|Hillenburg (R) with NASCAR's Mike Helton|
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.