The Rock rises from the ashes in NASCAR circles

In perhaps the most popular case of rebirth since the first mythological phoenix burst into flames only to reemerge feeling quite frisky, Rockingham Speedway has risen from its own ashes in a most spectacular fashion.

Unlike that original firebird, however, in Rockingham’s case, rebirth was far from a sure thing.

The former North Carolina Speedway, now known as Rockingham Speedway, is one of NASCAR’s most historic tracks. Designed and built by Harold Brasington, who also created legendary Darlington Raceway, the one-mile track hosted annual Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series weekends until February 2004, when it fell victim to NASCAR’s expansion and realignment.

Fans and competitors alike lamented the loss; Rockingham is a feisty little track, and consistently hosted some of the most exciting races of the year. But without the huge economic boost provided by a NASCAR weekend, most speedways simply can’t stay alive. In other words, it’s time to lock the doors and hang up the Gone Fishin’ sign. Elvis has left the building.

Andy Hillenburg apparently has no appetite for either angling or Elvis emulation. The former driver and team owner had been operating his popular Fast Track High Performance Driving School at Rockingham for over two decades, along with filming racing movies and TV commercials, and was in no hurry to leave that particular building.

“This process started a long time ago, well before Rockingham was even available,” he says. “There’s such a history here, and I’m such a history buff that it was disheartening to see all that history basically rusting and rotting away. It was just becoming a memory, and all that passion for the sport became involved with the other things we had going on, and that kind of led to the idea to buy it. That was the first step.”

The second step was somewhat pricier. When The Rock was placed on the auction block in 2007, Hillenburg was the highest bidder, purchasing the track at a “fire sale” price – relatively speaking – of $4.4 million.

“There’s such a legacy here. In my opinion it was one of the building blocks, part of the foundation of the sport. We need to be able to start propping that area back up, and making sure Rockingham has its proper place in the sport that a lot of people felt it should have all along,” he says.

It was somewhat of a trial by fire without the help of NASCAR’s glitz and glamour, but Hillenburg and his team rose to the challenge. Over the course of the past 3 ½ years, Rockingham Speedway has remained viable, hosting ARCA/ReMax and Hooters Pro Cup Series events, continuing to operate the driving school, and serving as a popular testing venue for NASCAR’s top series.

They kept busy, but they never took their eyes off the ultimate prize; a NASCAR race. “All this time we’ve been trying to work up to that point, learning what we need to do and how we need to do it; the SAFER barriers we installed are a good example. It was a natural evolution, so to speak. The fans came through and said they wanted Rockingham.”

They got it. No longer hampered by the unfortunate schedule dates, bad weather and subsequent poor attendance that formerly plagued the speedway, NASCAR announced in September of last year that The Rock would host the Camping World Truck Series in 2012.

NASCAR had given Hillenburg one shot. He fired it, and hit the bulls-eye. The inaugural Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 presented by Cheerwine is not only in contention for the title of longest race name of the season, but will surely go down as the most sentimental favorite. Fans filled the grandstands to near-capacity, with Sunshine, Blue Skies and 80 Degrees (who I believe is also a rap artist) being three of the most welcome guests.

Then, a close, competitive race landed crowd-pleaser and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series superstar Kasey Kahne in Victory Lane. What more could a guy hope for?

The answer, of course, is the chance to do it all over again.

“We are pressing forward. It would be great to have the Truck Series back here, but you can’t take anything for granted. I feel like we did the best we could do, based on the knowledge that we had. Hosting NASCAR is a privilege, and it was an honor to bring an additional NASCAR weekend back to the Carolinas,” Hillenburg says, adding, “I feel confident in saying that if I get a second chance from NASCAR, I can do even better.”

Andy Hillenburg could teach the phoenix a thing or two about how to rise from the ashes in style. At Rockingham Speedway, that fire sale is now burning like a house afire.

For more information on upcoming events at Rockingham Speedway, visit www.rockinghamspeedway.com.

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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