Rockingham Speedway

The last racing at 'The Rock' was a Truck Series event in 2012. Photo: Getty Images

‘The Rock’ to become part of entertainment complex, with eventual return to racing

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Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, “The Rock” – a.k.a. North Carolina Speedway and Rockingham Speedway – is once again coming back, albeit in a reinvented form.

In presenting his recommended long-term budget covering 2019 through 2021, North Carolina Governor Ray Cooper has proposed the state give $8 million for capital improvements for what will be known as “The Rock Speedway and Entertainment Complex.”

The money will go towards upgrading the Speedway and its grounds, as well as the adjacent Rockingham Dragway — a combined space of 550 acres and 10.5 million square feet — into what Cooper calls a “world class events venue and (to) attract additional investment and visitation to south central North Carolina.”

Among events planned for the entertainment venue are concerts, fairs, festivals and more.

According to Cooper’s budget, the state’s $8 million investment will result in needed infrastructure improvements including “wastewater and water extension, a pedestrian bridge, repaving the speedway, upgrades to speedway facilities and dragway, bathrooms, and Grandstand repairs/erosion control.”

The budget also requires that for every $3 that the state invests, there must be an additional $1 non-state match to round out the funding for the overall $11.45 million project. That non-state match will likely come from a variety of sources including Speedway owner Dan Lovenheim, who purchased the facility last year from BK Rock Holdings, Dragway owner Steve Earwood, and Richmond and Moore counties.

While Rockingham Dragway remains an active motorsports venue with a full slate of drag racing and other events throughout he year, “The Rock” last saw major on-track action in 2012 when it hosted a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series event.

Shortly after acquiring the Speedway, Lovenheim told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio several months ago about racing returning to The Rock, “At this early juncture, all doors and paths are open and on the table. We are in discussions with NASCAR. We are in discussion for several events. At this point, unfortunately, I cannot be specific for what, when and how.”

However, Lovenheim added, “I can say that racing will be an integral part of the Rock Entertainment Complex’s future.”

The area is preparing for one of the biggest events it has ever hosted, the Epicenter, a three-day music festival on Mother’s Day weekend, May 10-12, at the Rockingham Festival Grounds, spread across both the dragway and speedway properties.

70 bands are expected to perform. Among headliners for the show, which is expected to draw as many as 110,000 fans and bring a $40 million infusion into the local economy for hotels, restaurants and the like, are Foo Fighters, Judas Priest, Korn, Evanescence, Tool, Bush and Rob Zombie.

Los Angeles-based production company Danny Wimmer Presents (DWP) recently signed a 10-year contract to bring the annual music festival to the Speedway and Dragway grounds.

Richmond County economic development officer Martie Butler told ThePilot.com, “So many people recognize ‘The Rock.’ It is a very iconic fixture, but a lot of companies have left our region. We look at this as a phoenix approach. Here we have this massive NASCAR fixture and it is a reinvention of this great icon.”

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NASCAR America: Short track action is what ‘this sport was built on’

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NASCAR has changed a lot since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was born in 1974.

Through 1985 the series ran 10 short track races per year until the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway was taken off the schedule. From 1985-96 short track fans had eight weekends to anticipate.

In 1997, North Wilkesboro Speedway’s two dates were divvied up between Texas Motor Speedway and New Hampshire International Speedway.

Now there are only six short track dates and that has created a fundamental change in competition at the Cup level, according to Earnhardt.

Fan reaction after last week’s Martinsville finish when Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead was electrifying. One has to go back to the 2017 edition of that same race and the contact between Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott for a comparison.

“(The finish at Martinsville) is something that I think I saw a lot when I was younger, even when I was a kid going to the races. This is something I felt was happening once a month,” Earnhardt said on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

And he asked Dale Jarrett if that opinion was shared.

Jarrett agreed and credited the lack of short track racing as one of the causes.

“First off, we don’t have as many short tracks,” Jarrett said. “(Lower) speeds allow you to do things like (the bump and run at Martinsville). … You can’t go to Texas this weekend – and if you run into the back of somebody, they’re gonna crash hard and there’s the chance you might crash too.”

While not technically a short track – a course less than 1 mile in length – Rockingham Speedway featured the same style of racing, according to Jarrett.

“As the speeds get lower, you have those opportunities to make moments and have moments,” Jarrett added. “And quite honestly, that’s what this sport was built on.”

