Rockingham Speedway remains much as it was eight years ago, when the final few fans left the race track property with memories of the facility’s final Sprint Cup NASCAR race still vivid.
That was Feb. 22, 2004. Matt Kenseth won the Subway 400 by a few feet over Kasey Kahne. As the sun set that evening, those in the know would have bet that NASCAR would never darken the gates of the old track again. There were many who thought the speedway, located in a sort of no-man’s-land in the North Carolina Sandhills, within relatively easy reach of Charlotte and Raleigh but not really close to anything, would be overtaken by weeds and vines and forgotten – if not razed.
Against the odds, the track – once North Carolina Speedway, now Rockingham Speedway – will hear the thunder of NASCAR engines again in April. It’s not the Sprint Cup Series, but few people expected that. The Camping World Truck Series will run on Rockingham’s one-mile surface April 15 in the Good Sam Roadside Assistance Carolina 200.
It’s a revival of epic proportions for a track that was shoved out of the way as NASCAR moved toward bigger and faster. Opened in 1965, Rockingham was never big and never fast, and its location – so close to several other NASCAR tracks – and its typical winter race weather – often miserable, sometimes snowy – made it an easy target when the grim reaper dressed as a NASCAR scheduler began lurking.
There was a believer, however, and his name is Andy Hillenburg.
He and a partner bought the track in October 2007 and promised that there would be racing – some sort of racing – there again. Those who knew Hillenburg, a lifetime racer who has had his hands in virtually every aspect of motorsports (except running an isolated one-mile speedway that hadn’t hosted a race in three years), never doubted the track would operate at its highest possible level under his direction. But there was no promise that the stock-car flagship, as sailed by NASCAR, would come this way again.
Now, it’s happening. With the final touches about to be put in place on a $1 million SAFER walls project at the track, Rockingham will return to the NASCAR undercard in two months.
At some point after that race weekend, Hillenburg will rest. It’s a brutal schedule, trying to make a race track born again.
“A lot of people are questioning why we’re doing this in such a crazy world,” said Hillenburg, who bought the track at one of the lowest points of the United States economic curve. “But when you get a kind note from a fan, it just gives me that little bit of energy to work about 15 more minutes every day.
“I was on the road this morning before 6 o’clock. I won’t stop until 9 tonight. Seven days a week. But I love it. Racing has never been a job to me. It’s always been a passion. I’ve been fortunate to see it from a lot of different angles – driver, team owner, crew member, from the TV booth, from running a driving school.”
Wearing the race-promoter hat is hard, Hillenburg admitted, harder even than taking that first fast left turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the Indianapolis native realized a dream by racing in the Indy 500 in 2000.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in a lot of ways because when you’re a race car driver, you get rewarded financially on how well you’re doing,” he said. “Here you get rewarded by emails and by fans you meet.
“There are so many more areas to think about. We’ll sit in meetings all day on one topic, and there are hundreds of topics in putting on a race.”
Although the challenges are different – tickets, toilets and traffic are the watchwords of the race promoter, Hillenburg, 48, is an ideal candidate to respond to the summons. He has his fingers in a staggering assortment of pies, from running a high-performance driving school to fielding cars in an assortment of series to assisting with commercials and movies that need specially prepared vehicles to doing contract mechanical work for NASCAR teams. He won the Automobile Racing Club of America championship as a driver in 1995, was a test driver for the defunct International Race of Champions series and has driven in all three NASCAR national series.
Running a major racing facility? Sure, I can do that, Hillenburg said.
So he put on the president’s hat and went to work.
“I’m still in shock in times at all the things we have to do and the things that are coming up,” Hillenburg said. “But I’m very proud of the accomplishments, very proud to be a part of the speedway. And very proud to build back one of the building blocks of the sport I love so much.”
The first race of the Hillenburg Era – perhaps appropriately, an ARCA event – was held at Rockingham May 4, 2008. Joey Logano was the winner.
Since then, several other series and almost a dozen sanctioning bodies have raced at the track, and numerous teams have used “Little Rock,” the half-mile track Hillenburg built behind the speedway, for testing. But let there be no misconceptions – the success (or failure) of the April Truck race will define Rockingham for some time to come.
The track can seat about 30,000. Its biggest recent crowd has been about half that, for an ARCA race. Hillenburg obviously would love a sellout, but any number better than 20,000 is likely to be smiled upon.
“I’d love to say we want to sell it out,” Hillenburg said. “The race track deserves it. But let’s say we come in at 25,000. That’s still a huge success. We don’t need standing-room-only to be a success, but in order to keep striving and pushing for more, we need good numbers.”
Returning fans will see much of the old Rockingham (minus the backstretch grandstands, now being used at Z-Max Dragway in Concord), and that’s exactly how Hillenburg wants it. He’s the definition of old school.
“I’ve really been adamant on keeping as much of it the same as possible,” he said. “There are some things that are old, but old is good, as long as it’s clean.
“We’re not a space-age technology center race track, and I don’t want to be. I want fans to relive those memories that they had when they come back and make new ones that are just as cool as the old ones.”
A centerpiece of Rockingham in his former life is the huge rock located at the track entrance. One of motorsports’ unique display pieces, it contains the carved names of track winners. When the track closed, there was talk of moving the rock, the target of thousands of fan photographs, to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Hillenburg is among those happy that that move didn’t occur. The Rock’s rock remains in place, and it now has company – a similar rock Hillenburg ordered to hold the names of race winners since the reopening.
“I didn’t want to change the history of the rock, but I wanted to honor our new history, too,” he said.
Several long-time employees from the track’s previous life returned to work for Hillenburg. Included on that list is accounting manager Ann Street.
“Ann had worked there since the 1970s, and she was at my door the first day I got the keys to the place,” Hillenburg said. “She was there waiting on me. She said she’d like to get her old job back. We talked for a little bit, and I said, ‘You’re hired.’ ”
Like many in the NASCAR community, Hillenburg will be heading to Daytona Beach early next week for the two biggest weeks in the stock car racing year. He has responsibilities in some of the on-track events, but he’ll also be wandering around the track with an eye on hot dogs and beer.
“At a track, I’m used to looking at a really nice-looking fender or at what air pressure somebody’s using,” he said. “Now I look at the catch fences, at the caution lights, at the concession stand lines and the beer pricing. I feel like I’m going to a lot of race tracks for the very first time.
“I’ll be in Daytona for two weeks, and I’ll devote as much as two days just looking around the facility and taking everything in from that perspective.”
It’s a new point of view for an old-line racer, one determined to restore one of motorsports’ bedrock facilities.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 29 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.