Hurray for Andy Hillenburg
Thursday, Apr. 19, 2012
If it was up to me and it isn't the honor of being named NASCAR's track promoter of the year already would be decided.
Never mind that the 2012 racing season for the sanctioning body's various divisions barely has begun.
The recognition would go to Andy Hillenburg, owner and promoter at Rockingham Speedway, the track formerly named N.C. Motor Speedway.
What Hillenburg and his small staff achieved Sunday at the speedway in the Sandhills is beyond remarkable.
Not only did they make NASCAR's return to Rockingham after an absence of eight years a success, but rousingly so.
A near-capacity crowd estimated at 27,500 attended the Good Sam 200, a Camping World Truck Series event. That's about twice the number most pundits, me included, had predicted would show up.
I sensed something very special was in the making as I took a favored old rural "back way" through rolling farmlands and forests to the track. It's a route I had driven time and again while annually covering major 500s and 300s at the Richmond County track, starting with its inaugural race in 1965.
Nearing the speedway, I saw hundreds of campers parked amid the long-leaf pines adjacent to U.S. 1, the major highway that skirts the track. The aroma of frying bacon and eggs wafted thick in the air.
The N.C. Highway Patrol was directing heavy traffic.
For a moment I imagined I somehow had been transported back to the track's glory days of the 1970s, '80s and '90s when Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Buddy Baker and local hero Benny Parsons battled there.
This ended eight years ago when the treasured Cup Series dates assigned to the track nicknamed "The Rock" were given to other newer, bigger venues far away.
The speedway was shuttered, seemingly abandoned forever to sit forlornly among the pines, its racing surface and garage area covered by blowing sand.
Fans who enjoyed the track with great sight-lines, a homey feel and the sensation of being up close to the action were saddened and more than a bit angry. Residents of Richmond County felt shock and were stunned at being shunned so rudely.
Enter Andy Hillenburg, bidding for the property.
His judgment fell into question.
Why, the place's future as a speedway looked beyond bleak.
Andy was undaunted. He posted the winning bid and the 1-mile race track and all its facilities became his in 2007.
The gentlemanly, personable Hillenburg had proven himself as a driver. He was the 1995 ARCA champion. He had won ARCA 200s at Daytona International Speedway in '95 and again in '97. He is among a very limited number of drivers who have competed in both the Indianapolis and Daytona 500s.
After retiring as a driver, he successfully founded Fast Track High Performance Driving School.
But could he bring racing back to The Rock?
Hillenburg didn't rush his restoration of the place he renamed Rockingham Speedway. Same in a low key approach to NASCAR. He promoted a couple of ARCA events and some minor league races for mostly younger drivers.
All the while, touches were being added to make the track more attractive to NASCAR.
Last fall the word came!
NASCAR had awarded a dateApril 15for its highly-competitive Truck Series to run at Rockingham.
Would it work?
I have been writing about motorsports for 55 years and I rate the response as remarkable.
Fans arrived in droves.
So did some veteran NASCAR competitors. Team owner Richard Childress was there to watch his grandson Ty Dillon race. Chocolate Myers, gasman on the Childress crew that fielded Dale Earnhardt in six of his seven Cup Series championships, walked through the garage area and renewed old acquaintances. Donnie Allison waved the green flag. There were others.
"It almost seems as if we never left this place," said Myers, "and I wish we hadn't."
The media center was filled with journalists who chose to cover the rebirth of The Rock over a Cup Series race a few hours earlier in Texas. "In these parts, it's a bigger story," said one.
As winner Kasey Kahne completed his victor's interview, a beaming Hillenburg looked on.
"I'm almost at a loss for words about how well things went," he said with a soft smile. "To say I'm grateful and pleased is an understatement."
What can't be understated is this:
NASCAR must seriously consider also awarding Rockingham Speedway a Nationwide Series date starting in 2013. A Nationwide/Camping World weekend doubleheader almost certainly would fill the place.
Meanwhile, three cheers for the courage, imagination and dedication of Andy Hillenburg!