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Dustin Long
Greensboro News & Record

Ex-driver buys track at Rockingham

     ROCKINGHAM – The calls came and the rumors followed.

     Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin talked to half a dozen people interested in buying North Carolina Speedway in recent weeks.

     What they wanted to do with the land, though, wasn’t always clear. Rumors flew through town. One had the site becoming an anti-terrorist training site. Someone else heard that a theme park would be built there. And the latest one was that a mega-store distribution depot would replace the track.

     “It was a rumor a day,” McLaurin said.

     Stock-car racing, last held at this speedway in February 2004, seemed to be a last option. At least one potential bidder in Tuesday’s auction wanted to keep the track’s history intact.

     As the auction drew near and gray clouds grew overhead, the mood changed from hope to dread for some local residents.

     “It’s kind of a sad day, really,” one person told another in the crowd of 150 that included buyers and those who watched Petty, Pearson and Earnhardt race on this 1-mile track.

     North Carolina Speedway, better known as “The Rock,” hosted NASCAR races from 1965 to 2004 before the sport outgrew this hamlet. The track was sold for $100.4 million in 2004, and its lone remaining Nextel Cup race moved to Texas Motor Speedway. Speedway Motorsports, the new owners, couldn’t find any buyers, so they put it up for auction.

     Tuesday’s bidding started at $10 million.

     No takers.

     It dropped to $9 million.

     No takers.

     “Two million dollars,” an auctioneer’s assistant yelled as a bidder nodded.

     The bid rose to $3 million, then nothing.

     “Ladies and gentlemen, you better jump in here, this thing is going to sell in a little while,” auctioneer Eddie Haynes implored the crowd.

     The price rose to $3.5 million.

     Sixteen seconds later, Andy Hillenburg, a former driver who drove in the final Cup race at this track, bid $4 million.

     Again no other takers could be found, but instead of selling to Hillenburg, the auctioneer called for a break – a debris caution, if you will.

     Hillenburg shot from his seat and walked away.

     What he had spent months on – he had three separate plans based on the bidding – could be gone because an auctioneer wanted to milk the crowd for more money.

     Hillenburg even left his home in Concord as the sun rose for the 75-mile drive to the track to make sure he’d still make the 1 p.m. auction even if he had problems.

     “I’ve had so many races that got away (because of) an empty fuel tank or a flat tire, a spark plug breaking ... I didn’t want it to happen on the way here,” the 44-year-old father of four said. “So that’s why I left early.“

     He arrived more than four hours before the auction started. Hillenburg, who has competed in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, walked the track with his wife, Michelle, as the sun climbed higher. Hillenburg re-examined the track and double-checked his game plan.

     Eleven o’clock arrived and Hillenburg was the first bidder to register. Yet two hours remained until his hopes of running races at this track could be realized. Or dashed.

     Slowly, eight others signed up for a chance to buy the track and the 244 acres that came with it.
     Hillenburg studied his competition. He admitted before the auction that he didn’t know enough about them to feel good. Many wore sunglasses, much like a poker player, even as the sky grew darker.

     Finally, the break ended.

     Again, no bidders. Not even at $4.1 million.

     “If you don’t bid, I’m going to sell it,” Haynes warned, as Hillenburg leaned back in a folding chair. The crowd, many favoring Hillenburg, yelled “Sell it!“

     They hushed when Haynes began the countdown. Then he struck his gavel.

     “Ladies and gentlemen, we have sold the property here today,” Haynes shouted as the crowd cheered.

     Hillenburg won with a bid, including fees, of $4.4 million.

     “We’ll definitely have racing here,” said Hillenburg, who runs Fast Track High Performance Driving School. “We’ll have some driving schools. We’ll have some movies and commercials. We’ll have a few Legends (cars) races and, hopefully, be an important part of the community.“

     Shortly after he signed the paperwork, Hillenburg was on the phone securing a race date next year. Expect the ARCA series to run at Rockingham next fall.

     That proved the perfect ending for a day with so many possibilities.

     “The track was built for racing,” Rockingham’s mayor proclaimed. After a four-year break, racing will be back.