(NOTE: I wrote this in 2008 for the short-lived publication The Racing Journal.)
Rockin' in Rockingham
By Tom Gillispie
ROCKINGHAM — For the first time since 1999, there's plenty of activity on both sides of U.S. 1, about eight miles north of Rockingham. And the two racing facilities will be working together.
Former ARCA champion Andy Hillenburg bought North Carolina Speedway from Bruton Smith in January, and changed the track's name to Rockingham Speedway. He has an ARCA race, the Carolina 500, set for noon on May 4, and a Hooters ProCup race, the American 200, set for Nov. 1. And Hillenburg has an all-Mustang weekend, "Super 'Stang Fest", scheduled in June.
Rockingham Dragway remains as busy as ever. The new event at the dragway is the All-Harley Drag Racing Association event, the Screamin' Eagle Performance Parts Nationals. Rockingham Dragway again will play host to two International Hot Rod Association events; the IHRA Spring Nationals are set for April 18-20, and the World Finals will close the IHRA season on Oct. 17-19.
Steve Earwood, the promoter at Rockingham Dragway, says that the speedway and dragway have worked together before, particularly providing parking for each other, and he says he'll work together closely with Hillenburg.
"It can't be a bad thing," he said of the speedway reopening. "There's more activity for our community. When the speedway closed, it was a blow to the community.
"I wish Andy the best, and I'll do what I can to help."
Earwood has held several positions in racing — he was the publicist for Raymond Beadle's Blue Max Cup team in the '80s — and he's run the dragway since 1992.
"Steve was just in the office right here," Hillenburg said. "He's been helpful and cooperative and a pleasure to work with, and definitely I can learn from, and I hope to be able to be there for him.
"We'll be doing stuff together on race events, where we're working closely together. He's got some night-time events that he's going to run on some of our weekends. We'll have rides here (for fans) on some of his race weekends. We'll do some stuff that will help both of us and bring people to the area."
Hillenburg says he's also gotten a good response from people in Richmond County.
"I like the atmosphere here," he said. "The people from the city and Richmond County have been helpful, and I'm really enjoying it. We've hired people from area and brought people in; it's a great place to raise a family or for a family to visit."
Rockingham Speedway's first action came in mid-December when five Craftsman Truck Series teams tested there for two days. Legends, Bandolero and Thunder Roadsters raced at The Rock in January, and Hillenburg's Fast Track High Performance Driving School opened for the season in mid-February.
Hillenburg, a native of Indianapolis and one of the few drivers to start both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, says he's in no hurry to fill the track schedule. Besides the two big races, he says his driving school will drone around the one-mile oval more than 25 dates this season, and he hopes to run a weekly program at some point.
"Eventually, we have so many things we want to do," Hillenburg said. "The list of ideas and possibilities seems endless. We want to set the groundwork with a couple of races this year and eventually get 90 percent of our driving school dates and customers over at the speedway.
"It's a work in progress."
Smith bought The Rock several years ago so he could move the Cup dates to Texas Motor Speedway. Hillenburg bought the track from Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. at an auction in October, and he took possession of the property Nov. 1.
"We'd been working on doing a speedway for a long time with our driving school," Hillenburg said. "We'd have better flexibility in dates and be able to also expand the driving school programs that we've had. So it's something I've been working on for the last four or five years.
"And when the Rockingham facility came up for auction, it was a matter of taking our business plan and inserting a few things there at the racetrack."
And the potential races became a bonus for Hillenburg.
While Smith was asking nearly $100 million for the track, Hillenburg found the $4.4 million still a huge amount.
"It is," he said, "but, hopefully, our business model will make all of those things work for us."
Rockingham played host to Cup and Busch races when Smith bought the track, and the natural question is: Is Hillenburg pursuing a Cup, Nationwide (formerly Busch) or truck race for 2009?
"There are endless possibilities, but it would be unfair of me now to say we're pursuing getting NASCAR back," he said. "We have to show what we can do and get the facility open and do a great job before that could possibly show up on their radar screen. We'd be in a bad position if we'd go and ask right now, I think.
"So we want to concentrate on making Carolina 500 a great event. Down the road, who knows what can happen?"
The track looks good on the outside, and Hillenburg has said that safety inspections have been done on the catch fences and grandstands. The large grandstand on the backstretch wasn't part of the sale, and it will be trucked to Concord for use at Smith's new drag-racing facility being built at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
The track drew praise from at least one of the truck racers who tested in December.
"I've always loved this racetrack," said Johnny Benson, a former Busch Series champion. "It's the same old Rockingham. It's bumpy, you slide around and stuff, but, man, I have always loved this place; it is way cool.
"I think the truck series would be an excellent race here; they seem to put on great shows here no matter the series."
Hillenburg, the 1995 ARCA champion, won't race in his own race -- he's concentrated on the business end of racing since he last raced in '04. Bryan Silas races for him in ARCA and with Hillenburg's part-time Craftsman Truck Series team.
"There's times I wish I could jump in there and do it myself, but, at the same time, I felt I had a great career," he said.
"I'll never say never, but, at the same time, my plate is so full that it's not on the horizon."
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