This past weekend, NASCAR racing returned to Rockingham Speedway for the first time since 2004 and I was there for the main event. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series raced at 'The Rock' (formerly known as North Carolina Motor Speedway) on Saturday afternoon after current track owner Andy Hillenburg bought and refurbished the historic 1 mile speedway in the southern Piedmont of NC.
I started going to professional races run by various North American racing series starting in 1993-94. I was just out of high school so local stuff was all I could afford. My first experience was the final NASCAR Busch Series race at Orange County Speedway won by Hermie Sadler, a 3/8 mile short track north of Durham. Next, some friends took me down to Rockingham for my first NASCAR speedway race, I remember Mark Martin was the winner of the Busch Series race that year. Naturally, I was getting interested in speedway racing so I got back to Rockingham a few more times to see the Cup Series race there in the February 500 miler the weekend following Daytona. I remember Jeff Gordon winning one of them in his DuPont rainbow car. That was the last time I ever visited Rockingham Speedway - than it closed down after 2004 when the new track owners moved their Cup race date to a new speedway elsewhere in the US.
Since Andy purchased the track at auction in 2007 from SMI, the same company that owns Charlotte Motor Speedway, I followed his progress with the redevelopment of the track. He got the ARCA Series back there for races in 2008-2011 than it was announced the NASCAR Trucks were coming in 2012. I haven't been to a NASCAR race since 1997 aside from a couple Coke 600 Pole Nights several years ago so I figured I had to support Andy and his dream of bringing NASCAR back to 'The Rock'.
A friend and I made our way down to Rockingham on Saturday morning and into the track ahead of the green flag. It was the same old speedway I remember from the 90's other than the backstretch grandstands were gone, there was less signage around the track and it appeared overall a bit cleaner (okay, except for the public bathrooms - they were still nasty). Seating is tight at Rockingham and considering a lot of race fans are not lean runners, I would have thought they could have renumbered the seats to make them a little wider. It was definitely cramp to say the least in the front stretch bleachers. The chicken bone seats down at the bottom actually looked appealing. I would also say the fans overall were a bit less rowdy and scary than I recall from the old days at 'The Rock' (or maybe they were just in the cheap seats outside turn 1-2).
The pre-race show and 200 mile race went off fairly clean and organized. In the end, I was surprised just how clean the race was with very little crashing or incidents. Rockingham, a banked speedway with elevation changes in the track generally leads to lots of tire degradation (err, F1 term) - tire wear, short tempers followed by crashing. Being that the truck series is often full of young, hot head drivers short of experience, I assumed it would translate to plenty of carnage on track. That didn't happen - matter of fact, the only crash I saw was when NASCAR veteran and Truck Series champion Todd Bodine smacked the wall on his own early in the race.
So the actual racing was decent. Brazilian open-wheel (F1 believe it or not) refugee Nelson Piquet Jr. led well over the first half of the race, starting from the pole. Most of the race ran green so there was plenty of lapped traffic on the 1 mile speedway for Piquet and other leaders to contend with. In the end, Piquet got a black flag penalty for speeding on pit road which allowed Cup Series regular Kasey Kahne to come from a last place start to win the race. I didn't realize it at the time but this was only Kahne's 5th Truck Series start, he has now won 4 of the 5. Looking back at my photos reminds me this is the first time I've seen in person a NASCAR winner do donuts after taking the win. Another NASCAR tradition that was started in CART/IndyCar by Alex Zanardi during his Championship years at Ganassi Racing in the mid 90's.
A couple more interesting open-wheel notes about these guys...Before Kasey became a NASCAR star, he was groomed by Ford Motor Company to be an open-wheel driver competing for them in various development series with the goal of being a CART/IndyCar star. After the two series split and open-wheel racing declined, Kasey switched to NASCAR without Ford's blessing and ended up driving Dodges. I know Ford sued him but I don't recall the outcome. Coming from sprint cars, Outlaws and Atlantics, his career took the path of Jeff Gordon and the late Kenny Irwin Jr.
Nelson Piquet Jr is the son of Nelson Piquet who won 3 Formula 1 championships in the 80's. Piquet Jr made it into F1 as a driver for the Renault team and was teammate to my favorite driver, two time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso. During his rookie season, he crashed during the Singapore GP while Alonso was leading. The yellow flag allowed Alonso to save fuel and go on to win the race. After losing his ride in late 2009, Piquet admitted he crashed on purpose under pressure from his team boss at Renault to help Alonso win. This certainly went down as one of the biggest scandals in F1 for the past couple decades and is why Piquet is racing NASCAR trucks in America vs. open wheelers in Europe. Maybe not for actually intentionally crashing but for snitching on his team after being sacked. Regardless of the past, it was a pleasure to meet Nelson at Rockingham following a tough day when he was fast enough to have won his first NASCAR race.
Andy Hillenburg is an experienced racer winning an ARCA Championship and also with experience racing in the NASCAR Cup, Busch and Truck Series. He also qualified for and started the 2000 IndyCar Indianapolis 500 which was the year I attended. I met Andy on Community Day at the track, got an autograph and photo with him. I remember congratulating him on making the race and wishing him luck from one NC guy to another. He didn't finish the race but stayed out of trouble until his car broke and was credited with 28th place.
It was also a pleasure to get back to the Rock for some good old fashioned NASCAR racing at a speedway whose garages were closed too soon. Cheers to Andy for bringing the place back to life for NC race fans to enjoy.