‘The Rock’ makes its mark

Contributed Photo Larry Roberts topped Wendall Bowie in the Top Dragster class at last weekend’s NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event at Rockingham Dragway.

ROCKINGHAM — Rich Schaefer wasn’t sure he was going to be able to make it to Rockingham because of a family emergency.

Schaefer knew if he wasn’t going to be there, the National Hot Rod Association’s return to Rockingham Dragway was going to be in the safe hands of his associate Cody Savage. Still, Schaefer wanted to be at “The Rock” because it had been 16 years since the NHRA visited the track.

Plus, a trip to Rockingham Dragway was a priority for him: “This is one of the places on my bucket list to get to run a race at.”

Schaefer, the Southeast Division (Division 2) director for the NHRA, was able to make to Rockingham for the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event at Rockingham and scratch that off his list.

“To me ‘The Rock’ is like the Fenway Park or the Wrigley Field of drag racing, to finally have a NHRA Lucas Oil Series race here, I can’t express how important it is to me personally,” Schaefer said. “It’s great.”

There was a small threat of rain Saturday, but the weather was near perfect for NHRA’s return to Rockingham Dragway. Both Steve Earwood, the owner of “The Rock” and Schaefer were pleased with the results and were talking plans for next year’s event.

“It could not have gone better, great weather all four days,” Earwood said. “Did not put the first scratch on the first race car…a great class of racers. It’s great working with the NHRA again. They truly are the NFL of drag racing. It’s a great event. I’m very enthused about it.

“Next year we are going to look at a different date. The weekend after Memorial Day is not the weekend to run one of these things. We had our schedule already set when Rich and I got together about putting a Lucas race in here this year. This is the only date quite frankly he had available and I was available. Not the best date of the year because of the holiday being last weekend, but we’ll find a better date next year and probably double the entries.”

Schaefer agreed that the timing of the event wasn’t the best, but that was minor compared to being able to return to the track that hosted “The Winston Invitational.”

The main concerns that Schaefer and the racers had returning to a place after 16 years was going to be the condition of the track and the facilities. Schaefer said the competitors gave Earwood and his staff high marks on the weekend.

“Steve Earwood is truly one of the greatest promoters in the history of the sport, that is why he is in the Division 2 Hall of Fame,” Schaefer said. “He belongs there. Obviously the racers were concerned because they hadn’t been here for so long. Everybody was kind of on the edge wondering what the track was going to be and what the place was going to look like. The staff did a phenomenal job. The amount of compliments we got from racers up there (in the tower) today talking about how consistent it was all weekend, especially in this type of heat. Let me tell you, compliments are pretty tough to come by from these racers. They’re a pretty picky bunch.

“The date wasn’t ideal. So that hurt our participation a little bit, but the guys that were here enjoyed their experience. I usually don’t have to look hard to find a racer that has a complaint for me at the end of the weekend. I’m standing in the winner’s circle and haven’t found one yet.”

Earwood chimed in and said that was going to be one of the challenges from his staff — getting the facility ready to host an NHRA event. Earwood wanted everything to be as perfect as it could be to make an impression not only on Schaefer, but the racers as well.

“It was good for us and my team, we all realized these are the big guys coming to town,” he said. “These are the elite sportsmen racers in the country. Everybody took a little extra effort as far as cutting the grass and weed eating and painting the place and making it look good.”

Schaefer joked when he accepted the job with the NHRA in 2010 to serve as the director over Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Puerto Rico, his first task was to recruit Earwood back into the ranks of the NHRA.

Schaefer believes having Earwood and Rockingham Dragway back under the NHRA umbrella will play a big role into bringing racers from around the area into the fold as well.

“It really makes me happy about next year. This is such an important part of the country for us,” Schaefer said. “There’s probably more racers in the Carolinas than any other state of the country. Steve being a part of the NHRA is going to help us get more of those racers involved with the NHRA again. While they are down here, they haven’t necessarily been running NHRA series that much in the last 10, 15 years.

“We lost our footing down here. Steve is helping us get it back. Steve worked with NHRA for decades…he was one of the greatest marketing guys we ever had in our company. Having Rockingham back on the NHRA program is not just about this one event. It’s about having him sit in the room with us when all of our track operators sit there in January and toss around ideas.”

Earwood is looking forward to making next year’s event better than the one that just wrapped up.

“I’m committed and I know Rich is committed. We’re just going to make it grow from here.”

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