Searching for the Soul of Stock Car Racing
That’s what Jeremy Markovich was doing when he went to Rockingham’s first NASCAR race in eight years. He did not find it, but he found something else
I bought a six-pack of Bud Light at the decaying Food King in downtown Rockingham because it was the best beer they had. At 6 p.m. on the Saturday night before the race, Harrington Square was deserted, save the lights stands left over from the race festival the night before. I walked out of the store, down East Washington Street, past the law offices and the workout place and the empty storefronts. I decided to ask somebody where I could get a drink. There was nobody to ask. There was just a town clock chiming and a train horn sounding and a breeze blowing and all of it whirled around and echoed in the empty streets. Except for the race banners hanging on every light post, you would have no idea that tomorrow would be the biggest day in Rockingham in eight years.
Tomorrow seemed like it would never come. First the mills closed. The jobs left. Then in 2004, the only NASCAR race left at the North Carolina Motor Speedway went away. Rockingham was withering.
But the speedway. The speedway was still there.
A lot of people around Rockingham know the story by heart. An old racer named Andy Hillenburg came up with $4 million to win the auction for the empty track in 2007 (the previous owner was Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, which also owns Charlotte Motor Speedway). The same day, he called NASCAR and asked the people there how he could get a race back. For the next four years, Hillenburg cut the grass and paid the bills and made phone calls and never gave up, and last fall, he stood on a stage at the speedway, his speedway, and announced that NASCAR was coming back. The Camping World Truck Series would run a 200-mile race in April.
I had come to Rockingham to see this spectacle.
Part of me wanted to find the soul of stock car racing, not just the big glossy thing full of impossibly designed cars and well-groomed drivers all narrated by legends with Southern accents. There was this time when NASCAR was just racin’, a couple of guys who souped up their cars and then went out and raced, long before there were pit crews who lifted weights and drivers who gave in-car interviews during cautions. I had been to a few races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and was mystified by the county-fair atmosphere around it. The crowd smelled of elephant ears and sweat. But then I went inside and looked at the track and the lights and all of those beautiful colorful cars, and they cranked the engines up and flew past at a speed I could never grasp on TV. Before long, the buzz wore off and I got bored because I didn’t quite understand the strategy and who was teammates with whom, and I couldn’t listen to the radio because I only had a set of foam earplugs. And people would flick off Jeff Gordon and throw three fingers up on the third lap for Dale.
No, there was a time when Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts and Cale Yarborough were young and fearless and gutsy, and they’d fight and flip their cars, and on some days you knew going in that they were unbeatable. More important, they raced in front of real fans in places like North Wilkesboro and Darlington and Rockingham. That sounded exciting. That was the old NASCAR, I thought.
The race at Rockingham Speedway was supposed to offer up some of that. Sure, it was a truck series race, but the trucks were harder to handle and the track was supposed to be slick, and there was going to be a lot of bumpin’ and weavin’, and guys hitting the wall in turn two because they hadn’t been out at The Rock in a good long while. This was supposed to be the return to racing’s roots. I figured I might as well see who showed up.
I pointed my car toward the track, ten miles east of Rockingham down U.S. 1. I rolled past the oversize antebellum houses on Fayetteville Road. I passed a historical marker that said General Sherman’s troops came marching through here in March of 1865. It now stands nobly across the street from a gas station and a video store that’s somehow hanging on.
Rockingham Speedway sits on 250 acres of land. Most of the RVs and campers and souvenir stands were in front. On the lonely back corner of the property, behind the test track, was the free campground. There wasn’t anybody checking tickets or permits. The people back there were cheap. They were gritty. Raw. In other words, if True NASCAR Fan existed, he would exist here. I popped the trunk, grabbed my beer and tent, and walked up to a couple of guys I’d never met.