Future of North Carolina Speedway up to the highest bidder

Rockingham needs a hero. A last-minute reprieve. A speedway savior.

On Oct. 2, North Carolina Speedway will play host to its first decent crowd in more than three years, its first significant gathering since 50,000 fans watched Matt Kenseth beat rookie Kasey Kahne by .010 seconds in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. The event will be a winner-take-all, no-reserve, no-minimum absolute auction of the historic one-mile oval and the surrounding 240-plus acres. The story should be making headlines throughout the racing world, but it is not, overshadowed by Kyle vs. Denny, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car number, and the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

But before there was the Chase, there was The Rock, where clinching Cup titles became a near annual occurrence. Earnhardt, Gordon, Yarborough and Petty all clinched milestone titles in the long shadows of a Rockingham autumn afternoon.

"The last two times we went there were two of the best days of my life," Kenseth says. "We won the championship there in the fall of 2003 and came back the next February and beat Kasey. Honestly, I wish we'd never left. I think a lot of us out here feel that way."

For four decades, visitors to The Rock left with souvenirs and memories. On Tuesday afternoon, someone will leave with the deed. And no one has the faintest idea who it might be or how much it will cost them.

"I've heard and read what you've heard and read," says Rockingham mayor Gene McLaurin. "We've met with some interested people and I've talked to every racing official that I can get in touch with. But I don't think anyone truly knows what will happen at the auction until we get there."

How we got there in the first place is a long, winding trail of gasoline, politics and money.

Rise and Fall of The Rock

The North Carolina Motor Speedway was born in 1965, when Harold Brasington, the man who built the Darlington Raceway just 50 miles to the south, decided to construct another quirky racetrack in the Sandhills region of the Carolinas. The inaugural American 500 was a brutally tough event, won by aging racing god Curtis Turner, his crowning moment of an amazing comeback.

Over the next 40 years, The Rock played host to two events per year and enough title-clinching races to make every other track jealous. Hometown hero Benny Parsons, who lived in nearby Ellerbe and drove a locally owned car, won the 1973 Cup in dramatic fashion. In October 1994, Dale Earnhardt won the race and his record-tying seventh Winston Cup title. Seven years later, Rockingham hosted the first race after Earnhardt's death, a stirring last-lap victory by DEI protege Steve Park.

But the speedway had trouble attracting enough fans to justify a place on the increasingly crowded NASCAR calendar. Its fan base was thinned out by new venues in the West, a depressed local economy and hard-to-sell cold-weather dates in February and November. The track went from owner to owner in the late 1990s, eventually falling into the hands of NASCAR's International Speedway Corporation.

In 2003, ISC took race date No. 1 and shipped it to California. One year later, the track was sold to rival Bruton Smith as part of a court settlement and the lone remaining race date was moved to the Texas Motor Speedway.

Smith essentially shut down The Rock, employing a staff of one and renting it out for racing schools, test sessions, and the occasional movie shot, including "3," "Talladega Nights" and a Bollywood film titled "Ta Ra Rum Pum" (do yourself a favor and Google it, the trailer is something to behold). In the end, the place wasn't profitable, which Smith has never been one to tolerate.

"We've looked at every possible solution," says Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and Smith's right-hand man. "But there is simply no way for us to make it economically viable."

And that brings us to Tuesday's auction.

A Plea for Racing's Return

The company charged with selling the track is National Auction Group of Gadsden, Ala. Since Sept. 21, an advance NAG team has been living at The Rock, taking calls and scheduling facility tours for prospective buyers. The tours cover the land as well as the still-new press box, and garage facilities that were built less than a decade ago. Through the first week of tour availability, only a few had been given, but business is expected to pick up as the sale draws closer.

Among the parties that have expressed interest are several with no ties to the racing industry, including Blackwater USA, the private security firm that made recent headlines for a controversial firefight in Iraq, which is looking to establish a military training facility within a chopper's hop of Fort Bragg. There has also been talk of a Raleigh-based developer with an eye on converting the facility into an amphitheater, and golf course architects interested in such a large chunk of land only 30 minutes south of Pinehurst National.

Each of those possibilities would bring jobs to a region that has lost more than its share over the last 20 years. But what the people of Richmond County really want to see rolling back into the track isn't golf carts or armored vehicles. They want to see race cars.

