"I'm so proud to say that NASCAR is coming back to The Rock."
With those words Wednesday afternoon, NASCAR officially returned to the Rockingham Speedway, a racetrack where champions such as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon have been crowned, but a facility that hasn't held a NASCAR event since February 2004.
On April 15, 2012 the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will hold the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200, a Sunday afternoon event to be held the day after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Texas Motor Speedway.
The track, formerly known as the North Carolina Speedway, hosted 120 NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races between 1965 and 2004, before it was abandoned for newer tracks and bigger markets to the west. This will mark its first Truck Series race.
As Rockingham Speedway owner Andy Hillenburg spoke the words that made it official, he did so standing at a podium on a stage that was set up just a short walk away from land that has all at once meant so much pride and so much heartbreak for the people of Richmond County, N.C. It was on the grass behind him that he sat on Sept. 27, 2007, and purchased the one-mile oval and the surrounding acreage at auction. It had been shuttered, opened only to host racing schools or occasional commercial and film shoots.
That day county and city leaders had gathered to see if the track, which hosted NASCAR's top series from 1965 through 2004, could be saved from scrap metal dealers and land brokers. One city official muttered, "This feels like a funeral." Four years later, nearly to the day, all of those leaders were back and wearing nothing but smiles.
"To say they have been persistent would be an understatement," said North Carolina Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco, who recalled multiple meetings with Hillenburg and his local government officials, lobbying for the state's help (particularly Gov. Beverly Perdue, who was in attendance at Wednesday's event) in luring NASCAR back to the track. "I can only imagine that if they were that persistent with me then they were at least that with NASCAR itself."
Hillenburg and track operation director Robert Ingraham admit now that they had started lobbying NASCAR for a return event nearly as soon as they reopened the track in the spring 2008. "I can verify that is very accurate," said NASCAR Camping World Truck Series director Wayne Auton with a laugh. "Andy has been wearing me out every time he's seen me over the last three years. And he's been wearing my bosses out, too."
While the track sent three years hosting lower-level stock car events to relatively small crowds, Hillenburg worked to secure the funding to up-fit the track with SAFER "soft wall" barriers, estimated at $1 million per mile, a requirement for any track hoping to host a national NASCAR series race. Last month ESPN.com reported that he would begin installation of those barriers in mid-September. That news, added to the demise of the Nashville Superspeedway, led to rampant garage chatter that the Trucks would be coming to Rockingham.
Says Todd Bodine, a two-time Nationwide Series winner at Rockingham: "Anyone who has spent any time with Wayne [Auton] this year knows he couldn't walk more than 10 feet without someone stopping him to say, 'Please tell me we're going back to The Rock.' "
Auton estimates it was about three months ago when he received a call from Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president for racing operations. "All he said was, 'You've got it.' The hair still stands up on the back of my neck when I think about it." Two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway Hillenburg and Ingraham finalized the deal with O'Donnell. The multiyear race sponsorship deal with Good Sam was inked "very recently."
The State of North Carolina estimates the economic impact at $10.5 million and the addition of a couple of hundred jobs, permanent and temporary at and around the track's new event. A tourism study claims that the majority of the fans in attendance will come from more than 75 miles away. The Rockingham Speedway seats 40,000, including suites.
Over the last four years the steadiest source of income has still come via NASCAR, though indirectly. In 2009, NASCAR implemented a "testing ban" that prevented teams from holding test session at tracks that also held sanctioned events. It proved to be a boon for Rockingham, with most of the teams located in the Charlotte area, a short drive away. Teams not only tested on the one-mile oval, but also on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway clone, "Little Rock" located behind the backstretch of the big track. Those sessions can be worth up to $5,000 for the track on days when multiple teams participate.
There had been talk that the arrival of the Truck Series would put an end to such test sessions, but Auton says that the rule will apply only to the big track. And because the race is scheduled for 2012, teams can still hold previously-scheduled sessions on the speedway itself. If the numbers provided by the state are accurate, saying that the track will see a 48 percent increase in revenues and 56 percent increase in jobs, then Hillenburg's operation should be more than OK.
On Wednesday there were already whispers that a NASCAR Nationwide Series event will be in the near future, and that the track had actually turned down an offer to host both series.
When asked about those rumors, Hillenburg just smiled.
"One step at a time, my friend. One step at a time."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.