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THE FORGOTTEN TRACK

Rockingham's void

North Carolina Speedway, the track NASCAR abandoned in a shift west, is going up for auction in October, even as city officials hold out hope that the stock-car racing circuit will return.

August 30, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- On a hazy morning at North Carolina Speedway, NASCAR driver Elliott Sadler is steering his No. 19 Dodge around the track in a practice session.

The car's thunderous noise echoes off the empty metal grandstands and pierces the quiet of the surrounding Sandhills region, where rolling stretches of grass outside the track are ready for thousands of fans' cars and RVs.

Indeed, at first glance the speedway appears all but ready to play host to its next race in NASCAR's premier Nextel Cup Series. Even the track's main sign includes the series' logo.

But look closer and it's clear there will be no race here any time soon.

A tattered billboard in front announcing the next race carries the year 2004. Another billboard behind the track's fourth turn trumpets the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, referring to the cigarette maker that was replaced as the series' sponsor by Nextel three years ago.

And Sadler, it turns out, is practicing here but for a race 85 miles west in Charlotte.

NASCAR ended four decades of racing at Rockingham when it dropped the track from its Cup schedule three years ago, a sacrifice made for its western expansion that included adding a second race at the newer California Speedway in Fontana. The shift left behind a small, rural town (population 10,000) in Richmond County in south-central North Carolina whose economy was wounded for the second time in a generation -- the first when the textile industry mostly left -- and whose residents felt equally abandoned and betrayed by NASCAR.

" 'Devastated' might be too strong a word to use, 'disappointed' probably not a strong enough word," said Eugene McLaurin, Rockingham's mayor for the last 10 years. "We were hurt."

Many in Rockingham are trying to put NASCAR behind them. "It made a lot of people mad when we lost [the races], but there's not as much talk about it anymore," said Kim Caulk, who manages a coffee shop on the edge of town.

But others still cling to the dream of again playing host to big-league stock car racing here. "It doesn't have to be anything that's going to draw 50,000 people, but let's just get racing back," said Rick Sago, Richmond County's director of development.

Keith Parsons, a bank executive here and son of the late driver Benny Parsons, who won the Cup championship in 1973 in Rockingham, said the "majority of people have moved on and realize [racing] is not coming back. But I think most people would like to see something at the track."

It doesn't look promising. The track is owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., which continues to rent the speedway for testing, television commercials and movies, such as the 2006 comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

But that's not generating a profit. The track needs a full weekend of top-flight NASCAR racing, including not only the Nextel Cup Series but also the Busch and Craftsman Truck series races, said Speedway Motorsports President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler.

That's not going to happen, so the company is selling the track at auction Oct. 2.

"If we could make money with it we would keep it," Wheeler said. "We've thought of every kind of scenario that you could, and it just wouldn't work."

McLaurin isn't giving up. "It is our hope that whoever purchases the track has a vision and adequate resources," he said, so that the town can "embrace and support a plan that returns racing in some form to Rockingham."

The 1.02-mile North Carolina Speedway, dubbed "the Rock," held its first NASCAR race in 1965. The 254-acre venue was a keystone of stock car racing's Southeastern base and a favorite destination of the sport's drivers for the two events it held each year.

But with its attendance sagging, NASCAR moved one of Rockingham's races elsewhere in 2003 and then dropped the track from its schedule entirely as part of the western expansion that added NASCAR races in Fontana, Chicago, Kansas City, Kan., and Fort Worth.

As the billboard states, the Rock's final race was Feb. 22, 2004, and the finish was one of the closest in NASCAR history, with Matt Kenseth edging then-rookie Kasey Kahne by 0.010 of a second.

"I miss [the track] a lot," said Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion. "Rockingham always put on a great race. For a driver it was just so much fun. It was slippery, you could spin the tires, you could run right up against the wall."

When Rockingham still had its remaining race, the event was held the week after the Daytona 500, the sport's crown-jewel race and season opener. That also made Rockingham a welcome, relaxed change from the commotion of Daytona, he said.

But the February date often meant cold weather, which kept a lid on crowds. Several other tracks in the Southeast also enabled many NASCAR fans to skip Rockingham and still see a Cup race. Although North Carolina Speedway has a seating capacity of more than 60,000, only about 50,000 showed up for the last NASCAR race here.

Even so, some Rockingham officials are convinced that if a race were scheduled on a warmer date, or lights were added to allow night events, the Rock could again be a top draw in racing.

"We all want the race back," said Sago, the county development director. "It's such a nice facility it's a shame to just let it sit there."

But he added: "The loss of the race or the track is not going to make the community dry up and blow away."

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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