The $195 million facility is designed to give racing fans a taste of what the sport was like long ago.
As the Charlotte Observer wrote, “the opening of the 150,000 square-foot Hall of Fame comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which has struggled in recent years to maintain the successes and growth of the past two decades. Attendance is down, as are television ratings, a trend officials hope the museum will help reverse by giving young fans a taste – and old fans a reminder – of the sport’s colorful roots.”
You don’t need a big museum to do that. It’s right here in Richmond County. People in Charlotte can hop in their car and see racing this weekend at Rockingham Speedway.
For the price of a ticket to see static displays of racing’s past, you can see the past and the future in action at Rockingham Speedway.
You see the past in the 1-mile oval track which was built by Harold Brasington and Bill Land. Attorney Elsie Webb assembled a group of backers. Brasington and Land also sold shares to the locals for $1 per share, and at one time had about 1,000 shareholders.
It opened as the North Carolina Motor Speedway in October 1965.
The first American 500 was a 500 mile NASCAR Grand National Series race won by Curtis Turner at an average speed of 101.9 miles per hour. There were 35,000 people in the stands to watch and the winner’s purse was $13,090. Both are tiny numbers by today’s standards, but this is early NASCAR.
The American 500 was the 54th of 55 races in the 1965 season, which included NASCAR legends including Cale Yarborough (who finished second), Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett (who would go on to win the championship), Buddy Baker, David Pearson and Junior Johnson
Eleven years later, a rookie named Bill Elliott was in the field at Rockingham. He wasn’t a household name then, but today he is known as Million Dollar Bill” or “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.” He made up for a bad finish in Rockingham in 1976 by making another 48 starts at the track, and led 1,231 laps en route to four wins, including his last win career win in 2003.
You don’t have to see a picture of Bill Elliott in a museum this weekend. You can see the flesh and bones person. He’s the honorary starter for Saturday’s race.
And for those who may have bypassed racing at the Rock since NASCAR left because they’ve never heard some of the names on the ARCA and the USA Racing Pro Cup series rosters, remember probably nobody knew Bill Elliott either in 1976.
Rockingham wasn’t the only victim of NASCAR’s drive to get bigger and better. The list of inactive NASCAR tracks has more than 140 names on it. Most were dirt tracks, and many were small. Some only ran NASCAR for a year. A few remain active for some type of racing, but some are now parking lots or shopping centers.
In its drive to get bigger and bigger, NASCAR moved away from smaller towns and smaller tracks for big cities. But Rockingham never gave up on racing. We can thank Andy Hillenburg for that. He wouldn’t let Rockingham’s racing history die.
It is good that racing fans now have a hall of fame. It is better that racing fans still have an active link to what racing was like sitting at a speedway in Richmond County.