ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Left behind as NASCAR outgrew its regional roots, North Carolina Speedway will be sold to the highest bidder Tuesday.
Where legends such as Earnhardt, Petty and Waltrip once raced, prospective buyers will compete to be the next owner of “The Rock,” which held its last race in early 2004. No minimum bid. High offer gets the speedway.
Three years ago, The Rock sold for about $100 million in a legal settlement. Tax records place the current value at $30 million. Some say it will sell for less than $10 million.
That may sound like blasphemy to die-hard race fans. Yet it’s the cost of NASCAR’s expansion across the U.S., in which bigger, newer speedways have grabbed races from Carolinas tracks that have more history but are too small and too remote.
Still, it’s not every day that a 1-mile banked oval with grandstands, garages and other buildings is on the auction block.
“I’ve been doing this 30 years,” said William Bone, whose company is handling the auction, “and I’ve never seen it.”
The National Auction Group is selling the track 10 miles north of Rockingham for Speedway Motorsports Inc., which bought The Rock in 2004 as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by one of the company’s stockholders.
In that deal, North Carolina Speedway lost its last Nextel Cup race to Texas Motor Speedway, another Speedway Motorsports track that seats more than three times as many people. The Rock had lost its other race a year earlier to California Speedway, owned by The Rock’s previous owner, International Speedway Corp., an SMI rival that is part of the France family's NASCAR empire.
Those moves and others – North Wilkesboro lost two races in 1997, and Darlington, S.C., lost a race in 2004 – symbolized NASCAR’s ongoing transformation into a national sport. Of Speedway Motorsports’ six active tracks, all but Bristol are in or near major markets ranging from San Francisco to Charlotte.
By comparison, North Carolina Speedway, some 70 miles east of Charlotte, is more than a hour from the Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh metro areas, and the Richmond County population is less than 50,000.
“We looked at it and tried to figure out what to do with it,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports. “Nothing that we do fits there.”
‘Status and morale’
While not surprising, closing of The Rock was tough, said Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin, who went to the speedway’s first race in 1965 when he was 9.
“I’ve actually got a program,” he said. “It hurts, no question about it.”
Richmond County Manager Jim Haynes said that many residents have gotten over losing the races and that the local economy didn’t suffer. The county no longer gets the big sales tax boost from the two race weekends, Haynes said, but annual tax revenue has grown overall since then.
The loss “was more status and morale,” he said.
“We didn’t see the economic slap that we thought we might.”
Since mid-2004, the speedway has been used sporadically as a testing facility, as a filming location for movies and TV commercials, and for other special events.
So what’s next?
Wheeler said the site could be good for some kind of automotive plant, with the speedway serving as a test track. A new manufacturing facility, however, would need infrastructure improvements; roads to the site are only two lanes, and Haynes said there are no sewer connections.
“We are limited in what could probably go there,” he said.
Bone, the auction company president, said he expects four or five serious bidders, most likely connected to the racing industry.
“What I’d hate to see is somebody tear it down and put up a subdivision,” he said. “To build this thing today, it would probably cost about $100 million.”
A handful of prospective bidders have toured the speedway since it was opened for inspection Sept. 21, said Sue Levin, the auction company’s site manager.
Traffic, she said, “has been pretty good, considering not everybody wants to own a speedway, or maybe they want to but can’t afford it.”
One potential buyer, Andy Hillenburg, runs a racing school in Harrisburg and said The Rock still could be used for racing. But Hillenburg also said the price may be too high for him.
The speedway is in good shape, he said, but all of the furniture and maintenance equipment is gone. The cost of replacing those items, as well as ongoing expenses such as utilities and taxes, could exceed the sale price, Hillenburg said.
“Not only do you need a pile of money to buy it,” he said, “but you need a pile of money to reopen it.”
If you spend too much on the purchase, Hillenburg added, “you’re going to have another auction in a year.”
“Am I the favorite? No,” he said. “Am I the sentimental favorite? Maybe. Am I going to be the richest guy there? Not even close.”
Whether it’s Hillenburg or someone else, the right buyer could make the speedway thrive again, said McLaurin, who plans to attend Tuesday’s auction.
NASCAR may be gone, he said, but local leaders want to work with the next owner to bring events back to The Rock.
“We think racing and Rockingham belong together,” McLaurin said. “Our community is eager to help somebody.”
About ‘The Rock’
More than 40 years after its first race, the North Carolina Speedway – often referred to as Rockingham or “The Rock” – will be sold at auction at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Location: 2152 U.S. 1, about 10 miles north of Rockingham.
First race: Oct. 31, 1965, won by Curtis Turner.
Last race: Feb. 22, 2004, won by Matt Kenseth.
Track length: 1.017 miles.
Property size: 244.2 acres.
Assessed value: About $30.2 million.