Rockingham moves a step closer to returning to the NASCAR fold
by Mike Neff
Word this past week that Rockingham Speedway is taking a step toward increased driver safety has sparked interest that the historic track could be moving a little closer to having NASCAR national touring series races return. The management of the facility has announced that SAFER barriers will be installed in two phases by the end of the year, ultimately covering the turns and the inside wall on the backstretch. Whatever the reason for the improvements to the facility, it is a very positive step for the track and any drivers who will compete there.
Rockingham Speedway is a one-mile track with high-banked corners that hosted NASCAR events from 1965-2004. Its high banking makes for high speeds that can translate into dangerous situations for drivers making contact with walls that are made of concrete or metal. This past spring, Brian Keselowski had a big wreck during the USAR Pro Cup race when a tire blew heading into Turn 1 — the fastest portion of the track. Whether they get a Nationwide and/or Truck race, putting SAFER barriers on the walls is a terrific move for the safety of anyone competing at the facility.
Rockingham has been working to return to national prominence since it reopened in 2008 with a much-ballyhooed ARCA race featuring Ken Schrader and Joey Logano. A huge crowd — in ARCA terms — filled the stands to celebrate the return of active racing to The Rock. Since then, track owner Andy Hillenberg and his group have hosted several races for the benefit of fans in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, from regional to national touring series. However, they have not been able to secure a NASCAR touring series date in any of its top three series. One of the big stumbling blocks has been the lack of SAFER barriers, which are required by NASCAR’s sanctioning body for a national touring division race.
The second step, and by far the bigger stumbling block for Rockingham to get back on the NASCAR national schedule, is the testing ban at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks. The niche that Rockingham has established for itself is that it’s a testing destination for the locally-based NASCAR teams. Between the big track and “Little Rock” — the Martinsville-esque half-mile also on the grounds — there is testing taking place at Rockingham hundreds of days a year. This testing has been the lifeblood of the track since the ban was implemented. Foregoing all of that testing is going to be a major revenue hit for the facility that will most likely be too big of a pill to swallow. Provided an agreement can be worked out where teams can still test at Little Rock, the move might make sense for Hillenberg.
The ultimate question for Rockingham is whether the fans are going to come out and support the track. We constantly hear complaints that NASCAR has turned its back on the shorter, local tracks — particularly in the Southeast — but when push comes to shove, the fans have not shown up when the opportunity has been presented. The UARA/Pro Cup doubleheader that was held at Rockingham earlier this year saw roughly 500 people in the stands. Another track, Nashville Superspeedway, has shut down because crowds continued to shrink after the initial boost from the opening of the track. North Wilkesboro Speedway was reopened and, while crowds were continuing to grow with each event that took place, the stands were far from full. In order for these tracks to survive, thrive and ultimately regain a position on the NASCAR touring schedules, the fans must support them with their attendance.
Putting on a Truck or Nationwide Series event is a major financial commitment for a racetrack. The overhead on race day is far greater than the kind of expense involved with hosting a UARA race. From a safety perspective, there isn’t much difference because the safety provided to competitors during a race is the same no matter the series; however, the additional financial obligation is far greater. More ushers, concessions workers, traffic directors, law enforcement officers, supplies and myriad other things are required to stage an elite-level event. On top of those expenditures, there are sanctioning fees that have to be paid to NASCAR, which balloon into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. When considering all of the expense involved — piled on top of the revenue that will be lost by not having testing at the big track — it is easy to see what a gamble it is for Rockingham to host a Truck or Nationwide race.
Fans have paid lip service for some time to the lack of respect for history and tradition NASCAR has shown over the last 15 years. As the economic recovery has struggled to take shape and tracks have been forced to allow national touring events leave their facilities, it has come to the point where the opportunity is presenting itself for the race fans to put up or shut up. If Rockingham chooses to put on a Truck or Nationwide race in the near future it will be up to the fans to prove to NASCAR the track’s worth by showing up in strong numbers for years — not just on opening day.
Fans can honestly affect the future NASCAR schedules by showing support for a small-market track. If the fans fail to show up for a race like that at Rockingham, they have no one but themselves to blame when tracks lose dates to shiny, newer facilities in bigger markets.