For more, watch the video above.

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Friday 5: Time for NASCAR to schedule one-day shows

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LAS VEGAS — Indianapolis Motor Speedway showed NASCAR this week what the sport’s future could and should be.

Two series racing on one weekday. No practice. No qualifying. Just racing.

As NASCAR looks to make its schedule more dynamic, the idea of one-day shows for Cup has been discussed.

Those talks should go further.

Run the Xfinity Series on a weekday and the Cup Series that night in prime time.

Fans want racing. Give them back-to-back events. Don’t waste time with practice or qualifying. Set the lineup based on points and go.

“I think that’s the kind of open-mindedness that we need to see more of in NASCAR, honestly,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports on Thursday of the idea. “I know that I’ve been in some meetings with TV partners and NASCAR trying to work on weekday races, especially during the summer. Hopefully it’s on the horizon, sooner than later.”

Fans saw a doubleheader Monday at Indy after rain washed out both the Xfinity and Cup races that weekend.

Such a schedule could work for one race, maybe two a season. This isn’t about making the entire schedule one-day shows, but the approach would compress the schedule. That, along with limiting most tracks to one Cup event per season, could put the season finale in September instead of November.

Kevin Harvick, who has talked often about the need for bold ideas with scheduling, told NBC Sports that the key to such a one-day schedule is that “you have to protect the integrity of the racing.” 

But he says one-day shows could be possible.

The biggest challenge could come from track operators, who likely will raise concerns that a one-day event could reduce how many people camp and attend the event.

As NASCAR looks to race on a weeknight, limit how many days teams are at the track and alter the length of the schedule, the overriding question must be what’s best for the sport. In some cases, track operators might lose out to what’s best for the sport. In other cases, maybe it’s the drivers or teams.

To not do anything is the wrong approach. Frankly, that’s not a tactic NASCAR is taking, but words eventually need to be turned into actions.

Harvick suggests more dramatic measures.

He notes that the most talked about race this season is one that hasn’t taken place yet.

The debut of Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval later this month has had those in the industry and elsewhere talking. Chaos, conflict and crashes are common themes from drivers, leery of the race that ends the first round of the playoffs.

“That really is something that everybody sees as unique,” Harvick said. “We need more unique events. You need a story before the story happens.”

He says more can be done with the schedule to create similar stories.

“Why shouldn’t Darlington have a playoff race once in a while?” Harvick said. “Why shouldn’t Bristol have a playoff race once in a while? Why is the championship race in Homestead every year? That’s for us? I don’t think so.

“I think it would be better to rotate (the title race) around. I think coming to Vegas for the first race of the playoffs is great. Not that Chicago was a bad spot to start it (but) starting there every year gets stale. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”

That means new venues, date changes and other ideas. That also should include one-day shows in the summer that have the Xfinity and Cup Series race back-to-back.

“I think the way the world is today and … the ask of the fans, the expense of things, it’s a valid option,” seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said of the notion. “When you look back to the late ‘90s the way fans consumed television and their avid love of our sport and the love of the automobile, all of that, they’d want a seven-day festival for a race.

“It’s just times have changed. I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. Times have changed.”

The 2019 schedule is set, but 2020 can be a time for the sport to move forward.

2. A tiresome trend

Many drivers talked Thursday at NASCAR Playoff Media Day about needing to avoid mistakes to advance in the Cup playoffs, which begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whether NASCAR is calling tire violations more closely on pit road to set a tone or teams are trying to push things, such penalties are up dramatically the past two weeks.

NASCAR called a total of 11 penalties for tire violations the past two weeks at Indianapolis (seven such penalties) and Darlington (four).

The 11 penalties for tire violations are more than NASCAR called the previous seven races combined (10 such penalties called).

In the last nine races, Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew has been penalized for three tire violations, more than any other team. Next is Austin Dillon’s pit crew, which has been called for two such violations in that time.

3. Playoff wedding

It’s one thing for drivers to be engaged during the season but married — and during the playoffs?

No.

At least until this season.

Kyle Larson and fiancee Katelyn Sweet are scheduled to marry Sept. 26 — four days before the inaugural Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, which will determine what four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs.

Why that date?

“Katelyn wants a warm wedding, and I race during the offseason so I didn’t want to mess up my offseason plans,” Larson said Thursday. “It happened to work out that we can do it right before the Roval there. So, it’s coming fast, and I am ready to get it done.”

