ROCKINGHAM — With one quick statement, Gov. Bev Perdue announced the return of NASCAR to the Rockingham Speedway.
“Come April 15, 2012, all of the memories will be rekindled,” Perdue said. “The stands will be packed and the trucks lined up.”
Perdue made the announcement Wednesday in the middle of pit road as Rockingham Speedway owner Andy Hillenburg and other dignitaries looked on. The track’s first race back on a NASCAR schedule will be known as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200.
“Celebrate the day, when this historic track is open once again,” Perdue said. “This is a big day for race fans around the country — they know the history of the track.”
Not only does the race mark the first time NASCAR’s truck series has visited “The Rock,” but also the first time NASCAR has returned to a track it vacated.
“It’s a wonderful feeling and a big responsibility,” Hillenburg said. “I have a lot of friends in the sport and a lot in the stands. I feel responsible for each and every one of them to make sure they have a good time at the end of the day.”
Hillenburg added he and NASCAR officials worked on making sure the date of NASCAR’s comeback at “The Rock” would work for everyone involved — fans, drivers, owners and sponsors.
“I have love, passion and respect for this sport,” Hillenburg said. “There aren’t many free weekends on the schedule. I wanted to make sure the Sprint Cup Series was racing west of the Mississippi.”
The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series are scheduled to be at the Texas Motor Speedway for Friday and Saturday night races, April 13 to 14. Hillenburg believes this will allow drivers from both series the opportunity to make their way from Fort Worth, Texas, to Rockingham.
“I wish Eddie Gossage (president of the Texas Motor Speedway) great weather,” Hillenburg said as a smile broke out on his face. “I’m hoping to get a couple of drivers from his Friday and Saturday night shows at our Sunday afternoon race.”
While plans have not been finalized for the weekend, Hillenburg envisions having races on both days.
“We will have the UARA and the Frank Kimmel Series run dual 75 lap races on Saturday,” Hillenburg said. “They have never raced during a NASCAR weekend before. And we will have a concert Saturday night.”
Even though NASCAR racing has been absent from the track, teams have not. Teams have come to the Rockingham Speedway to test, as well as the smaller half-mile “Little Rock” track.
NASCAR rules prevent teams from testing at tracks on the NASCAR schedule, but Hillenburg said while the bigger track will be off limits to tests, beginning Jan. 1 the smaller track can still be utilized.
Getting the track ready for NASCAR
After purchasing the relatively dormant track and its 244 acres at auction in 2007, Hillenburg promised to return racing to “The Rock.”
After snagging dates on the ARCA series calendar and having the thunder return to the Rockingham Speedway, Hillenburg would be asked about bringing a NASCAR-sanctioned event back.
“My first day in the office I set very high goals,” Hillenburg said. “I don’t say them in public because if I trip and fall, I don’t want someone to say ‘Why did you try that.’”
The major obstacle the track faced was the lack of the NASCAR required SAFER barriers or “soft walls.” Hillenburg addressed this concern last month by announcing plans to install the SAFER barriers around the 1-mile track to be concluded by the beginning of next year.
When Hillenburg took over the day-to-day operations of the track, he planned on putting the SAFER barriers in place in segments rather than all at once.
The addition of the SAFER barriers is a large expense Hillenburg appeared to undertake without the guarantee of the race. However, while Hillenburg appeared to be footing the $1 million bill without a net, Perdue and other officials said the return of NASCAR to the track was a year in the making.
“It was teamwork that was able to restore racing to Rockingham,” Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin said. “A year ago, we reached out to the state government.”
Perdue added while she and other members of her team were active in the negotiations with NASCAR officials, no state money was used to assist Hillenburg or the track to install the SAFER barriers.
“We supported them in other ways,” said J. Keith Crisco, the state’s secretary of commerce. “No direct money was used in this venture.”
Perdue and Richmond County Commissioner Kenneth Robinette stressed the money the truck race would generate for the county.
According to Perdue, the track is expected to add 230 jobs next year and generate $10.5 million in revenue.
“NASCAR has a $6 billion economic impact in this state,” Perdue said. “It has created 25,000 jobs in the state.”
Reaction to NASCAR’s return
Congressman Larry Kissel (N.C.-08) released a statement during the announcement to send his congratulations to Hillenburg and local leaders.
“I’m so happy to see NASCAR make its return to ‘The Rock,’” said Kissel in the release. “The motorsports industry has continued to serve as an economic engine for our state, bringing in jobs and people from all over the world to watch our drivers compete, while spending money locally. I look forward to April’s truck race and hopefully many more to come.
“I congratulate the local leaders who have worked so hard to make this happen, and Andy and the entire Hillenburg family on their continued dedication to bringing NASCAR back to Rockingham Speedway and Richmond County.”
Camping World and Good Sam Club chairman and CEO Marcus Lemonis is happy to be included in a piece of NASCAR history.
“We are honored to be a part of it,” Lemonis said. “I look forward to seeing the 30,000 seats filled.”
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Director Wayne Auton added it is exciting to have the trucks speed around “The Rock” for the first time.
“It’s a tough race track and we have tough drivers,” Auton said. “We are honored to be back and to be the first NASCAR series back at ‘The Rock.’”
Contact Sports editor Shawn Stinson at 997-3111, ext. 14 or email@example.com