Race fans came from far and wide to set up camp at the Rockingham Speedway to celebrate the return of NASCAR to The Rock.
Some camped for days, waiting with growing anticipation for the trucks to burn up the pavement, while others made it to town just in time for the concert Saturday night.
All were in good spirits, and many roamed around the campgrounds making new friends and joining in games of cornhole while sharing drinks and stories about past races at the speedway.
Tantalizing smells of fried fish, grilled burgers, hot dogs and steaks filled the air, as neighbors invited neighbors over for a taste of special recipes.
“We’re here from York, South Carolina,” said Jo Ann and Steve Taylor, who were there with their son Jeremy. “We saw Darrell Waltrip Friday night on television, and he said ‘ya’ll need to go out and support Rockingham Speedway,’ so we loaded up made the trip.”
“I was here years ago with my dad,” said Steve. “Good memories here. Everyone has been so friendly — when we were walking around and picking up our tickets, our canopy blew away. Our neighbors over there caught it and put it back up for us.”
Daryl Case, from San Antonio, Texas, was camping with friends from Fayetteville, for his “first race ever.”
In between making new friends, campers spent Saturday making lighthearted bets, like how many laps the cars in the Frank Kimmel Street Stock Nationals would travel before the first wreck on Saturday.
Everyone was looking for a good time but, for some campers, Sunday’s race held special sentimental value.
Don King, from Charleston, South Carolina, was with his wife, Nanette and their children and grandchildren.
“This is a family thing for us,” said Don. “I’ve been coming here every year since 1989. I was at the last NASCAR race that was held here — I still have the T-shirt.”
A serious race fan, Don said his “man cave” is a memorial to Dale Earnhardt, and is filled with photos of The Rock.
Don and his brother John went to races together every year at The Rock, until John passed away.
“It’s like fate brought us here this weekend,” said Don. “The day NASCAR returns to The Rock (Sunday) would have been my brother’s birthday. He would have loved to be here — and the crazy thing is, the only thing my brother would drink was Cheerwine!” Cheerwine was the official sponsor of Sunday’s race.
A family tradition of camping at The Rock seemed to be a common theme, even for race fans who live in Richmond County.
Jamie Sullivan and Adam Gardner, from Rockingham, and Max Gardner, from Ellerbe, set up two campers last Monday and loaded them down with family and friends for a week of pre-race festivities.
“We take this seriously,” said Max. “We are excited about NASCAR coming back and we’re out here to support it. Our family has been coming to the speedway for years — we’re fans who never left.”
Cold beers in koozies floated from iced coolers while campers laughed and cheered.
“Racing isn’t all about the cars, it’s about camaraderie — it’s a family,” said Dennis Garner, of Atlantic Beach, N.C., who was camping with his wife, Inez, and family friends.
“This is my first time in Rockingham,” smiled Wayne Watson, from Louisville, Kentucky. “My family lives in Raleigh, and I got a call that there was a party at The Rock — I was here in 12 hours. I’m camping with my nephew, brother-in-law and a friend. I love Richmond County people, and I’ll be back for the next race!”
“I’ve been here before, and I’m glad to be back,” said Sonya Saunders, from Salisbury, N.C. “We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. As long as there are NASCAR races here, we’ll keep coming back.”
Some out-of-towners feel as strongly about The Rock as do Richmond County residents.
Jim Cimaglia, of Fayetteville, had “Rockingham Motor Speedway — Bring NASCAR Home” emblazoned on the back of his RV.
“This is the closest speedway to Fayetteville, and I want to support it and help get it back to its glory days,” said Cimaglia. “I love racing, and I love the people I meet when I’m camping. They call me the ‘camper hopper’ because I’m all over the place talking to everyone I meet.”
Even Cimaglia’s cornhole boards were a tribute to his favorite drivers, and decked out with custom LED lighting for night-time games.
As evening neared on Saturday, campers, country music fans and race ticket holders filtered into the speedway for a concert. The crowd was relaxed, everyone was smiling and the music was loud enough to make folks want to dance — without being deafening. Men played air guitars, ladies grooved to the tunes and couples kissed as the Chris Lane Band hit the stage at 8 p.m.
By the time Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin took the mic to introduce Speedway Owner Andy Hillenburg, the crowd’s enthusiasm couldn’t be contained.
“Andy (Hillenburg) promised us we’d get NASCAR back,” cheered McLaurin, as he introduced Andy to the stage.
The crowd went nuts, shouting “Andy! Andy! Andy!” in a nod Hillenburg’s work to make the special weekend a reality. “We love you Andy,” came shouts from the crowd. “Thank you, Andy!”
“This is for you! This is for us! Old school Rockingham,” said Hillenburg with a smile, before introducing the band Little Texas.
A giant roar erupted from the crowd, just as Little Texas took the stage and shouted, “Congratulations on getting your race back, Rockingham!”
The excitement was electric, and flowed through the air as the music pounded into a perfect springtime night, the sky above the concert dotted with stars.
“What a feeling,” said Hillenburg backstage. “It is so great to see race fans and Richmond County get behind us. These people are pumped up, and this is just the beginning.”
The concert lasted well into the night, and campers eventually made their way back to their tents and RVs to rest up before one last day of fun at The Rock.
The smells of breakfast cooking brought campers out of an early morning stupor on Sunday, and many reached for a little “hair of the dog” to jump start the big day.
“Racing will make you drink early in the morning,” laughed Mike Watson, from High Point, N.C., who was RV camping with several generations of his family. “I’ve been coming here since ‘66, but I found out about Thunder Alley when they opened the track back up a few years ago. I never want to park the RV anywhere else. I can sit up here and see everything that’s happening on the track.”
Showers were free to all who wanted to use them and, miraculously, the brick bathroom facilities managed to stay clean through the weekend.
“Racer” Carol Hipp, of Statesville, and her friends Sheila Whelan, from Toronto, Canada, and Pam Mavey, from Statesville, N.C., parked their RV in the infield. The trio sat sipping their coffee, and waiting for the action to start.
“Oh, there’s nothing like camping in the infield,” said Carol. “We climb up on top of the RV and sit up there to watch the cars come around the back stretch. You can see the suspension really working from this viewpoint.”
By around 9 a.m., throngs of people were filing into the speedway to check out the pre-race excitement and to have breakfast with the drivers. Race fans milled about, checking out the speedway, pit row and the Johnboy and Billy Play Pen — the pre-race excitement already hummed through the air before the morning chill was even gone.
By the time the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was set to take off, the campers were primed and ready for the day The Rock made history.
— Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at email@example.com