New owner Hillenburg promises major racing at The Rock in '08

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- In the beginning, it looked an awful lot like a funeral.

In the narrow strip of infield grass at the North Carolina Speedway there was a tent covering neatly lined rows of folding chairs, surrounded by hundreds of local residents who barely talked above a whisper. There was even a bluegrass quintet playing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

Yes, there was a somber mood in the overcast air. The 42-year-old racetrack known as The Rock was being auctioned off to the highest bidder and these folks had stopped by to pay their respects.

"Then," one local observed, "a celebration broke out."

After roughly 30 minutes of bidding just north of Rockingham, former racer and driving school owner Andy Hillenburg walked away with the deed to a 1-mile oval, 244 acres, and miscellaneous support buildings for a bargain-basement price of $4.4 million ($4 million plus fees, taxes, etc.).

Hillenburg hadn't much cared for the title of savior, but thanks to a grass-roots publicity push, he'd had no choice. Ever since the old track had been put on the auction block earlier this summer, rumors had swirled about who would snatch it up and what they would do it with it. Truthfully, no one had a clue. But as the Oct. 2 auction date drew closer, it was Hillenburg's name that kept coming up and quickly became the sentimental favorite in the Rockingham community. Why? Because his intentions were purely racing related. No condos, no wrecking balls, no "For Sale" signs, just race cars.

But as the clock ticked toward Tuesday's 1 p.m. auction time, the crowd was becoming nervous, murmuring speculation over each and every person in attendance that fit the description of a potential buyer.

In all, there were nine registered bidders representing five states. In addition to Hillenburg, there was a real estate firm, a scrap metal dealer, and five various companies listed under the anonymity of LLC's.

"We knew that most of those were members of the racing community being represented by other people," said William Bone, president of National Auction Group, the company responsible for selling off the track. "About 15 minutes before the auction began we went over the list of bidders with [track owner] Bruton Smith and he was quick to recognize that the names on the list were all tied to NASCAR team owners in some way. He was very happy about that. He wanted it to retain some sort of racing identity."

Meanwhile, Hillenburg himself was pacing the grounds. "I don't know if I have the words to describe how I feel right now," he said as he headed to his seat. "I think we have some late dark horses rolling in here."

The dark horse of the day was the one racing juggernaut that didn't bother with an assumed name: Richard Childress Racing. As late as three weeks ago, Childress hadn't even known that the track where he's clinched his milestone 1994 Winston Cup championship was being sold. Since learning about the auction from a Rockingham native, he'd quietly investigated the possibility of utilizing The Rock as a testing facility. When RCR vice president Bill Patterson strolled into the tent just a few moments before the proceedings began, those who recognized him were left slack-jawed.

Once the proceedings began, Patterson kicked things off with a $2 million bid that immediately eliminated all parties with non-racing intentions. Hillenburg countered, his right knee bouncing nervously. For the next 10 minutes the Childress party chatted with their boss via cell phone, the crowd of locals not yet realizing who was running neck-and-neck with their guy. As the tension built, the residents of Rockingham began to do something that is rarely seen at real estate auctions. They started cheering. Yet another race was on at The Rock and they were cheering for their favorite driver.

"That's the guy that was in paper this morning."

"That's Andy Hillenburg, the guy who says he'll keep racing here."

"C'mon Andy!"

Then curiously, before entering his final bid of $4 million, Hillenburg turned to look over his shoulder at a handful of Rockingham city officials. Not until mayor Gene McLaurin gave him a "go ahead" nod did the speedway savior finally nod to the auctioneer and enter the bid.

All eyes turned to Patterson, who politely shook his head to say "we're out."

And so the gavel fell and the crowd erupted. They collapsed on poor Hillenburg, who wasn't allowed to leave his seat for more than 10 minutes. As the mayor pulled a "City of Rockingham" baseball cap onto the new track owner's head, the driver-turned-businessman-turned-owner of The Rock promised a major racing event in 2008, the track's first since NASCAR abandoned it in 2004.

"I can't tell you what series it will be," he said with a wink, "because I'm a former ARCA champion."

For the first time in 3½ years there was a celebration in the infield at the North Carolina Speedway and next summer there will be the sounds of a full field of race cars.

"We've got a happy seller, a happy buyer, and a happy town," Bone said with a relieved smile. "In the auction business we call that a good day."

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."