Rockingham Speedway (Johnsonverse)
Rockingham Speedway, formerly known as North Carolina Motor Speedway until 1996 and simply North Carolina Speedway until 2007, is a racetrack located near Rockingham, North Carolina. It is affectionately known as "The Rock" and hosts NASCAR Panasonic Cup Series, Busch Grand National Series, SuperTruck Series presented by Camping World, and ARCA races, among others.
The track opened as a flat, one-mile oval on October 31, 1965. In 1969, the track was extensively reconfigured to a high-banked, D-shaped oval just over one mile in length. In 1997, North Carolina Motor Speedway merged with Penske Motorsports, and was renamed to simply North Carolina Speedway. Shortly thereafter, the infield was reconfigured, and competition on the infield road course, mostly by the SCCA, was discontinued. Currently, the track is home to the Fast Track High Performance Driving School. The track has also been used often for television and movie filming. The track reopened in 2014 to much success.
Rockingham Speedway, then known as North Carolina Motor Speedway, was the project of Harold Brasington and Bill Land. Brasington, a land developer, also built NASCAR's first superspeedway, Darlington Raceway, in 1950. Land owned the property, which is settled in the sandhills of North Carolina, and together, they set out to find funding. They went to local lawyer Elsie Webb who assembled a group of backers. The duo also sold shares to the locals for $1 per share, and at one time had about 1,000 shareholders.
The speedway was built as a one-mile oval with flat turns. North Carolina Motor Speedway opened on October 31, 1965, holding its first race on the same day. The American 500 was a 500-lap, 500-mile NASCAR Grand National Series race won by Curtis Turner at an average speed of 101.942 miles per hour. Turner dominated the race, which was attended by 35,000 people, leading 239 laps and winning by 11 seconds. The winner's purse was $13,090 ($88,434.05 adjusted for inflation). The American 500 was the 54th of 55 races in the 1965 season, which included NASCAR legends Cale Yarborough (who finished second), Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett (who would go on to win the championship), Buddy Baker, David Pearson, and Junior Johnson. Only 19 of the 43 cars were running at the end of the race. The speedway held two Grand National races the next year, the Peach Blossom 500, and The American 500. The Peach Blossom 500 would change names multiple times, usually using the name Carolina 500, before ending as the Subway 400. The American 500 would also change names multiple times as well, ending as the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400. The first race was typically held in early March or late February, and the second race was held in late October. In 1967 and 1968 the Carolina 500 was run in June. The speedway held two Grand National Series races every year until 2004.
As part of the acquisition of the Penske Speedways in 1999, the Speedway was sold to [International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and in 2004, one of its two Cup races (the crucial fall race, often the penultimate date on the schedule) was transferred to ISC's California Speedway. The change was made after sagging attendance at Rockingham Speedway. It left the track with only one date, in late February, a highly unpopular date for spectators due to the commonly unpredictable weather. That date was moved up from the traditional early spring date in 1992 when Richmond International Raceway wanted a later date than the traditional post-Daytona date because of two postponements in the late 1980s caused by snow. Rumors persisted that the track's lone remaining date was also in jeopardy, as several new tracks in larger, warm-weather markets coveted the date, which was the first race following the Daytona 500, and in 2002 and 2004, Fox's first race of the season.
Despite wide speculation that the race was in its final year, it failed to sell out, falling nearly 10,000 short of the 60,000 capacity. The track indeed hosted its final race, the 2004 Subway 400, on February 22, 2004. In that last race, Matt Kenseth held off rookie Kasey Kahne on the last lap to win by only 0.010 seconds. This finish was one of the closest in NASCAR history, and is viewed by many fans as one of the best finishes that season. It is also known for a wild crash early in the race in which Carl Long flipped wildly down the backstretch.
In the wake of the Ferko lawsuit (in which a shareholder sued NASCAR, alleging a failed promise to schedule a race to a competing track), and the sagging attendance, the track's state of affairs was sharply altered. In the settlement, ISC sold Rockingham Speedway to Speedway Motorsports (SMI), and the track's lone remaining race was "transferred" to Texas Motor Speedway. Some NASCAR fans saw things differently, however, because it was Darlington Raceway's prestigious Southern 500 removed from the schedule for the second race in Texas, and the date for The Rock was sent to Phoenix International Raceway. SMI agreed to host no NASCAR events at the track while it was under their ownership. Upon its exit from the NASCAR circuit, The Rock joined such facilities as Ontario Motor Speedway, Riverside International Raceway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, Texas World Speedway, and Music City Motorplex as tracks removed from the circuit.
