Do You Really Want Racing at
October 2009 Dale Wilkerson
Many race fans in the south have said “I wish there were still races at Rockingham.”
There was a race at The Rock this past Sunday. It was filled with lead changes, side-by-side battles, drivers on the edge of control, pit crews busting off quick stops, and a champion was crowned.
23-year old Justin Lofton joined Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Randy LaJoie and the late Dale Earnhardt by winning a national touring series championship at the Rockingham Raceway, while Parker Klingerman, the driver who finished a scant five points behind him, added his name to the large hunk of granite out in front, of the speedway, that has the names of race winners engraved on its surface.
All of this took place at a track that race fans have said they love and they would do anything to get it back on the NASCAR schedule.
As I looked into the grandstands Sunday afternoon, I thought to myself, “Where are you?”
The grandstands at The Rock looked eerily like those of the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California during many of the races held there. Empty.
Race fans, Andy Hillenburg and his staff have answered the call of race fans in the Carolinas by reopening the famed one-mile oval.
Knowing the track is being treated as a brand new facility, Hillenburg knows that his track has to show it deserves race dates.
As fans who have said the powers that be in NASCAR have been forgetting their roots by pulling dates from Darlington, Hickory, North Wilkesboro, South Boston, Myrtle Beach, and Rockingham, it is our obligation to attend events at any of these tracks when we have the opportunity.
No, the ARCA Series does not have names like Johnson, Busch, Edwards, Stewart, and Martin. But at Rockingham last Sunday, these names from NASCAR were represented; Childress, Elliott, Finch, Harvick, Hylton, Grissom, Schrader, Rosch, Penske, and LaJoie.
The first half of the race was ran almost caution free. The first yellow flag did not fly until lap 72. And even with the torrid pace of the race leaders, 18 cars were still battling on the lead lap. In those first 72 laps, there were five lead changes at the line, several more occurred on track but official lead changes are only counted at the start-finish line.
Nine-time ARCA Champion Frank Kimmel battled side-by-side with Venturini Motorsports driver Steve Arpin. This car is fielded by the same team that put Joey Logano into the Rockingham Winner’s Circle during the return of ARCA racing to Rockingham in May 2008. Kimmel drove high and low looking for a way around Arpin before finally pulling clear for the race lead.
17 year-old Casey Roderick, driving a car entered by Bill Elliott and James Finch, dazzled the crowd. He fell back into the pack early on, but charged through the field to take the lead. And oh by the way, this was his first ever ARCA race. Roderick finished second, a few car lengths behind the Penske-powered Dodge of Klingerman and few ahead of the Toyota of Lofton.
The end of the race was full of suspense as Klingerman hoped he could put enough cars between his and Lofton’s to win the championship. Lofton knew he needed to stay close to Klingerman and even made a bold attempt to get by Roderick. As good as the closing laps were, the middle stages of the race were the best.
After the first caution, the racing intensified, as three and four wide passes where taking place all over the track. Five cars battled for the top spot, separated by only a few car lengths. As I stood on the roof of the media center, I felt like I was attending a three ring circus. The battle for the lead was great, but so were the battles throughout the field. NASCAR Veteran Ken Schrader was getting his car dialed in while Kyle Grissom and Cory LaJoie followed in the tire-tracks of the fathers, former Nationwide Series Champions Steve Grissom and Randy LaJoie. And then there was James Hylton.
The first big time race car driver I ever met was James Hylton. His shop is located in my hometown of Inman, SC. My father took me to Hylton’s shop when I was in the first grade and I remember listening to the radio broadcast when Hylton won at Talladega. I was trying to keep an eye on all of them, Hylton, the young guys, Schrader and the battle up front when I caught a glimpse of a car spinning in turn two.
I didn’t catch the number on that car and I saw a couple more cars that drove by him, including the red #48 of Hylton. Suddenly, Hylton was rear ended. His Ford slammed the inside wall and a fire broke out. The rescue crews responded almost instantly but the flames grew. One of the fire trucks blocked my view so I couldn’t see if James had gotten out of the car. The race was red-flagged and shortly after the PA-man announced that Hylton was awake and alert.
A big sigh of relief went up from those of us that were in attendance. Race fans respond just like the spectators at a circus when something goes wrong. We gasp in the shock of the moment, we hope the worst has not happened before us, we pray for the best outcome, and then we are relieved and thankful when we hear the all-clear.
The American 200 was filled with everything that makes a great automobile race. Fast cars, side-by-side racing, breathtaking passes, lighting fast pit stops, and to borrow a line from the Wide World of Sports, it had both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. This race had it all, except for one thing; fans in the stands.
The folks from the ARCA Series moved their season ending race from their home track in Toledo, Ohio to one in our back yard at Rockingham. The ARCA folks respect the race fans of the Carolina’s enough to bring racing back to one of the most beloved tracks in the country.
Hillenburg and his staff have made attending a race affordable. Hillenburg heard the cries of race fans that said “We want racing back at The Rock” and he answered by purchasing the Rockingham facility and breathing life back into this forgotten track.
Now, for we the race fans of the Carolinas, it is time for us to remove this track from the forgotten list and back to the must attend list.
As NASCAR contested two races in-front of empty seats in California this past weekend, we had a chance to say, come back to The Rock. But with the empty seats at Rockingham we said to NASCAR we just don’t care.
Folks, the ARCA Series has promised that they will return to Rockingham next year. If you really want to see NASCAR return in some form to Rockingham one day, you need to order tickets ASAP for next year’s events. Oh, do you need that phone number?
The number to dial is 910-205-8800. Do you need a Christmas gift idea? Have their stockings rocking with race tickets to Rockingham. Hey, that sounds pretty good doesn’t it?