ANDY CAGLE: Sunday Blast: Racing Comes Back to the Rock in Big Way
When I left the North Carolina Speedway on Feb. 22, 2004, I left with a very bad feeling.
Defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth had just held off hard-charging rookie Kasey Kahne in one of the track's closest finishes. For all intents and purposes, it was a good event. The weather cooperated, there were a decent number of fans in the seats (not a sellout, by no means, but a good crowd), a great close finish and I, in no shape or form, got injured, which, if you know me, is saying a lot.
But still it was all doom and gloom when I drove out of the turn four tunnel. NASCAR had already taken one of the track's dates and all the media outlets were predicting the track's demise because of the talk of saturated markets.
Of course, it all came true later that year when NASCAR released its 2005 schedule and Rockingham was no- where to be found on it. International Speedway Corporation sold the track to Speedway Motorsports Incorporated to settle the Texas Motor Speedway lawsuit, and it was closed, save for a few test dates.
Yes, it made me a bit -- OK, a lot -- bitter.
But that bitterness was greatly tempered -- nay, eliminated -- last Sunday the second Andy Hillenburg gave the command for 50 ARCA drivers to fire 'em up before the inaugural running of the Carolina 500. I'd be lying if I were to tell you that I didn't get a little emotional at that moment. How do I put this? Um, it was a little dusty where I was then and some got in my eyes.
The song that a field of stock cars makes at Rockingham has that effect on me.
It got a little dusty again when the green flag dropped.
I have to give credit to Andy Hillenburg and his team for what they were able to pull off in six months. Hillenburg did not take possession of the track until Nov. 1 of last year, and it's nothing short of amazing that they were able to put on such a great event in such a short amount of time.
Sure, there were a few glitches -- this was the Hillenburg team's first time putting on a race. Going into such a massive undertaking, you don't know what you don't know. They sold out of T-shirts before the race, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hillenburg promised he would get more if anyone wants to buy one. All an interested person has to do is call the track office and it will be sent by mail.
All things considered, that was a small detail.
What really matters is that there was good racing at the Rock, complete with beautiful weather and some rabid race fans who got to witness the next big thing in racing, Joey Lagano, prove that if Tony Stewart leaves Joe Gibbs Racing, it'll be no big loss for the organization.
I don't ever remember seeing anyone able to wheel a car around that track the way Lagano did on Sunday. He could make that car work on the high side, on the low side and in the middle of a three-wide pack of cars. At one point, it looked like he was going to lap the whole field -- there were only three cars on the lead lap.
The most amazing thing about his day is that he did it at the ripe-old age of 17.
When I was 17, my dad wouldn't let me near his truck.
Some late-race cautions led to a little more drama than a 17-year-old laying waste to the whole field. Lagano pitted on the last caution and took four fresh tires, proceeding to pass the three cars in front of him by the time they entered turn four, including the wily veteran Ken Schrader, on his way to running away with the win in his first ARCA start.
Schrader didn't seem to mind running second.
"I had forgotten how much fun this place was," Schrader said. "I am glad to be back racing here and the track open because I know who owns this place, and they (Andy and Michelle Hillenburg) are such great people."
Hillenburg, who estimated the crowd to be around 20,000 people including the suites and the stands, considered the day a successful one and couldn't seem to wipe the smile off of his face after the race.
"We made enough money to pay a record purse and pay all the bills," Hillenburg said. "We just want to keep growing this thing, getting race fans back one at a time if we have to and make racing at Rockingham successful."
Those words left me feeling a lot better than I did last time I pulled out of that tunnel after a race.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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