Monday, April 16, 2012

Hillenburg Completes Unlikely Rockingham Resurrection

Hillenburg (R) with NASCAR's Mike Helton
Andy Hillenburg won a lot of races during his driving career. He raced in the legendary Indianapolis 500, won the ARCA Series championship and dabbed successfully in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His motorsports legacy, however, lies in the tiny town of Rockingham, NC, where last Sunday afternoon, he put the finishing touches on the unlikely resurrection of one of NASCAR’s most legendary venues.

In late 2007, Hillenburg bid $4.4 million dollars to purchase the shuttered Rockingham Speedway, a decaying former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track that had fallen into equal parts of disrepair and disrespect. With five different owners in the previous decade, Rockingham had fallen off the racing radar. Half-hearted promotion and an oversaturated market resulted in fan apathy, half-filled grandstands and the departure of Rockingham’s twice-annual Sprint Cup Series dates to other, less historic venues.

“Everyone tells me I’m crazy,” said Hillenburg at the time. “They say the fans don’t care about this track anymore, and that we’ll never make a go of it without those Sprint Cup Series races. But I think they’re wrong. I think there’s still a place for tracks like Rockingham Speedway.”

At first, Hillenburg’s dream looked more like a hallucination. The track’s backstretch grandstands were dismantled and sold, cutting The Rock’s 65,000-seat capacity roughly in half. What remained was more rust than polish; little more than a faded memory of the track’s once-glorious past.
NASCAR returned to "The Rock" Sunday
In time, however, Hillenburg began to nurse “The Rock” back to health. He built a new short track -- dubbed “Little Rock” – just off the back straightaway, and courted NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams to utilize both facilities as test venues. His “Fast Track” Driving School gave aspiring racers a chance to pit themselves against the legendary Rockingham high banks, then booked a patchwork schedule of ARCA, Late Model and regional racing events in an effort to maintain the track’s fluttering heartbeat.
“Don’t forget us,” begged Hillenburg to anyone who would listen. “We’re still here. There’s racing at The Rock.”
Late last year, word leaked out that Hillenburg was thinking of installing SAFER barriers at the 1.017-mile oval; a project rumored to cost more than $1 million. In September, he and North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue stood before an assembled media throng that the rumors were reality; that NASCAR would return to The Rock with a Camping World Truck Series race on April 15, 2012. 
They made an interesting pair, the Governor and the race track promoter. She was meticulously coiffed and spoke from a list of carefully crafted talking points. He sported his customary faded baseball cap – slightly askew – and spoke spontaneously about the fulfillment of a dream. She highlighting an estimated $10.5 million impact on the state, he talked about bringing a much-needed dose of civic pride back to Richmond County.
Kasey Kahne won the race
"I feel like we're doing the right thing,” said Hillenburg, deflecting most of the credit to NASCAR and his staff. “I’m getting a lot of credit for this, but I couldn’t have done it alone. I give an incredible assist to the people at NASCAR for coaching us along, telling us what we need to do and how we need to do it. They want us to be here, and it’s a great feeling to be wanted."
"Coming back to Rockingham puts the heart back in NASCAR," said former Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday, Jr. "The fans down here really love their racing, and I can't wait to put on a show for them.”
“They’re going to see one hell of a race,” promised Todd Bodine, himself a former Truck Series champion. “It’s the least we can do for Andy and his staff. They deserve it, and the fans deserve it. If it were up to me, we’d race here every week.”
Sunday morning, as the first of nearly 30,000 fans began streaming through the gates, Hillenburg toured the speedway grounds, thanking spectators, drivers, team members and media for helping to bring Rockingham Speedway back. “Thanks for being here,”he said, over and over again. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”
Asked if he had any lingering concerns, he responded, “only one. I’m giving the command to start the engines later today, and I’m not sure I can do it without getting emotional. I’m scared I might break down and cry in front of all these people.”
Hillenburg came through Sunday, delivering the command, loud and clear. But as he began climbing the towering Rockingham grandstands, fans on all sides stood and cheered, roaring their approval in a spontaneous expression of gratitude and affection.
Andy Hillenburg may not have cried yesterday, but most of the rest of us did.


  1. Anonymous12:32 PM

    Great story, Dave. A great story of a dream and dedication. Congratulations to Andy and best wishes for continued success.

  2. Craig Witkowski12:33 PM

    We had #FillTheRock in 2012, next up is #RefillTheRock for 2013! As a 20+ year fan of NASCAR racing, I'm glad that The Rock is back, and very proud that Andy Hillenburg is the gentleman that got it done. Fans got great racing, competitors had a run on a historic track, and the local economy and the people here got a needed boost. He's got my vote for NASCAR Track Promoter of the Year!