"We know that getting the Nextel Cup Series back isn't going to happen," says Keith Parsons, son of Benny and founding member of the Save The Rock committee. "Anything would be better than having the track empty or demolished. But I think I speak for everyone in Rockingham when I say that we hope that the track can maintain some sort of racing presence."

Supporters of the cause aren't limited to local residents. Over the last month, at least one NASCAR team owner has quietly asked for information on purchasing what could become a top-shelf testing facility only 80 miles east of most Nextel Cup race shops (though there are concerns about the cost of maintaining the gritty 1.017-mile track surface). Meanwhile, the drivers who had success there don't want to see the track flattened or refitted for something other than race cars.

"I have wanted to cry ever since they told us we weren't going back to Rockingham," says Jamie McMurray, who won the track's final four Busch Series events. "We've gone down there to test, and it just depresses you. It's a perfectly good, racy track and it's just sitting there empty. There's got to be something than can be done with it, right?"

I think I speak for everyone in Rockingham when I say that we hope that the track can maintain some sort of racing presence.

Keith Parsons, Save The Rock founder

Even the man responsible for selling it off is hoping for a last-second racing rescue. "Rockingham needs a white knight," says William Bone, president of National Auction Group. "To me, there is so much value there. It's one of the true cradles of NASCAR. We had a similar situation in 1992 when we auctioned off Calumet Farm in Kentucky. Here was this place where all this horse racing history was born, and it was just out there to be bought. In the weeks leading up to the auction, I had the governor of Kentucky and the mayor of Lexington calling me nonstop trying to save the place from being torn down and turned into condominiums, and they did. I would hope that the people in North Carolina are doing the same for Rockingham."

Holding Out For A Hero

McLaurin, Parsons and other local officials have sought counsel from the North Carolina Motorsports Association, a committee of business people gathered by the governor's office to protect and develop the multibillion-dollar auto racing industry's interests in the state. But privately, they each believe that track's greatest hope likely lies in the hands of a driver.

Andy Hillenburg has raced nearly every type of speed machine that America has to offer. The Indiana native grew up racing USAC sprint cars, won the 1995 ARCA championship (think AAA ball for stock cars), ran the 2000 Indy 500, has started races in Nextel Cup, Busch and the Craftsman Truck Series and, since 1989, has owned the very successful Fast Track High Performance Driving School. Fewer people are as well-liked in the racing community as Hillenburg.

Now he wants to buy The Rock. Fast Track already has a part-time presence at the track, but Hillenburg wants to make it his headquarters. He also wants to use his connections to bring in some sort -- any sort -- of racing, perhaps ARCA, USAC or one of NASCAR's lower divisions. After meeting with Mayor McLaurin and the people of Rockingham, they want him there too, and wrote an open letter to Wheeler and Smith stating as much.

"I do have big plans for the track if I were fortunate enough to be in a position to make those decisions," says the 44-year-old racer. "I think about it all the time. But I have to admit, I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I was a few months ago."

Why? In recent months the track has been stripped of all the tools that a promoter would need to stage a race, from the backstretch grandstand to the televisions in the press box to the jet dryers, kitchen supplies and medical equipment. All gone. No one knows why. What it does mean is a giant added expense for anyone wishing to revive the racetrack and a giant deterrent to anyone thinking about buying it. And that means that Rockingham's great racing hope might have just been priced out of the running.

"We'll see," Hillenburg says from his office outside Lowe's Motor Speedway, trying to mask his disappointment. "I'll see you Tuesday morning."

Dust In The Wind?

The billboard is gone from Highway 74.

On the road east from Charlotte, somewhere between Wadesboro and the R.W. Goodman Bridge into Richmond County, the billboard for The Rock has disappeared. The massive wooden sign had been there as long as anyone can remember; a year-round promotional tool for the next big NASCAR weekend.

Just a few weeks ago it was still there, the paint peeling back in the Eastern North Carolina heat as the race it touted became an increasingly distant memory: "Subway 400 & Goody's 200, February 20-22, 2004, Tickets On Sale Now."

On Tuesday, an entire region -- if not much of NASCAR Nation -- will hold its collective breath, hopeful that their beloved speedway isn't resigned to the same fate, victimized by the progression of a sport that it helped usher into the big time, abandoned by the cars and stars that made Rockingham a household name across the racing globe.

"There are a lot questions and a lot of speculation about what might happen at that auction," says Bone. "But I can tell you one thing for certain. When the gavel falls, that racetrack is going to belong to somebody. Let's just hope it's the right somebody."

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."