The Rockingham track was often praised for good racing, including 37 official lead changes in one race in 1981, and for having great sightlines for spectators. However, the facility made limited infrastructure reinvestments over the years while being owned by the DeWitt family, and seemed to lag behind other facilities which continually modernized and updated their business plans, especially after it was sold to pay off estate taxes owed by the DeWitt and Wilson families which had owned the track.
Speedway Motorsports put the track up for auction on October 2, 2007.
ARCA RE/MAX Series Series car owner and former driver Andy Hillenburg, who owns Fast Track High Performance Driving School, paid $4.4 million for the track. Just hours after closing the deal for the sale, he called some sanctioning bodies to arrange dates for his new circuit.
A 500-kilometer ARCA RE/MAX Series race took place during the weekend of May 3–4, 2008, featuring two rounds of qualifying and practice on Saturday and the Carolina 500 on Sunday. It was the richest race on the 2008 ARCA schedule and featured a starting field of fifty cars. Up and coming NASCAR star Joey Logano won the race at 17 years 346 days, the youngest to win a major race at the track, by passing Ken Schrader, who was making his 53rd start (39 NSCS, 13 NNS) at the track, after a caution. Logano dominated the 500-kilometer affair, winning the pole, leading the most laps, and passing Schrader with five laps remaining to win the track's return to major racing with Bill Venturini's Chevrolet. The 500k distance was not held again for ARCA, as ARCA had a pair of 200|mi|km races in 2009 at the track. Rockingham lost one race in 2010, but will still hold the season ending American 200. For 2011, ARCA left and was replaced by the UARA and CARS series for the two races.
The road course has been restored, and in December 2007, testing on the road course commenced. The road course's first week of racing was on January 5–6, 2008, featuring Legends Cars, Bandolero, and Thunder Roadsters.
A 150-lap street stock race, the Polar Bear 150, was held on January 1, 2009, and the event has since become an annual race. Street stock is generally the entry-level class of racing at most short tracks, become an annual race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered a pair of cars for the race, one for his car chief at Hendrick Motorsports and another for an Earnhardt Ganassi Racing mechanic who decided to race in the event. His brother-in-law, Jimmy Elledge (crew chief for Scott Speed in the Sprint Cup) also drove in the race. The race was moved for the 2010-11 offseason to Thanksgiving weekend, and in November 2010, Kurt Busch drove in the street stock race, debuting his new number (#22). The Frank Kimmel Street Stocks did not race the Polar Bear 150 in 2012.
Starting in 2008, Rockingham has held the ARCA Racing Series presented by RE/MAX and Menards season ending race, dubbed the American 200. This has been the premier event at Rockingham since its reopening. In 2009 Rockingham held an additional ARCA race, however that race was not held in 2010. Rockingham also holds the Carolina 200, the finale for the CARS Pro Cup Series. In addition to these events, Rockingham will also have Chumpcar World Series, Legends and Bandolero racing. On September 7, 2011, it was announced that Rockingham would hold its inaugural Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 on April 15, 2012, the first Camping World Truck Series race held at the track since the series' inception. The announcement made by track owner Andy Hillenburg and North Carolina governor Bev Perdue, who said that the track would help the local economy by about $7.2–$10.5 million. Wayne Auton, the Truck Series director, announced that NASCAR testing would end on December 31, 2011 on the main track, but would remain on the half-mile facility.
On January 30, 2012, it was announced that the second annual Carolina Rebellion festival would be held at the Rockingham Speedway.
Kasey Kahne, who had been beaten at the line by Matt Kenseth in the final Cup race at the track before 2014, avenged the defeat with a win at the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200, after Turner Motorsports teammate Nelson Piquet, Jr. scored the pole and dominated the race, only to lose his chance at winning through a late-race speeding penalty on the last pit stop.
In 2012, Johnson Industries (Johnsonverse), owner of NASCAR, acquired the track (and North Wilkesboro Speedway) and restored it in preparation for 2014. The track held its first race since 2004 that year. It was won by Danica Patrick, who had to use yellow rookie stripes as she had never raced there before. The track itself was also modernized, with new grandstands and other amenities, including restoration of the original infield. The race was critically acclaimed.