  3. Brandon in TN12:48 PM

    I couldn't be there but watched it on tv. Man that was an awesome race. I loved watching the drivers manhandle those trucks after their tires fell off. There was action all over the track. I think it would be great to see Cup back there and those drivers working their tails off, but sadly I don't think we will ever see that again.

  4. Anonymous1:01 PM

    Great "Comeback Story of the Year" Congrats to Andy, what a classy guy!

  5. John Vass1:40 PM

    I teared up yesterday, and a little when I read this. What a great day we had.

  6. Moe Leadbeter2:58 PM

    Dave this is a great story and I'm not talkinh about your writing as much as I'm talking about the great story about Andy and all the hard work and didication of everyone of the believers that backed Andy. I still have a set of 6 tickets from a 1978 race that was snowed out on that cold Sunday in Febuary 1978 we stayed till Monday and it was raining like hell so we had to drive back to Maryland but I have a lot of great memories from The Rock. Thank's to all of you guys and Andy You Are The MAN !!!

  7. Schreib6:24 PM

    the first NASCAR race that i had ever watched was the 1989 AC Delco 500, Mark Martins first Cup win. I fell in love with Rockingham, and was more than a little upset when it had been removed from the schedule. As Canadian fans, I told my wife the next track I NEED to go see a race at is Rockingham. I wasnt able to make it this year,but im sure trying for next year. Awesome job, Mr. Hillenburg, we're on our way, and thanx for all youve done!

  8. Anonymous8:00 PM

    What a great story, thank you. I was there last in 1993. Family and job prevented me from going after that. Maybe sometime down the road I can go again. What a great day for everyone involved.

    Doug in NJ

  9. Moody,

    What a fine Sunday at the Rock. We sent 4 troops to the race and since we were stuck at home in CA, We lived it vicariously through them. We had a good group that came over for "The Rock Party I". Had the smoker taking good care of the butt from the wee hours, BBQ started a bit later to take care of the burgers and sausages, and plenty cold, bubbly, adult beverages to go around. Muted the TV and pumped the Sirius through the home theater. You guys do an amazing job covering a race. Its was a pleasure we won't soon forget and, we're looking forward to hosting "The Rock Party II" complete with a cover charge. Everyone has to have bought at least 1 troop a ticket. It was the guest's idea once we told them about the program. That's NASCAR racing right there! Way to go Andy!!!! Thank You!!!

    P.S. Thanks for that twitter hit answering my question about the crowd. You got the party here so pumped up!

  10. Dave,

    Great story. I live near Pgh, PA. I decided to take my stepson,age 12, on a racing weekend. We went to Zmax Dragstrip on saturday, and then Rockingham on sunday. Seeing the two facilities differences were awesome. Zmax was so 1st class, so over the top for the guests it was insane. Rockingham, so old, but Andy has spend so much $$ to make it so "cool old". We laughed as we pee'd in super high class urinals at Zmax, and literally into a concrete floor trough at Rockingham. As you've said, The Rock will never hold a Sprint cup event again, but it should be able to continue with Trucks and maybe even Nationwide. I hope people continue to attend for other events and as soon as next years events are announced I will be getting my tickets! And, to tell you the truth next years trip will have two days at the Rock and I think we may skip Zmax. I've seen the 4 wide, cool, but a gimmick. The mostly restored Rock mists the eyes. I was never there in its heyday, but I remember watching on TV and thought it was very cool. Now that I have been there, it is really cool. I am addicted to Cheerwine now, and we enjoyed the "free fries and dogs" they gave us on the way out. Great show today, I did laugh when at around 6:15 you said my god..just realized other than the news breaks we have not talked about the Stenhouse or Biffle's victories. Long post, had to blab. Thank you for cheerleading for the Rock, and of course other tracks too. Just, tracks like The Rock need a little more help as they lack multimillion dollar advertising budgets.


  11. Jay Warren (North Carolina)12:43 AM

    Used to go to the Rock for both the spring and fall races; saw both the last Cup Races for each. I am glad the re-grand opening was a success and hope to see it continue.
    Dave, I do agree to a point that The Rock's attendance was falling off due to over-saturation in our area, but I do think the time of the year the races were held also played a role. I have froze my butt off more than one weekend in the grand stands and always brought the heavy duty sleeping bag, as we camped Fri-Sun.
    I was one of those that was very upset when they took both dates. I could sorta go along with taking away one, but it really gripped my gizzard when they took both. I think Andy made some valid points when he mentioned the lack of enthusiasm and the amount of effort it took to promote The Rock.
    I could write far more than you'd care for me to about my memories of Rockingham but I'll save that for one of these days when I can finally have my call make it to the show.

    Rock on Andy :o).