NASCAR drivers are going to roll once again at The Rock!
The exciting news became official Wednesday afternoon during a press conference at Rockingham Speedway, formerly known as N.C. Motor Speedway. Track owner Andy Hillenburg and N.C. Governor Bev Perdue made the announcement that NASCARs Camping World Series truck race will be run at the one-mile track in the Sandhills next April.
NASCARs return, after abandoning the speedway in 2004, stirred warm, wonderful memories among me and others who loved the track, the area and its people.
My favorite recollections?
Its a long list. Too long to recount them all. So Ill limit it to one: The 1965 American 500, the inaugural event at the raceway located near Rockingham in the Sandhills of Richmond County.
It was unseasonably hot on Halloween Day 46 years ago when an estimated 35,000 fans overflowed the facility. The temperature soared to the high 90s.
There were dozens of questions about what was going to happen. Foremost of these: Would the drivers hold up physically on the tight, but fast layout? Would engines and tires take the punishment tracing to the torrid temperature? Would the asphalt racing surface break apart?
The answers were yes, yes and no.
Fatigue forced several drivers to seek relief help. Engine and tire failures abounded, some leading to crashes. But the pavement proved sound.
Only 19 of 43 starters were running at the finish.
Among them, and amazingly taking the checkered flag, was the legendary Curtis Turner, providing a treat sweeter than candy for adoring fans.
Turner seemed the unlikeliest entrant to last 500 miles on that hellishly hot Halloween Day. He was 41 and woefully out of shape. And, remember, there was no air conditioning or power-steering for the drivers in those days.
Plus, the storied Virginian had just become free from a lifetime ban placed on him by NASCAR founder and president Big Bill France. Turners punishement was imposed in 1961 for his attempt to organize the drivers and affiliate them with Jimmy Hoffas Teamsters Union.
Because attendance was lagging in 65 at some tracks, France consented to the pleas of promoters and gave Turner a reprieve, knowing the aggressive, exciting driver would be an instant draw.
Turners ride for Rockinghams 500-miler was a second Wood Brothers Ford, No. 41. Marvin Panch, the teams regular driver, was in No. 21.
Turner qualified fourth behind pole winner Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and David Pearson. Pettys pole winning speed in a Plymouth was 116.260 mph.
Johnson, Turner, Panch, Bobby Isaac and Jim Paschal all took turns in the lead. Finally, as the race wore on and on and on only Turner and Cale Yarborough were on the lead lap.
Yarborough, driving a Ford fielded by Banjo Matthews, led Laps 439-473. When Cale pitted on the 474th lap, Turner surged ahead and led the rest of the way, taking the checkered flag 11 seconds ahead of Yarborough.
The fans howled like All Hallows Eve banshees in delight.
Turners winning time was clocked at 4 hours, 54 minutes and 17 seconds. His average speed was 101.942 mph.
Some observers speculated that the time was fudged by officials in order to avoid the embarrassment of having a 500-mile race with an average speed under 100 mph.
Whatever, the fans were happy with the show at any speed.
In Victory Lane, the Wood Brothers, Glen and Leonard, smiled broadly while sharing accolades with Turner, his face blackened with grime and his uniform soaked in sweat.
The victor was surprisingly low key, but he did express a sense of vindication. I feel like I just got out of prison, he said with a wry smile.
Runnerup Yarborough emerged from his car red-faced from the heat.
The South Carolinian had the line of that memorable scorching Sabbath so long ago.
Asked what he thought of the new track and the race, a huffing, puffing Yarborough said: The track is fine, but 500 miles is too long for it. This race was just like a baseball game between towns on Sunday back home in Timmonsville, you start at dinner time (lunch) and quit at dark.
Now, thankfully, new memories await another eras drivers and fans when NASCAR rolls again at The Rock.