Trip to 'The Rock' good for the soul

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   It's truthfully time for me to thank God.
   Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to do what I love to do and have to access most sports fans only dream of.
   While setting in the press box at Neyland Stadium is terrific and it's something most in our area would kill for, one aspect of my job has been even better.
   Those who know me, know that racing is the sport that really gets my motor running. They often ask me about different speedways. Last year, I got to visit the one place I had always dreamed about going to, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
   I found it different from what I expected. Compared to Bristol and Charlotte, the area surrounding the historic track was a little run down as was the bleachers of the track's front stretch.
   I remembered this was part of the appeal, that the speedway had been there since 1909 and that was why it meant so much to so many people. Overall, the trip to Indy turned out to be one of the best times of my life. The raceway staff as was courtesy and helpful as anyone could imagine. When you are there, you can feel the history.
   Over the past few weeks, everyone has been asking me about the start of the season and if I was going to Daytona. The answer was always no, that I had chosen to go to Rockingham instead. I have to say it was one of the best decisions that I have recently made.
   It was my first trip to the North Carolina Speedway and within a couple of hours, I fell in love with the place. Built in 1966, it has been modernized enough without losing its charm. A superspeedway, it measures 1.017 miles in length. In size and amenities, it ranks somewhere in between two Carolina raceways that I always have enjoyed, Hickory and Charlotte.
   Despite being a larger track, certain things about the North Carolina Speedway is more akin to the short track of Hickory than the opulence of Lowe's Motor Speedway. The track's racing surface has beautiful imperfections and its outside is more geared to race fans than the corporations, whose money has been key in the sport's growth.
   There isn't anything at Rockingham like the tower or the condos over the magnificent Lowe's Motor Speedway. The press box and suites at The Rock, instantly recognizable to the fans, however are plenty nice enough.
   It does share a somewhat similar shape with the Lowe's Speedway and the track is large enough to have a grass area that separates the frontstretch from the pits. You know you have left the mountains and are getting closer to the coast with the sand that is always mixed in with the dirt and is incorporated in the racing surface itself.
   One thing I like about The Rock, compared to Daytona where fans flock to one week earlier, is setting on the frontstretch you can easily see the entire track.
   There was some sadness on this weekend, as it was well reported that NASCAR probably will take one of the dates from this track and one from historic Darlington and move them to other places.
   I understand that decision to expand the sport even more into the national landscape. Tracks at Kentucky, Nashville, St. Louis and Pikes Peak, Colorado would help broaden the sport, while tracks at Texas, Las Vegas and California have expressed great interest in obtaining a second Winston Cup date.
   There is also the issue of Rockingham being located within an hour of Darlington and within an hour and a half from Charlotte. It is a community surrounded by small towns. If you make the argument that it's not that far from Greensboro, Durham or Raleigh, people can make the counterpoint that Martinsville and Charlotte draw fans from those same markets.
   Another negative is the community doesn't seem to outwardly embrace the races in the same way that Bristol or Charlotte or Indy or Martinsville does. There were few signs on the way from Charlotte to Rockingham the morning of the Busch Series race that indicated that a big event was in town. With rumors swirling that the track would be losing a date next year, maybe the locals were resigned to that fate. If that is indeed the case, my hope is that the speedway does always get to keep one Winston Cup date.
   The facility is in good condition and they have enough seating capacity to justify a place on the schedule. With all the negative talk about cookie cutter tracks, this uniquely shaped speedway offers a challenge to the crews and drivers. Visually, it's easy to tell that turns one or two are differently banked than turns three and four.
   The front stretch is not the perfectly shaped quad oval. If you are fortunate to get in the infield and look up at the track surface coming off turn four, there are two large patches, including one in the shape of the number one. Even the pavement on the front stretch doesn't have the brand spanking new look, as it's visible where cracks have been filled.
   That's not to suggest that this place is run down. These scars give the place character. For fans, an unobstructed view is wonderful and if you set on the frontstretch or at the entrance of turn one, you can easily see victory lane.
   I'm not downing a trip to Daytona, but for me, I'm glad I chose to come to Rockingham instead. I stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of Charlotte, so I didn't have to pay an inflated motel rate. The drive through the Carolina countryside was enjoyable and once at the speedway, there was more of a laid-back attitude reminiscent of the days when it was more about the racing and having fun.
   Unfortunately, rain meant there would be no Busch Series race on Saturday. I would have to wait until Sunday to see my first race at The Rock. It was well worth the wait as the Subway 400 was a spectacular race, much better than the uneventful Daytona 500 one week earlier.
   I want to conclude with where the article started. I had a wonderful time my first trip to the North Carolina Speedway. I thank God for his blessings and the trips he has allowed me to take these last few years.