I have to admit that sometimes I get a little jealous. I didn’t grow up as a fan of NASCAR. My childhood heroes were rock stars, not racecar drivers. And even though I attended races with my father as a young girl, it was more about spending time with my Dad than about the racing. Though the seed was planted at an early age, it didn’t flourish until many years later.
So as I write about the beginnings of NASCAR, I find myself wishing I could have been there to experience those historic moments in person. As any NASCAR fan will tell you, you haven’t experienced racing until you’ve seen it live and uncensored, up close and personal.
It has been said that you can’t go back but every once in a while, an opportunity comes along to do just that. On September 7th, it was announced that NASCAR will reunite with Rockingham Speedway as the Camping World Truck Series returns to the historic track in April 2012.
As varied as the drivers are, each race track also has its own unique personality, none more so than Rockingham Speedway.
I could site facts and figures about the track but what I really wanted to know is what the fans think. So I began asking people to share their thoughts and memories of “The Rock.”
I heard things like, “There’s not a bad seat in the house,” or “It’s a driver’s track,” and “There’s no other track like it on the circuit.”
Perhaps the biggest endorsement came from a friend who said, “It’s the first track I went to and I will never forget it. It’s what got me hooked on NASCAR.”
But the most memorable story was bittersweet. It reminded me that the history of NASCAR is filled not only with triumphs but loss, as well. His story goes back to February of 2001.
“Of course those were sad days following Dale’s death, especially the next day when the reality of what had happened began to truly sink in. There was no intention of attending the next weekend’s race at “The Rock,” no tickets had been ordered ahead of time, no plans were made.
“Tuesday afternoon I received a call from a friend to inform me that he had ordered tickets and knowing what a fan I was of Dale’s he asked if I wanted to go. It took no thought at all to blurt out a resounding, “Hell Yes!”
“We met at his house early on Saturday morning, tossed our bags into his motor home, and lit out for the 12-hour drive to the sandhills of North Carolina. We arrived at Rockingham late Saturday afternoon and after a quick scouting mission we set up camp in the pine woods just across the highway behind the frontstretch grandstands.
“Fully expecting many tears and a somber mood we were somewhat surprised to find that the fans in that campground were enjoying themselves, albeit on a much lesser scale than would most likely have been the case had the events of the previous week not occurred, but making the best of it none the less.
“There were No. 3 banners and homemade signs at almost every camp bidding fond farewells to Dale.
“By that time the evening’s campfires were being lit, their smell joining with the aroma of the pines in the misty air making for a somewhat surreal scene. There was music in the distance and I’ll never forget hearing the song ‘Free Bird’ wafting through the woods adding to that surreal feeling.
“I went into a storage compartment and broke out a fifth of the good stuff. I needed a drink. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it might be. Several long draws on the bottle, as well as a few beers, took the edge off, and so with bottle in tow, we were off to do some exploring.
“We stopped at many camps along the way where stories of Dale’s exploits were told and retold again. It was another thing that struck me, the friendliness, the brotherhood, the camaraderie. We were all racing fans and we were here to celebrate Dale.
“I will admit that there were times when I felt more like an observer rather than a participant, but another toast, another pull on that bottle brought me back to the reality of what was going on.
“Sunday dawned cold and bleak with a heavy mist in the air. A couple of fellows drove along the dirt path in front of our camp in a golf cart hawking newspapers from the week before telling of Dale’s passing. Damn.
“After coffee, we decided to head across the highway to the track, although the outlook for a race that day wasn’t very promising at all. I put on my black Dale Earnhardt T-shirt, black jeans and black No. 3 cap and we joined the quiet procession. Very few spoke and some wept as we all just slowly walked to the gates.
“I signed the Goodwrench hauler parked near the entrance, as almost everyone did, wishing Dale God’s speed. Some placed a hand on the side of the hauler as if it was a religious shrine, and I suppose on this day, in a way, it was.
“As one would expect, there was to be a pre-race ceremony in honor of the fallen Earnhardt.
“It was somewhat fitting that the skies were dark and heavy with rain that day as some preacher said some words of comfort that I don’t think anyone really heard. There were a lot of blank stares on expressionless faces.
“After a bit, Darrell and Stevie Waltrip took to the mic and in a trembling voice Darrell read a passage from the Bible. He then asked everyone in the stands to join hands and express fellowship to the people on either side of them, which we all did as he again read a Bible passage.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, myself included.
“As D.W. said his final goodbyes to Dale and left the stage, the skies ironically opened up with a brief but heavy rain as if the heavens themselves had to offer their own tears.
“As the ceremony ended there was an unearthly quiet except for the sounds of jet dryers. After a couple of hours of track drying the cars were pushed to pit road, including a plain white No. 29 Goodwrench Chevy with a small black No.3 next to the 29.
“The command was given to start the engines and it was as if the shroud had been lifted from Rockingham as those cars rolled onto the speedway. A few laps under the yellow and green flag and then the race was on at full song.
“It was on lap one or two that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was involved in an accident entering turn three that was almost identical to the one the week before that claimed his father.
“There was an audible gasp from the crowd as the images of the Sunday before flashed into our minds. As we know, Junior wasn’t injured, but the similarities to Dale’s fatal wreck were unmistakable.
“Then, again ironically, the skies opened up a second time, only this time heavily and persistently. The race was postponed, almost mercifully, until Monday.
“It was only later that I learned Rusty Wallace, after the race was called, looked up at the skies and said, (paraphrasing) ‘That’s Dale up there saying, if I can’t race, ain’t nobody gonna race’.
“As the fans filed out I sat in that rain and waited. I had one last gesture to attend to.
“I pulled my Sharpie out and wrote ‘God’s speed Dale’ inside the red brim of my No. 3 cap and tossed it over the fence onto the frontstretch asphalt. I had said my goodbye to The Intimidator in the best way I knew how.
“In a final bit of irony, it turned out Monday was sunny and the race was run. Steve Park in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy owned by the late Dale Earnhardt paid their own tribute by winning the race.
“All in all, it was an experience I’ll never forget … and one I hope I’ll never have to experience again.”
Special thanks to a dear friend, Mick, from Infield Parking, for sharing his experience.