Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rockingham And The Hype For A Nonexistent Nostalgia

The former North Carolina Motor Speedway hosted NASCAR's Truck Series on April 15, 2012, eight years after the track closed upon being sold to Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Kasey Kahne won after taking the lead with 46 laps to go, aided when F1-reject Nelson Piquet Jr. was blackflagged for speeding down pit road. He finished seventh after leading 107 laps.

Kahne's win came eight years after he came up inches short in the track's last Winston Cup race, the 2004 Carolina 400 won by Matt Kenseth. The debut of NASCAR's Truck Series marked the return of a major touring series of NASCAR to the track, and it immediatelty unleashed a wave of commentary about how good it was for NASCAR to return to the track.

The problem, though, is that the nostalgia for the speedway willfully ignores why the track lost its Winston Cup dates to begin with. The Truck 200 there played before a speedway where some 50,000 seats had been torn down and the seating capacity was thus 32,000. The track's recorded attendance was 27,000. Lack of attendance was a factor in why the track lost its Cup dates. But several myths have been perpetrated by fans trying to explain why Rockingham didn't draw well - chief among the myths is that the track's dates were not condusive to quality weather - that it would have sold out its dates had they been moved to warmer times such as April through August instead of February/March and October/November.

That myth got exposed when the track reopened amid heavy hype and promotion of SPEED TV coverage of its inaugural race in May 2009 for ARCA stock cars - amid excellent weather, maybe 10,000 people showed up. The hype for this Truck race was of course even higher, and yet the track still could not sell out even with reduced seating capacity.

There remain fans who praise the quality of Rockingham's racing, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Truck 200 saw seven lead changes, dismal for a 200-lap race and indication the track is not terribly raceable. Making it worse is the track's notorious surface, which throughout its existence has devolved into a surface that wore out tires to where fresh tires were usually four seconds per lap faster. The racing suffered as a result, with cars strung out, over half the field getting lapped by halfway, and crashes occurring with varying frequency.

At its best Rockingham was a pale carbon of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Rockingham had some good races, most notably the 1984 American 500, but it simply is too small a track and too narrow for the racing to be all that good.

Ultimately Rockingham cannot be more than it now is - a 1-mile track with some room to race but not as much as what major league racing needs, a track that is good for local racing but useless for major league racing like Winston Cup, and a track whose demographic simply is not strong enough for more than it now has for racing. There remains fans who want the track to bring back Cup racing, but such fans need to evolve here.

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