talk about the race I was out in the shop working on the bead blaster," he explains. "I want the fans and the teams to really feel appreciated, because racing is what I love and I’m really happy to be in a position to do what I’m doing.
Rookies Paulie Harraka (5)...
Rookies Paulie Harraka (5) and Bryan Silas (99) squeeze Ryan Sieg (39) into the low line.
Rockingham’s asphalt racing...
Rockingham’s asphalt racing surface has always been abrasive and it has only gotten worse in the time since NASCAR has been away from the track. Tire wear was so bad that NASCAR allowed the Truck teams an extra set.
Rockingham Speedway’s garage...
Rockingham Speedway’s garage area was a busy scene during Saturday’s practice sessions.
"Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way I could do this by myself," he continues, "but I was out there helping to clean up trash Sunday evening. I’m not just sitting in an office. I feel like I’m attacking the promotion at Rockingham Speedway from a different angle because I have to. Being hands-on is the only way I know how to do things. I want to be able to meet my race fans. I want to be in the garage talking to my racers. When they opened the gates to the garage area on race morning, I was at the gates with the security staff welcoming all the crews as they came in. Those are my buddies. I like those guys, and I want to be there."
Many of the crews also enjoyed coming back. Butch Hylton is the crew chief for driver Timothy Peters, who left leading the Truck Series standings after a Fifth-Place finish at Rockingham Speedway. Hylton has a lot of experience at The Rock having worked for many years on Cup teams including those of Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick, but he says many of the crew members on the Truck team are younger and had never experienced the one-mile track in the North Carolina sandhills.
"It was good to go back," he says. "You remember the trip down there--there’s a back way down there from Charlotte that’s a nice drive through the country, and it’s just a nice trip. And when you get there, although it may be a little bit rougher it’s still the same old Rockingham. It’s still going to make you work if you are going to be fast around that track for long runs. I know I really enjoyed the chance to go back there, and a lot of the guys on the team are younger and had never raced there so it was fun to show them what The Rock was all about.
Of course, a lot has changed since NASCAR has last raced at The Rock, too. Hylton says his old setup books are only good for doorstops now. "When we raced there the last time in 2004, we weren’t coil binding yet like we are now. We were still racing conventional setups back then which is a lot easier but not as fast with these trucks. So finding out the best combination for these trucks now is completely different from what we were doing back then. And it turns out Rockingham can be pretty rough when you are riding around with the front springs in coil bind. It made for some pretty interesting racing, that’s for sure."
As this went to press, there was still no word on whether NASCAR would be returning to The Rock in 2013 (all track contracts are handled on a year-to-year basis). But it’s hard to imagine NASCAR turning its back on the resurgence of this track. For his part, Hillenburg, who always seems to deflect any credit away from himself and toward others, thinks The Rock is ready for bigger and better things.
"I’m really proud of our team’s effort," he says. "It was a huge accomplishment to pull off this race with a small staff of people. And the race teams put on a great show for the fans. But I feel that now that we’ve been through one, we can do even better next year."
In the UARA Late Model race,...
In the UARA Late Model race, eventual winner Corey LaJoie (34) takes the inside line to get around Clay Rogers (54) who had an extremely strong car until wrecking in the final laps.
While the Truck teams had...
While the Truck teams had the main garage area, the Kimmel Street Stock racers used the old “Busch” garage, which is essentially a covered area, or whatever space they could find. But nobody was complaining.
The Truck teams gather on...
The Truck teams gather on the front stretch before the start of the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200.