I have kind of let her handle most of (the planning) and I will be there for the rehearsal dinner, the wedding and hopefully we don’t practice on Thursday. Because that will be rough.”

Cup teams will not practice that Thursday, so Larson will be OK.

4. Fond memories

Rockingham Speedway, which hosted NASCAR races from 1965-2004, was recently sold and the investors want to bring racing back to the 1-mile track at some point.

Jamie McMurray, who has been mum about his future with Chip Ganassi Racing, won the final four Xfinity races there.

McMurray was recently asked about the track and recalled not those wins but a moment with his fellow drivers.

Rockingham used to be the host of the pit crew competition. Drivers left from the backstretch pits and come down the frontstretch pit road for their stop. While they waited for the event to begin, they hung out along the backstretch pits.

“My memory of Rockingham is sitting on the backstretch (pit wall),” McMurray said. “I was sitting back there and Mark Martin, who had won I don’t know how many races at Rockingham (two Cup and 11 Xfinity races in his career). Mark is notorious for never giving himself credit and telling you how great you are. I remember Mark going: “You’re the guy now; you’re the man. I wish I could have done that.’ Like yeah, right, this is Mark Martin.

“That’s one of my favorite memories, my rookie year (in Cup) sitting back there with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. I think Sterling (Marlin) might have been in that, so there (were) good stories being told.’’

5. Looking to keep a streak alive 

Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one race on a 1.5-mile track 24 consecutive seasons. That streak is in jeopardy this year. Hendrick’s only win so far this season came on the road course at Watkins Glen with Chase Elliott.

Four races remain this year on 1.5-mile tracks: Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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Friday 5: Silly season, charter sales and track news

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Not since 2009 have two former Cup champions switched teams — but might that take place for next season?

With 12 races left this year, former champions and free agents Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch have not stated where they will race in 2019.

Truex has won 20 percent of the Cup races since last season, finished in the top five 56.7 percent of the time and scored a top 10 in more than two-thirds of those races.

It would seem natural that the 38-year-old reigning Cup champion will stay with Furniture Row Racing, but everything changed when 5-hour Energy announced July 18 it would end its involvement in NASCAR after this season. 5-hour Energy became a co-primary sponsor for 30 Cup races this season on the No. 78 team with Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats.

Two weeks ago at Bristol, Truex couldn’t give a number when asked to estimate a percentage of remaining with the team after this season.

“Right now, we need sponsorship,” Truex said then. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

Busch, 40, signed a one-year extension with Stewart-Haas Racing in December, after Monster Energy decided to return as a team sponsor. Busch, the 2004 Cup champ, has said he’s talked to multiple teams about a ride for next year.

Busch won two weeks ago at Bristol to assure a playoff spot. He has four top-five finishes and 15 top-10 results this season — nearly bettering what he did last season for SHR.

The last time two drivers with Cup championships switched teams for the same season was 2009 when Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte changed teams.

Stewart, a two-time champion at the time, went from Joe Gibbs Racing to Haas CNC Racing, which was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing. He won his third title in 2011 for that organization. Labonte, who won the 2000 crown, moved from Petty Enterprises to Hall of Fame Racing in 2009.

2. Boom or Bust?

When a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of BK Racing — and its charter — to Front Row Motorsports last week, it marked the ninth time that a charter has been sold since the system was created before the start of the 2016 season.

One charter has been sold twice in that period, meaning eight separate charters (22.2 percent) have been sold in less than three years. Many more have been leased. Teams can lease a charter once in five years.

The charter system debuted in February 2016 after about 18 months of discussions between NASCAR and team owners. NASCAR announced there would be 36 charters, guaranteeing each holder a starting spot in each race. The charter system also guarantees a set amount of income that isn’t solely based on a team’s finishing position in a race. Performance the past three years, a fixed amount per race and year-end point fund money also are factored.

The point was that teams could better budget what they would receive during the season and have a better idea of how much sponsorship they needed.

Also, the charter system was billed as a way to provide greater value to teams and led to the creation of a Team Owners Council, similar to what Cup drivers have. The Team Owners Council since has played a key role in the discussion of rule changes.

The money paid for charters has been kept quiet. Court documents from BK Racing’s bankruptcy case state that BK Racing sold a charter to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million in December 2016.

