AP FILE PHOTO This Feb. 22, 2004 photo shows a sparse crowd during the Subway 400 NASCAR Nextel Cup race at North Carolina Speedway near Rockingham, N.C. NASCAR makes its official return to Rockingham on Sunday, April 15, when the Trucks Series races around the beloved mile-long flat oval.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There’s no way to figure out just how much Andy Hillenburg has put into Rockingham Speedway, the track he bought at auction for $4.4 million with no guarantee he’d ever return racing to “The Rock.”
Between the money spent to open a dormant race track, the long hours required of a track operator and the lessons learned in understanding how to promote races, Hillenburg has made an unbelievable commitment to the Rockingham, N.C., racetrack.
“All I have,” he said when asked what he’s put into the track. “Everything I ever worked for I’ve put into this, because I believe in what we are doing.”
NASCAR makes its official return to Rockingham on Sunday when the Trucks Series races around the beloved mile-long flat oval. It will be the first NASCAR-sanctioned event since 2004, when a long-term realignment plan led NASCAR to abandon its grass-roots tracks in favor of building up bigger markets such as California, Chicago and Kansas City.
Track operator International Speedway Corp., the sister company to NASCAR, gave one of Rockingham’s race dates to California. The track eventually was sold to rival Speedway Motorsports Inc., which “transferred” the second race date to its Texas track. With NASCAR no longer on the schedule, SMI shuttered the track and put it up for auction in 2007.
Enter Hillenburg, who had done just about every job imaginable in racing.
As a driver, Hillenburg won an ARCA championship, competed in the Indianapolis 500, made 29 starts spanning all three of NASCAR’s national divisions and finished a career-best third driving in the 1999 Nationwide Series race at Daytona for Joe Gibbs Racing.
As a team owner, he’s fielded cars in ARCA and NASCAR’s Truck Series, and owns and operates the Fast Track High Performance Driving School. And, he’s been an actor and adviser in several racing-themed movies, including “Talladega Nights.”
So with old North Carolina Speedway up for sale, Hillenburg jumped into the bidding and won.
Then he went to work — initially from his cell phone because, of course, there were no working phones at the track — to bring racing back to The Rock. First came an ARCA race, in 2008, then smaller series began racing at the track. And because there were no NASCAR-sanctioned races at the track, Hillenburg was able to rent it out to teams as a test track. His racing school also uses the facility.
But his eye was always on the big prize.
“I had hoped for it, but being in the sport my whole life, I knew it wasn’t something to take for granted as `Oh, we’ll get a NASCAR race,”’ he said. “I knew what we needed to do, and I got us 90 percent there before we ever had a meeting with NASCAR. We couldn’t go to them until I felt like I had a handle on being able to promote races and could show NASCAR the track deserved a race.”
The first official meeting was at Darlington last May, when Hillenburg brought the mayor of Rockingham, the city manager and two county commissioners with him.
“I found out then what the other 10 percent was that we had to do to get a NASCAR race, and knowing when they like to finalize the schedule, my timetable was to have it all done at the end of August,” he said.
The track still needed SAFER barriers, and there were updates required to the timing and scoring system. Once those were done, NASCAR was ready to give him a race date.
“It was a heartbreaking loss when the decision was made to leave, but that’s now in the past and we are focused on the future,” Rockingham mayor Gene McLaurin said. “We never gave up hope that one day we would welcome NASCAR back home to Rockingham Speedway.
“Andy Hillenburg and his team have done a great job, and our community has rallied behind him and supported the effort every step of the way. The welcome mat is out, and we are proud to once again be a part of the NASCAR family.”
The return has been met with enthusiasm throughout the industry. The track was always considered a driver favorite, and its demise was generally attributed to its location and lack of updated amenities.
“It’s one of the coolest race tracks we ever ran on,” veteran Jeff Burton said. “It was one of the hardest tracks we would go to. You would take off and have new tires on and you would feel like Richard Petty. And a few laps later you would feel like you had never been on a race track before in your life.
“It was one of those race tracks that I got a chance to race on when I was growing up and moving into the larger divisions. And it’s really cool to see the Truck Series going back there. I actually contemplated trying to run the race.”
Because the Sprint Cup Series races at Texas on Saturday night, the Rockingham race falls on an off day for NASCAR’s stars.
Kasey Kahne jumped at making a return. He’s forever linked to Rockingham’s history as part of what many consider to be one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history — in what just happened to be Rockingham’s final race. Kahne, in only his second Cup race, tried to pass Matt Kenseth coming out of the final turn and raced him to the finish line, only to lose by .010 seconds.
Kahne is scheduled to race Sunday in a Turner Motorsports truck.
“As soon as I heard that NASCAR was adding the Rockingham truck race to the schedule, I wanted to run it,” said Kahne, who will compete for his fourth win in five career starts. “I think it is great for the sport and the fans that we are going back to Rockingham.”
Hillenburg is anxiously optimistic headed into Sunday’s race and won’t dream beyond this initial NASCAR event. Of course he’d like to bring the second-tier Nationwide Series to The Rock but knows he needs to take it one race at a time.
“This feeling is exactly like strapping up and getting in the car for the beginning of the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 when you are a rookie,” he said. “You know you belong there, know you will do a good job, but you haven’t seen it yet. “Hopefully, we’ll live to fight another day. I understand how the system works. I am not going to make any crazy statements, because that puts NASCAR in a box and that’s not fair to them. But I am very proud to be a part of this, and if we are successful, we’ll see what happens next.”MORE IN Sports WireMIAMI — Draft night belonged to Ben Simmons.
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