Rockingham became in the mid-to-late 2000s a test track for many Panasonic Cup and PrimeStar teams because of testing restrictions by NASCAR on active tracks. After the track was stripped of its dates, teams began using the circuit to test cars and engines, especially to simulate abrasive wear at certain tracks (Darlington and Atlanta most notably). The track surface is more abrasive than other tracks, due to the high sand content of paving compounds made from local materials. This abrasiveness contributes to excessive tire wear. In 2005, Kyle Petty tested his Darlington car at Rockingham days before its race to not waste one of his five assigned tests.
In 2006, new rules banned all testing at active Sprint Cup tracks except at selected NASCAR-approved open tests during the season, thereby making testing at Rockingham crucial. Penske Racing tested at the track in mid-April 2006, and with the abrasiveness of the Atlanta Motor Speedway surface, which has not been repaved since reconstruction in 1997, and Atlanta's participation in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, many teams are considering returning to Rockingham in September or October to test their cars to simulate Atlanta's similar surface.
NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow (or COT) has led to a boom in testing at the track, and many teams used the track for testing the new cars when it was announced the car would be used in 2007.
In the runup to the COT's debut, Michael Waltrip Racing, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Yates Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing tested their COT's at the track.
Greg Biffle said during the 2007 NASCAR Jackson Hewitt Preseason Thunder press conference, "Pat (Tryson, crew chief, who was subsequently released and joined Penske Racing) and I are going to Rockingham (January 18) with a COT to try to learn some things about them, bump stops and all of the things that are new on them, you know, because we are going to race them at Darlington. But those are going to be keys to making the Chase is running well with that COT car and getting our downforce cars to handle good."
Testing at Rockingham has become a premium because of NASCAR's rules limiting testing imposed since 2006 to the NASCAR-sanctioned open tests. NASCAR rules state testing at tracks not on the series in question is not controlled by the sanctioning body, and many teams evade the testing ban at such tests, which also include the Greenville-Pickens Speedway and Concord Motorsports Park (short tracks), and the Kentucky Speedway (Sprint Cup tests only). Testing at Rockingham is restricted to series that do not run at the circuit (NASCAR mostly), while restrictions to ARCA and CARS-sanctioned open testing apply in those two series because Rockingham is on both series' schedules in 2008. For NASCAR teams, the track has become one of the most popular tracks to test shorter to intermediate tracks on the circuit.
For the 2009 season, NASCAR imposed a blanket ban on testing at any track used by any of NASCAR's three national series or its Camping World touring events. Rockingham, unlike many tracks used in testing historically, was not on any of the series in question, and teams would use both tracks to run around NASCAR's testing ban.
A new 0.526|mi|m track, dubbed the Little Rock, was built behind the backstretch for other classes of short-track cars and for the Fast Track driving school Hillenburg owns, and opened October 13, 2008. NASCAR Sprint Cup teams immediately christened the track for testing in preparation for the 2008 TUMS QuikPak 500 at Martinsville Speedway that ensuing weekend, as "Little Rock" is designed similar to Martinsville, yet the lap length is the same, with 800' straights, 588' turns, and the inside lanes of the turns are concrete. Unlike the 1.017|mi|km oval, which will be restricted to NASCAR testing on January 1, 2012, NASCAR testing will remain unrestricted on the Little Rock.
The half-mile oval is unique in that instead of a traditional guardrail around the outside of the track, it uses gravel traps similar to road courses. Hillenburg said this is for economical reasons, as a car sliding into a sand trap will not damage a car as much as hitting a wall.
Hillenburg noted, "We've designed a track that can measure one's skill level and they can slide off into a sand trap and not a wall. I can now give parents a straight-up answer as to where their kids stack up." Jimmie Johnson was part of the opening group of drivers to test at "Little Rock," and blew a tire. He jokingly said he nearly ran into his own transporter because of the track's design that lacked the concrete wall for safety. The track also has an integrated quarter-mile oval for the Bandoleros and Legends cars.
Film and commercial usage
The speedway has become a venue for active filming for movies, television programs, and television commercials, often with its venues being used for various facilities. Notable films include:
- 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story
- Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
- Ta Ra Rum Pum (a Bollywood film)
- SPEED Road Tour Challenge (final task)
- 2007 UPS commercials featuring Dale Jarrett, the UPS truck, and team.
When it was part of the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, it also was a filming location for:
- Days of Thunder
It was also used as venue for the truck pull event during World's Strongest Man.