Growing up in Rockingham, North Carolina, my family as well as many others became used to disappointment. We got used to companies and stores opening up in other towns instead of setting up shop in our town and boosting the employment rate.
Rockingham never got the good restaurants or sports complexes or recreation centers. They opened the bypass and thus our summer economy booster, the beach traffic, also vanished.
We took our textile mills moving to Mexico with a sad smile. Then, came our greatest disappointment, Bruton Smith purchased North Carolina Motor Speedway and shut the doors.
Not only did it cut Richmond County's yearly earnings in half; it also damaged the morale of the people living in the small but pretty town. While Rockingham Dragway housed two IHRA events a year as well as several other events, the once magnificent speedway slowly rotted away.
Smith sent in a crew to remove the high rise Hamlet grandstand and ship it to Concord for his new drag strip. The Speedway was due to be auctioned at less than a fraction of its appraisal price.
Andy Hillenburg bought the racetrack. Bruton Smith retained the rights to North Carolina Motor Speedway so Hillenburg renamed it Rockingham Speedway. He got the track an ARCA date and named the race the Carolina 500.
He booked a Hooters Pro-Cup race and deemed it the Carolina 200. And he started booking various events at the track so that the population of Richmond County could do something besides drive forty-five minutes to a movie. One of these was the 2008 Super Stang Fest.
My father and I attended the event yesterday. I entered the track through the second tunnel and could immediately feel the spirit of the track. It was such a powerful moment: the wind picked up just a bit and my mind flashed back to images of Earnhardt and Allison.
I could almost see my dad, as a young man, working in the pits for John Sears and Benny Parsons. The Mustangs gleaming the hot June sun gave the track a renewed energy. Getting to take a few laps on the track in the '08 Shelby GT 500 Convertible was the closest thing to a spiritual awakening I've ever experienced.
NASCAR forgot Rockingham, North Carolina.
Thank God Andy Hillenburg didn't.