The bankruptcy court approved Front Row Motorsports’ purchase of BK Racing for $2.08 million. That included the charter, cars, equipment and other assets, meaning the charter sold for less than the one BK Racing sold in December 2016.

The bankruptcy court approved the bidding process for the BK Racing sale. A price of $1.8 million from Mike Beam, president of GMS Racing, was set as the minimum bid for the charter and certain assets. At the auction, Front Row Motorsports was the only bidder and topped Beam’s total.

Less than three years into the charter system, the movement of charters shows the difficulties with owning a team. The hope was that it would lead to a way for new investors to join the sport — and it could happen in the future.

But it takes more than a charter. There is all the equipment that must be purchased, personnel hired and the need for an alliance to have any hope of being competitive. Then there’s the sponsorship that a team needs to secure. That’s even a big jump for an Xfinity team to make if it wants to move to Cup.

With all that, it’s not surprising at this point that the charters have been passed among those that already own teams.

Here are the charters that have been sold since the charter system was created:

2016 season — Michael Waltrip Racing sold a charter to Stewart-Haas Racing for the No. 41 car.

2016 — Michael Waltrip Racing sold a charter to Joe Gibbs Racing for the No. 19 car.

2017 season — Premium Motorsports sold a charter to Furniture Row Racing for the No. 77 car.

2017 — BK Racing sold a charter to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million, according to court documents.

2017 — HScott Motorsports sold a charter to Premium Motorsports for the No. 15 car.

2017 — Tommy Baldwin Racing sold a charter to Leavine Family Racing for the No. 95 car.

2018 season — Furniture Row Racing sold the No. 77 car’s charter to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 car.

2018 — Roush Fenway Racing sold a charter to Team Penske for the No. 12 car.

2018 — BK Racing charter sold in bankruptcy court to Front Row Motorsports for $2.08 million, including various assets.

3. Track News – Rockingham

The Richmond County Daily Journal reported that Rockingham Properties, LLC was expected to finalize paperwork Thursday on the purchase of Rockingham Speedway.

The paper did not list a price but stated that county tax administrator Vagas Jackson said the property was valued at $2,993,324. The paper reported that Dan Lovenheim, who owns restaurants and bars in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, is the majority owner of Rockingham Properties LLC.

Lovenheim did not provide the paper with plans for the track only to say they are “remarkably encompassing.”

4. Track News – Lucas Oil Raceway

The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday that Lucas Oil Raceway, which includes the drag strip that will host the upcoming U.S. Nationals, a road course and an oval track where the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series used to race, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation.

The first phase is focused on the drag strip.

Future plans call for improvements to the 0.686-mile oval so that it can host more stock car races.

“I think it’s no secret that we’d like to see other forms of stock car racing, be it different forms of NASCAR racing that come back out here,” Kasey Coler, the track’s general manager, told the newspaper. “That’s long term what we’d like to see.”

5. Did you know …

Darlington Raceway is Ryan Newman’s best track based on average finish. He has an average finish of 11.68 there. His next best track is Rockingham. He had an average finish of 12.4 there.

Since 2009, Newman and Denny Hamlin have the most top-10 finishes at Darlington Raceway with seven each. Next are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. with six each.

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Matt Kenseth throwback weekend paint scheme from first Xfinity win at Rockingham

Photo courtesy Joe Gibbs Racing
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Matt Kenseth will have a unique paint scheme celebrating Circle K’s longtime involvement with NASCAR in the Throwback Weekend at Darlington Raceway.

Kenseth had a number of schemes to choose from, including his first career NASCAR Cup win, his first win at Joe Gibbs Racing and his first Daytona 500 win.

But the scheme he chose was from his first NASCAR win in the Xfinity Series, at Rockingham Speedway in February 1998.

Kenseth grabbed the lead coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap to take the checkered flag. He beat a number of future NASCAR stars, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin.

“We were certainly the underdog,” Kenseth said. “We weren’t expected to win and probably the most special day of my racing career. We matched up as close as we could, still used the Super K colors but tried to make it look like my ride of February 1998.”

Click here to check out this video showing Kenseth unveiling his Darlington scheme.

Kenseth changed his profile picture on Twitter to one of him from 1998:

And here’s video of Kenseth’s win in 1998, when he bumped Stewart as they exited Turn 4 to take the checkered flag.