ROCKINGHAM, N.C. — I missed the left turn I needed to reach Rockingham Speedway Saturday, and I’m glad I did.
It gave me a few minutes to drive down Highway 74 Business and check out the pulse of the area for NASCAR’s return after an eight-year hiatus. The Richmond County Chamber of Commerce building had one small, nondescript sign in front of it that simply said, “Welcome, Race Fans.” It could have been a leftover from the last Sprint Cup race here in 2004, for it said nothing about Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 Camping World Truck Series race.
Driving down further I saw only one sign at a fast food restaurant welcoming race fans, and only one billboard promoting a race weekend in North Carolina. Problem is, that sign was hyping this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord.
I finally found my way and went through downtown Rockingham to hit U.S. 1 North toward the the track. The atmosphere was completely different, with flags from downtown streetlights proclaiming NASCAR’s return. The six-mile trek from downtown to the track was awash with signs from businesses and homes welcoming back NASCAR with the same down-home charm afforded a soldier arriving from overseas. When I got to the track the number of fan motor homes engulfing the track looked Sprint Cup-ish. Danny, an affable gentleman who gave me a golf cart ride from media parking into the infield media center, said he had already met folks who had come all the way from Canada for NASCAR in Rockingham’s second coming.
Yeah, a mixed bag overall, and a few signs placed here or not placed there won’t be the final factor in whether this experiment to revisit NASCAR’s past will be successful. But this much is true, as most aptly stated in a David Caraviello column on NASCAR.com. There were a lot of reasons NASCAR left Rockingham, NASCAR almost never returns to a place it leaves, and there won’t be a third chance. The Rock, like the drivers who take the track, had better not slip up one bit and needs a little bit of luck here and there.
The drag race conflict is a huge red flag. Rockingham suffered from poor Cup dates near the beginning and end of the season, subjecting it to iffy weather conditions. Now Rockingham’s current Truck race date has to deal with a NHRA event an hour-and-a-half away on the same weekend. (It wasn’t Rockingham or NASCAR’s fault; the NHRA announced the Concord date after the Rockingham date.)
Now, I didn’t even know the drag race was going on until my uncle, a drag racing fan, told me Friday night after I flew in. I contend that most drag racing fans don’t care what’s going on in NASCAR, and vice versa, so consumer ticket sales might not take much of a hit. But as the years go by, if both dates stay the same, you’re going to be fighting for the same marketing dollars and corporate ticket sales.
Even if a rival race on the same weekend doesn’t slow Rockingham down, it’s doubtful that one Truck Series race a year can make up for the track’s investment — and not just by former driver Andy Hillenburg, who bought the track in 2007 for $4.4 million.
I remember reading Ryan McGee’s ESPN.com story about the auction in which Hillenburg bought the track. Even though he was bidding, he was getting signals, literally, from local officials who showed up about how high he could go. That’s all you need to know — a lot of what it took to get this place operational again came from public support, and those politicians need to be proven right.
That’ll only happen if NASCAR’s footprint expands. The Cup Series will never get a whiff of this place again. But a second Truck Series race could. The dream for Rockingham would be a Truck/Nationwide combo weekend similar to what they used to have at Milwaukee. That’s feasible — with Nationwide sponsorship dollars drying up like the Sahara, a Cup-like schedule all over the country is no longer sustainable. More Nationwide races will likely start heading back toward NASCAR’s hub in the South to contain costs, and if Rockingham’s Truck races go nuts Nationwide could follow. But make no mistake about it: NASCAR will either grow at Rockingham or shrivel up.
Hillenburg’s a smart guy, and wasn’t about to clamor for more NASCAR dates when talking to the media 30 minutes after the race — even when a questioner specifically mentioned a Nationwide date. He called it a “privilege” for NASCAR to be here. He was happy with the estimated crowd of 27,500 but is sure he can do better with a second chance.
It’s a tough dance for Hillenburg and the Rockingham staff, trying to grow while tempering expectations and not making any fatal errors. I initially was shocked at the lack of track-sponsored merchandise, thinking you could make a killing out of folks wanting a piece of nostalgia. Then I went to see folks who rented space outside the track to sell NASCAR gear, and some are still trying to get rid of M&M’s merchandise from the Ken Schrader era for $3. I immediately understood the track’s restraint.
Rockingham Speedway hats and T-shirts could be a huge success or a colossal failure in the years to come — no different than the track itself.
You can contact Josh Stewart at [email protected]