Originally created 05/15/04

Goodbye to the Rock; NASCAR taking races to Texas, Phoenix



ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- NASCAR will pack up and leave this little town forever.

The 2005 Nextel Cup schedule will no longer include North Carolina Speedway, better known as "The Rock." And nearby Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, stock car racing's original superspeedway, will have just one race.

For a sport that was born among moonshiners hauling whisky through mountain hollows and came of age on sun-baked Southern speedways, the announcement Friday was another milestone in NASCAR's move away from its roots.

"We can't pick the racetrack up and move it," said Chris Browning, executive vice president of North Carolina Speedway.

Plenty of factors chipped away at The Rock in recent years. Attendance was mediocre, which is never a good sign in a sport where sellouts have become the rule. Its rural location offered few amenities, meaning most fans were unable to stay near the track.

It also is within an hour of Darlington, which has staged two races since 1960, and Lowe's Motor Speedway, outside Charlotte.

The Rock held two races in NASCAR's elite series every year from 1966-2003. But the track lost one of its dates this year, and NASCAR's desire to move out of saturated markets and into major markets made the announcement inevitable, Browning said.

For residents, the news was greeted with a resigned shake of the head - and some bitterness.

"(It's) bad that they took it away from us," said Kathy Ard, who manages a Days Inn. "After all the work that's been done at that racetrack, with road construction and everything else, I think it's sorry of NASCAR. I think they just got a little too big for their britches."

For April Hamilton, who owns a seafood restaurant and used to do catering during race weeks, Rockingham's disappearance from the Cup schedule means lost revenue. Hamilton estimated she drew $12,000 a year from two Cup dates.

The decision to take the races away from Rockingham and Darlington is part of a schedule realignment and comes a year after NASCAR ended its association with its longtime sponsor, North Carolina-based Winston.

Texas Motor Speedway, outside Dallas, will get one of the races, and Phoenix International Raceway the other, meaning both tracks will have two events starting next year.

The changes were part of a settlement of a lawsuit against NASCAR by Francis Ferko, a shareholder in Speedway Motorsports Inc. The suit contended NASCAR breached agreements by not awarding a separate Cup date to SMI-owned Texas Motor Speedway.

As part of the settlement, the Bruton Smith's SMI will pay $100.4 million to buy North Carolina Speedway from International Speedway Corp. ISC is majority owned by the France family, which controls NASCAR.

Smith could not be reached for comment on what he plans to do with North Carolina Speedway, and Browning said the track's 11 full-time employees might land other jobs within ISC.

It's not the first time Smith has bought a track to get a date for Texas Motor Speedway. The track got its first date in 1997 after Smith bought half of the North Wilkesboro track and moved one of its Cup dates to Texas. North Wilkesboro is now defunct, its other race gone to New Hampshire.

Battles over Cup dates became commonplace as speedway construction boomed in the 1990s, when the sport set attendance records and began to change its image as a solely Southeastern sport. New tracks opened near Los Angeles, Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Miami and Dallas.

The latest changes are "another example of us increasing our visibility in an area of the country that is truly a hotbed for NASCAR fans," NASCAR president Brian France said.

Driver Matt Kenseth, who clinched his Cup title at Rockingham last November and won what turned out to be the last NASCAR race at the track in February, lamented the loss of the 1.017-mile oval.

"It was great racing. They just couldn't get the people in the stands," he said. "Being in the Southeast and with the time of year that we raced there, the weather had chances of not being good."

Browning said ISC spent $30 million renovating Rockingham over the last decade. But it wasn't enough. Attendance for February's race fell 10,000 short of the track's 60,000-seat capacity, another in a long string of non-sellouts.