Rockingham Speedway, a piece of NASCAR history lost for nearly a decade, roars back to life Sunday when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series makes its initial visit to North Carolina’s sand hills region.
Opened in 1965 – NASCAR’s fourth paved track measuring a mile or greater in length – Rockingham Speedway hosted 78 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events through 2004. The final race ranked as one of the track’s most exciting as Matt Kenseth held off Kasey Kahne’s furious last-lap, final-turn challenge to win by .010 seconds.
Appropriately, Kahne intends to be in the field for Sunday’s (SPEED, 1 p.m. ET) Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 Presented by Cheerwine.
Known upon completion as North Carolina Motor Speedway, the track was built by Harold Brasington and Bill Land. Brasington also built Darlington Raceway, which heralded NASCAR’s superspeedway era in 1950.
The track saw a succession of owners including the DeWitt family, Roger Penske, International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports. Its closure in 2004 coincided with transfer of the track’s remaining date to Texas Motor Speedway. Current owner and former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Andy Hillenburg purchased “The Rock” at auction in 2007.
This week’s race is the culmination of a five-year project by Hillenburg. Three ARCA races were held at the track in 2008-10 – two of them won by current NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitors Ty Dillon and Parker Kligerman.
“Kudos to Andy for being able to pull that off,” said Mark Martin, whose 13 victories – two NASCAR Sprint Cup, 11 NASCAR Nationwide – lead all drivers at Rockingham. “It’s cool to see them have the truck race there. Rockingham is just a ball to race on.”
Some Rockingham history:
· Curtis Turner won the track’s inaugural 500-mile race in October 1965 that took nearly five hours to complete. Turner and runner up Cale Yarborough were the only lead-lap finishers.
· Fifteen NASCAR Sprint Cup champions – all but two during the track’s existence – won races at Rockingham led by Richard Petty, who visited Victory Lane 11 times.
· Ten Rockingham winners are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame: drivers Petty, Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and David Pearson; car owners Junior Johnson, Bud Moore and Glen Wood and crew chief Dale Inman.
· Benny Parsons, whose car was owned by Rockingham promoter L.G. DeWitt, never was able to win at the track. Parsons, however, clinched the 1972 championship there on an afternoon where his Chevrolet literally was rebuilt after an early-race accident.
· Steve Park drove a Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet to victory at Rockingham in February 2001, the race following Dale Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500. It also marked the debut of Kevin Harvick with Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 team – which carried the No. 29 it bears today.
· Johnny Benson, the 2008 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, won his only NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Rockingham in 2002.
· For many years, the track’s fall race played host to the Unocal Pit Crew Challenge, an event that put names to faces of the sport’s over-the-wall crew members creating iconic names such as RCR’s “Flying Aces.” Its spirit continues with the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge to be held May 17 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.
Jamie McMurray solidly etched his name in Rockingham lore winning the track’s final four NASCAR Nationwide Series races in 2002-04. He did it with three owners – Clarence Brewer, James Finch and Todd Braun – and four different crew chiefs. In 2002 McMurray led just the final two laps when the two leaders crashed in front of him. The next year he led 192 of 197 laps.
“I never went there with the mindset that I would be the driver to beat,” said McMurray, who won both Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 for his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet team in 2010. “But even when I was having a bad year, we’d get a good finish (at Rockingham) and it would be a big confidence builder.”
McMurray is anxious to see Sunday’s race – if only on television. “Whether you are a crew member or driver, we’re all looking forward to it,” said McMurray, who finished third behind Kenseth and Kahne in Rockingham’s final race. “It’s one of the cooler tickets to buy. I didn’t think it would ever come back.”
Not everyone participating this weekend will be a Rockingham rookie – far from it. At least seven competitors have raced the track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and/or NASCAR Nationwide Series. Todd Bodine, a two-time NASCAR Camping World Series champion, won two NASCAR Nationwide events, most recently in 2001. Another half-dozen drivers were in the fields for the track’s past ARCA races.
“Both my wins were very special and memorable to me,” said Bodine. “The first win (in 1995) was a three-wide, photo finish. I think I won that race by about six inches.”
Bodine and his brothers Geoff and Brett each have a NASCAR Nationwide victory at “The Rock” – a NASCAR rarity. “It’s really special for our family,” he said.
Bodine doesn’t expect the racing to be any different than it was nearly a decade ago. The track surface is rough, weathered and hard on tires. Patience likely will be a virtue, although fans can expect to see two and three-wide racing most of the afternoon.
“After about five laps there is no grip,” he said. “You’ll really have to have a truck that’s just well balanced. A lot of self-control goes into it. The last thing you want to do is over-drive it.”