‘The Rock’ continues to drag

Contributed Photo Rockingham Dragway will play host to an NHRA event this weekend for the first time in 16 years.

Steve Earwood

ROCKINGHAM — There are photos hanging in the tower at Rockingham Dragway that hearken back to the “good old days” when the track hosted The Winston Invitational and other National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned events.

The Winston was similar to the NASCAR All-Star Race in it was a non-points event and usually had higher payouts than the majority of the NHRA’s other major events.

Those pictures show the fans on both sides of the track squeezed together and sitting shoulder to shoulder from the start to the finish line. For drag racing fans, it couldn’t get much better.

As Rockingham Dragway owner Steve Earwood points out, those photographs highlight a “different economic climate.”

The NHRA and “The Rock” parted ways after the 1998 season. Rockingham Dragway cast its lot with International Hot Rod Association and the NHRA found other venues for its events.

But after a 16-year absence, the NHRA and Rockingham Dragway are back together again.

Earwood knows it isn’t the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series that will return to his track, but sees the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as a good place to jump back into the fray with the NHRA. Earwood compared the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series with NASCAR’s Xfinity Series.

“Those photographs you see on my wall are back during a different era. The world has changed since then,” Earwood said while inspecting the grandstands Thursday afternoon. “You got NASCAR taking down half the grandstands because they can’t fill them anymore and it looks better. It’s a different economy now.

“Younger people aren’t getting into motorsports like we did when we were growing up. We got to somehow expand our market here because there’s not a lot of new blood coming into this. I’m not sure going in the direction of having a NHRA national event will be the way to go. The financial commitment is just incredible. If you have bad weather or a bad forecast, you could lose six figures in the wink of an eye. So I want to start off with this divisional race we’re doing here, and kind of see what everything is about and get used to each other. Maybe at some point down the road we will get John Force and those guys here, but I don’t see that for the next couple of seasons.”

Earwood, who purchased the track in 1992, added he thought it was right moment to return to racing under the NHRA umbrella after spending the last 15 seasons with the IHRA.

“I felt it was time to make a change. The economy has definitely changed, particularly in our industry in the last 16 to 18 months,” Earwood said. “The NHRA seems to have more individuals that can afford to do this, quite frankly. With the NHRA you suddenly get credibility. I was able to go up on my prices for my signage being with the NHRA. It helps us immensely. The NHRA is the NFL of drag racing. The IHRA is a very fine organization and I love those people, but they are a newer organization than the NHRA. The NHRA has been here for 60-some odd years. That is the NFL and I felt it was time to step back into that arena.”

More than just cars going fast

One of the things Earwood understands is that focusing on just racing at Rockingham Dragway wasn’t going to keep the doors open. Earwood knew he needed to think outside the box. He did so, putting on other events at “The Rock” such as a Metallica concert as well as the Rugged Maniac race.

Earwood laughed and said some of things he is attempting now and tried in the past, he couldn’t fathom when he purchased “The Rock.”

“You have to diversify, particularly since 2008,” Earwood said. “I’m doing very few things today I was doing when I bought this racetrack 23 years ago. You have to adapt. That is the one luxury I have here, I can adapt this afternoon. If I want to change what we’re doing this weekend, I can do that. These corporate tracks in these major, major markets, they have to have board meetings for six months and by the time they make a decision, the problem has gone away and there’s another issue. We hustle to diversify and look for anything we can do to utilize this facility to draw people to Richmond County.”

Earwood was quick to add that if there was a change in the NHRA’s plans and places like Charlotte were no longer interested to hosting an event, he might jump at the opportunity. However, it would have to be just right because Earwood doesn’t want to gamble the future of Rockingham Dragway on one race weekend.

“I like to cultivate the events we have now,” Earwood said. “I have events that I have three-, five-, 10-year plans with. I don’t want to get into a situation where the exposure is so bad that we set back what we have been able to accomplish through this depression since 2008. We’re doing fine, we’re paying our bills, we’re still alive, we’re still able to entice events like that Rugged Maniac. I’m competing against every major market in the country. I’m competing against New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. We have to have something better to entice them to come to Rockingham and Richmond County.

“We were able to do that with Rugged Maniac, quite frankly, by pricing ourselves very, very low. They can come in here without a lot of exposure. Where they can’t be hurt too bad if their events don’t do too well. We get them here and we show them how we treat them and we can have successful events. Then we can slowly improve the events and grow. The Rugged Maniac people said it was the most successful first-time event they’ve ever had. They are talking about having a two-day event in 2016.”

Reach managing editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 and follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.