The steps leading to NASCAR’s history-making return to Rockingham saw a team effort evolve among government officials in Richmond County and the City of Rockingham.
The Sept. 7 announcement that NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is coming to the Rockingham Speedway in April 2012 came only after months and months of behind-the-scenes work.
Heavily involved in much of the planning and efforts to bring NASCAR back, County Manager Rick Sago and Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin said none of this could have happened without the support of the county commissioners.
The planning and conversations that went into the back-on-track coup reach back more than 12 months.
“Rockingham Speedway owner Andy Hillenburg started having conversations with NASCAR over a year ago,” said McLaurin. “Rick, (Rockingham City Manager Monty Crump) and I went down to Darlington and met with Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR. He wouldn’t commit but we had a good conversation. In late July, they gave Andy a clear message. They wrote a letter saying, ‘In order to host NASCAR, here’s what needs to happen.’”
Among the list of things that would need improvement before NASCAR could return were security, scoring electronics and SAFER barriers at all four turns and inside the backstretch wall. NASCAR requires racetracks to have the SAFER barriers in place before they can host races.
When Hillenburg came to the city and county for support, the conversation turned to the state. The final dollar figure needed for all the upgrades was estimated at around $1 million. According to area officials, after tireless efforts in planning, the county was able to use $250,000 of Economic Development funds for the track, and $450,000 was contributed by two private donors who wish to remain anonymous. The Speedway will pay about $250,000 towards the upgrades as well.
“The private donors see the big picture of the economic impact of bringing NASCAR back to Richmond County,” said McLaurin.
“The truck race’s success is key to the entire area’s success and it’s obvious people need to support it,” said Sago. “The county commissioners saw the value of this to our community. We see this as an economic incentive.”
Sago made it clear that the funds being used for upgrades at “The Rock” are not coming out of property taxes — the county’s Economic Development fund is supported by other revenue sources. Also, these funds will be paid to the track over the course of several years, instead of a lump sum.
“That’s what the money is there for,” said McLaurin. “This gives us a chance to be back in the spotlight. It’s an opportunity for two governments and elected officials to bring this back to the county. Andy needed our help. We have nothing but pledged our support to him. We had our chance and we stepped up.”
“Everyone needs to realize the hard work and cooperation that went into this,” said Sago. “It shows what we can do when we work together. You don’t see this in every county. It’s been a wonderful partnership and it’s been able to make something positive happen. I’m proud of that. The state has given us encouragement and support, as well as made much needed highway improvements. The widening of U.S. 1 will help with traffic.”
“The county commissioners were key to this happening,” said McLaurin. Sago added, “Without them, this couldn’t have happened. I can’t do anything without their support. It’s a cooperative effort. It’s all for the community and it pays off.”
There is plenty of racing history at The Rock, a fact recognized by the reporters whose main job is covering NASCAR.
“I love watching events on really technical tracks that are hard to drive, and Rockingham probably is among the top-five most difficult tracks to drive that NASCAR ever has raced on,” said SPEED Reporter Ray Dunlap. “I think that makes it really cool. There is a lot of heritage and history there. What will be even more interesting is that with the addition of the SAFER barriers, the track will lose a couple of feet of racing surface when there wasn’t enough room to begin with.
“Rockingham has so many characteristics similar to Darlington. So many drivers go there for the first time run their first laps and pull off the track and say, ‘Wow. Are you kidding me?’ There are some drivers in the Truck Series who have some experience at Rockingham and a few of the younger guys already have been there in the ARCA Racing Series, so we’ll have a mixture of guys who have been there and guys who haven’t ever seen the place. That should make for some great competition,” Dunlap said.
Management at the Speedway appreciates the behind-the-scenes work by local officials to lure NASCAR back to the track after an eight-year absence.
“We are extremely pleased to have the (series) return. Ticket sales have been going strongly, as well as suite sales,” said Robert Ingram, Speedway manager.
“We exceeded our goals last month and look forward to continued success. We want to thank the parties involved, from the citizens to officials in the city, at the county and at the state level. We appreciate the support and expect to put on a wonderful event for years to come,” Ingram said.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111 ext. 43, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.