NASCAR 75: Many would welcome a NASCAR return to Rockingham
By STEVE REED
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. (AP) NASCAR is returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first time in 27 years for this weekend’s All-Star race.
Could Rockingham Speedway be the next track to be revitalized and brought back from near extinction?
Driving legends Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon and Lyn St. James are among those who said they would like to see NASCAR take another walk down memory lane and return to racing at Rockingham, which last hosted a Cup Series event in 2004 but has began a repave after receiving $9 million from North Carolina as part of a federal economic effort.
Petty, Gordon and James were among 12 veteran industry contributors The Associated Press polled on topics ranging from the greatest drivers, most memorable races to key challenges ahead as part of the celebration of NASCAR’s 75th season.
Terry Labonte wasn't among those interviewed for the poll, but recently said he'd push for a return to Rockingham, a one-mile track where he won twice during his Hall of Fame career.
“I would love for some day to see Rockingham come back on the schedule,” Labonte said. “Maybe not run it every year, but enough to where you could rotate it on the schedule. I think the fans would really love it because it’s a great track.”
Like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham is a rural track that lost its place on the NASCAR schedule as the sport gravitated toward larger and more profitable markets.
Rockingham is located in the North Carolina’s Sandhills, roughly 30 miles south of Pinehurst - home of the 2024 U.S. Open men's golf tournament - and 70 miles east of Charlotte, where many NASCAR teams have their shops. That's a few miles closer than North Wilkesboro is from Charlotte.
Gordon said that while Rockingham is his first choice, he wishes it was "five to 10 miles outside of Dallas or Houston.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he thinks Rockingham would put on an excellent race, but the problem he foresees is potentially having too many Cup races so close to each other.
“The sport is obviously always trying to grow outside of its Mid-Atlantic or Southeastern bubble or origins,” said Earnhardt, who was not among the 12 polled by AP. “I’m worried for Rockingham’s future because I think a lot of people in the industry would view that as not a step forward if we were to go back there, but a step back.”
“I understand it’s in the middle of nowhere,” Labonte said. "At the time that we lost Wilkesboro and Rockingham, the sport was really growing, expanding further out west, new tracks, Kansas, Chicago and the new track in Fontana (California) was there."
But Labonte, a two-time NASCAR champion, said Rockingham was one of the best tracks on the circuit when he raced. It produced big-name winners on a consistent basis with Petty winning 11 Cup Series races there, Cale Yarborough seven and Rusty Wallace and David Pearson five each.
“You could race to the bottom, race up high, race in the middle of the track," Labonte said. “It was a great track.”
When NASCAR last raced at Rockingham, it was owned by International Speedway Corp. At that point, the track had already lost one of its race dates on the Cup Series schedule and was sold to Speedway Motorsports Inc.
SMI moved Rockingham's remaining date to Texas Motor Speedway, and shuttered the track, dismantling the backstretch grandstands and moving them to zMAX Dragway in Concord, located across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham essentially faded into a memory.
The track, now owned by Rockingham Properties LLC, completed repaving in December in hopes of luring NASCAR back, along with the CARS Tour, ARCA and Formula Drift. The track currently seats 25,000 spectators, and SAFER barriers have already been added.
Winston Kelly, the executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and team co-owner Eddie Wood are among the others interviewed by the AP for the NASCAR at 75 series who wish racing could return to Riverside International Raceway, a 3.3-mile road course located 70 miles east of Los Angeles that last hosted a Cup Series race 35 years ago.
That track no longer exists, with the land sold a long time ago and turned into a mall and public housing.
“I wish it were still around because I think NASCAR would be able to put on a really good show,” Wood said.
“I'd go with Rockingham or Riverside,” said Kelly. “Rockingham for a track that still exists and could be realistic, one that I grew up going to. Riverside if it is a track that we could resurrect that I never got to see. I think watching the NextGen cars on either of those (tracks) would be fascinating.”
AP NASCAR at 75 voting panel: Edsel Ford, long-time Ford executive; Tony Gibson, retired NASCAR crew chief; Jeff Gordon, four-time NASCAR champion; Denny Hamlin, three-time Daytona 500 champion; Rick Hendrick, founder of Hendrick Motorsports; Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR champion; Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame; Steve O’Donnell, Chief Operating Officer for NASCAR; Richard Petty, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver; Lyn St. James, one of nine women who have qualified for the Indianapolis 500; Deb Williams, award-winning NASCAR journalist; Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.
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Updated May 18, 2023