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Third Place

Racing again at Rockingham?

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. – Somebody get Albert Einstein on the phone.
On Sunday, May 4, 2008, we experienced a genuine wormhole, some sort of crossover in the space-time continuum, a switchback on the physics map where the past and the future crossed over each other like a county fair figure-eight race.
And it happened in the unlikeliest of places: Rockingham.
The ARCA Re/Max Series rolled into The Rock on a sparkling Sunday morning for the Carolina 500, officially reopening the track that NASCAR abandoned in 2004 for greener financial pastures. In what became the theme of the day, the track saluted the past and then promptly turned to the future, ditching its four-decade-old title of North Carolina Speedway for a new name: Rockingham Speedway.
"Makes sense to me," said Bobby Allison, winner of four Cup races at The Rock. "We never called it anything but Rockingham anyway."
Allison was in attendance as part of what became a very nostalgic morning in the Rockingham garage. Bobby and brother Donnie were recognized in prerace introductions, where they were gushed over by honorary starter Tony Stewart and pace-car driver Greg Zipadelli.
Meanwhile pit road was crawling with a bizarre mixture of old- and new-school, from crews to sportswriters, to 52-year-old Kenny Schrader battling for the win with rivals a third his age.
T. Taylor Warren, an 82-year-old photographer who covered Rockingham's first race in 1965 and never missed another, stood shoulder to shoulder with a local teenager, snapping shots for his high school newspaper.
On Oct. 21, 1973, crew chief Travis Carter used the Rockingham garage to orchestrate one of the greatest saves in NASCAR history. His locally based L.G. DeWitt Racing team completely rebuilt the No. 72 Chevy of Benny Parsons, overcoming a devastating early wreck to barely win the Cup title over Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.
Thirty-five years later, Carter and the Parsons family watched as the massive black frontstretch tower was dedicated the Benny Parsons Tower. Then Carter headed to the pits to watch his 26-year-old son, Matt, who came home to Richmond County as the ARCA points leader.
During the prerace ceremonies, 73-year-old James Hylton, who made the first of his 35 Rockingham starts in 1966, mingled on the infield grass with 18-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy Joey Logano, making his first ARCA start from the pole.
"Every time I talk to those young guys, I just remind them to mind their manners out there on the track," Hylton said moments before receiving one of the loudest rounds of applause during driver introductions. "It makes me feel like their daddy … OK, maybe their granddaddy."
The most famous granddaddy in attendance was Richard Childress, or as grandson racer Austin Dillon calls him, Pop-Pop. Austin's Pop-Pop started 18 Rockingham races as a driver and won three as a team owner (his driver was some guy named Earnhardt). Austin's dad, Mike Dillon, drove in a dozen Busch Series races at The Rock.
"When I was a kid, I used to go to the driver's meetings and sit beside Dad or Pop-Pop," the just-turned-18 Dillon said with a smile of total disbelief. "This morning we were back in that same garage in the same meeting, but this time they were there to sit with me. It was so cool, but it was surreal, too."
"It brings back a lot of memories looking out over this track," Childress said, standing just a few paces from the same Victory Lane where he and Earnhardt celebrated both a race win and their sixth Cup Series title in October 1994. "It kind of reminds you of what NASCAR used to be like, a little more fun. But once the race starts, it'll be all about these young guys right here."
As usual, R.C. was right.
When Stewart waved the green flag a little after high noon, he also threw the checkered flag on Rockingham's past. Now it was time to focus on the future. A future that began with this, the highest-paying race in ARCA history, and will continue here with the USAR Hooters Pro Cup season finale on Nov. 1, and -- get this, folks -- the New Year's Day Polar Bear 150, which will feature no less than 99 Street Stockers on the track at one time.
"It's hard to believe the time has finally come," new track owner Andy Hillenburg said about two hours before the green flag, nervously rocking back and forth and throwing down a can of Cheerwine (relax all you non-Southerners, it's a soft drink). "We'll see if the fans show up. All we can do is put the racing out there and win them back one race at a time."
On Sunday they did, filling the top 10 to 15 rows of the fronstretch grandstand. They stood and cheered, took in the perfect weather (quipped one veteran racing writer: "If we'd known ARCA was going to be the answer to getting rid of the Rockingham rain, we should have had them here 30 years ago."), and relished the chance to look into the stock car racing future.
For all the looking back, this is what this race was ultimately all about. The unexpected opportunity to peer into the crystal ball and steal a glance at the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup starting grid. The lineup that is likely to include a wad of Sunday's ARCA participants, include Logano, already being lauded as Tony Stewart's replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse, Petty Enterprises heir apparent Chad McCumbee, Red Bull Racing's Scott Speed and Michael Annett, the latest discovery of Cup owner Bill Davis, the man who brought us Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte.
"It's hard to look at all these young guys and not think about myself right there at this track not so long ago," Ricky Rudd said with a wink, referring to his Cup Series debut in the 1975 Carolina 500 at Rockingham. Like Logano, he was only 18. Unlike Logano, he was the only kid at The Rock that hadn't used a ticket to get in. "I think the next youngest driver was 35 and it was my first time ever driving a stock car."
On Sunday, Rudd ran the pace laps in a car fielded by the United Way while a lucky fan rode along. As the 51-year-old made his 55th "start" at The Rock, he drove through the same first turn he passed through more than 21,000 times during his career.
But this time the space above that turn was renamed the Ricky Rudd Grandstand, and most of the youngsters up ahead of him were about to race by it for the first time.
"I know times have changed, but I'm willing to bet the feelings in that driver's seat haven't," Rudd said. "These kids are nervous wrecks, but they are confidant and a little cocky, too. You have to be. That's never changed."
As we learned on Sunday, neither has racing at The Rock, not even as the old track hammers its way into a new lease on life. And every race fan's life is a little better off because of it.