Reprinted From SPEED TV's website
It seems the history book of NASCAR is being ripped apart page by page nowadays. With the closing and pending status of Petty Enterprises, shuttering of teams and mergers abounding in NASCAR, it’s hard not to fear the sport’s legacy is fading away. But what I witnessed New Year’s Day at the newly-resurrected Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway gave me hope for the future and nostalgia for the past.
I hadn’t been to Rockingham since 2004 when I covered the last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race there before the track lost its date. I recall leaving the speedway that night with friends and colleagues amidst rumors we’d just witnessed the last Cup race at the facility. So, after NASCAR moved The Rock’s date and the track eventually closed, when Andy Hillenburg and investors bought the track at auction a couple of years ago, many of us were cautiously optimistic he would revive the facility or at least rescue it from becoming another golf course in the Sandhills of North Carolina. After spending New Year’s Day at Rockingham, I am convinced he has. .
The Polar Bear 150 was my first New Year’s Day race ever. I took my six-year-old son Blaise, my parents and one of my new drivers, Michael Pope, who will drive my Super Late Model this year. I would have loved to have competed myself but my street stock car has just been sitting in the shop this year because we’ve been busy with the Late Model and Pro Challenge series. But I promised my son I’d be in the race next New
We went as fans and what we got was a really cool street stock event and an awesome experience, grassroots racing at its finest. Hillenburg’s original plan was to start up to 100 street stock cars but I think the starting field ended up at around 67 cars. For those street stock competitors, it was the equivalent of making the Daytona 500 because they routinely run one-fifth mile, one-quarter mile and maybe half-mile tracks, but never a one-mile track and certainly not one with the prestige of The Rock.
They took the green flag three-wide and gave us 150 laps of pure, unadulterated old school racing. Those guys were sideways all over the place – down the straightaways, bouncing off the wall, bouncing off each other and everything in sight.
But despite the hard racing, one of the best parts of the day was the atmosphere of the facility. The Rock had the aura of something big and something special and if Hillenburg continues his New Year’s tradition, it will morph into an event that families circle on their calendars. Folks were camping in the infield and families were all over the place.
Families weren’t the only ones there. Lots of crew guys from the NASCAR teams were on hand either to watch or compete or help a friend compete. Jimmy Elledge, a Cup crew chief, ran a street stock, Dale Earnhardt Jr. built a car for one of his guys to run, Juan Pablo Montoya’s spotter competed and DEI had an entry, and the list goes on.
Additionally, while Rockingham is infamous for its one-mile, tire-eating track, right behind the legendary track now stands a new, half-mile track called “Little Rock,” and within it, a quarter-mile track.
When the Cup cars tested Little Rock last year in preparation for Martinsville, the track’s bottom groove broke up a little bit, so Andy did a lot of work to the half-mile and smoothed it out perfectly. His plan is for several series to race on the new track this year – everything from Legends to Pro Challenge and Late Model Stock cars, which should be quite interesting
There always has been a certain mystique about The Rock and it was a special place for two primary reasons – the track was so grueling and it was somewhat of a “home track” for the NASCAR teams based in the Charlotte and Mooresville area.
We’ve seen so many tracks close in the past couple of decades but you don’t see many reopen. North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway is sitting dormant. Sure, some of the signs and grandstands remain but they’re rotting away with time. That track is fully capable of returning to competition with a little TLC but no one has stepped up.
We all thought The Rock would meet the same fate because it sat shuttered for a couple of years. But Hillenburg has taken the speedway on as his baby and methodically molded The Rock into what it once was and still needs to be. For a change, some racing history has been saved instead of destroyed.
What The Drivers Thought About Rockingham...
Anthony White (No. 22 Chevy Monte Carlo) finished 2nd
“I love this place. I’d like to come back tomorrow.”
Clint Watkins (#91) finished 5th
"Not bad for a bunch of ol’ country boys who built this thing in our basements. I had a lot of fun and hope to be able to do it again.”
Chuck Barnes, Sr. (Chevy Monte Carlo) Race Winner
“Everything was great. Real nice place, set up real good. Couldn’t ask for a better place to race.
"I’ve been racing about 30 years. I am trying to cut back to some of the bigger races. Maybe one or two a year. This win is one of the top of my career. This is the best place we’ve been to.”