OLD TRACK Rockingham is dealing with the pain of neglect

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- The billboards still stand around the countryside as they have for the better part of 40 years, promoting the NASCAR race at North Carolina Speedway.
But a closer look reveals a date more than a year old -- Feb. 22, 2004. For the first time since it opened, the track known as "The Rock" isn't on the schedule, one of the losers as NASCAR has grown into a national phenomenon.
"NASCAR has made a decision to move beyond its roots," Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin said. "Maybe neglect is too strong a word, but I don't think so."
The track hosted two races a year from 1966-2003, then dropped to only one last season when California Speedway near Los Angeles got a second date.
Even then, when the Nextel Cup Series came for what most people knew was the last chance for Rockingham, the crowd fell well short of a sellout, with about 10,000 empty seats at a track that holds 60,000.
This year, Texas Motor Speedway got Rockingham's remaining spot on the schedule, part of a lawsuit settlement last year between NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. shareholder Francis Ferko.
Smith awarded track
Another part of the settlement awarded North Carolina Speedway to SMI founder Bruton Smith for $100.4 million. The track had been owned by International Speedway Corp., which is run by the France family that controls NASCAR.
"There are no plans to take a race back to Rockingham," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.
The change was particularly disappointing to Kyle Petty, a native of Randleman, N.C., who watched as NASCAR dropped two of his home tracks in the past decade. North Wilkesboro Speedway was cut from the circuit in 1997, and, like Rockingham, it sits within 100 miles of Petty's hometown.
North Carolina Speedway provided some of the best side-by-side action on the circuit, thanks mostly to an abrasive surface that chewed up tires and made aerodynamics virtually useless. Matt Kenseth edged Kasey Kahne by .010 seconds in the finale, the fourth-closest finish in series history.
"It just so happens Rockingham ain't L.A., and it ain't Chicago, and it ain't Kansas, and it ain't Dallas," Petty said. "They just market races now, and that's the only way you can look at it. It doesn't make a difference what the race track is like or how good the racing is, they're going to go to major markets."
Hometown blues
At least Petty has gotten a chance to visit the track. He took his team there a few months ago for a test session, running all day to check gear and suspension pieces.
"It's kind of a sad place to go, because they don't race there anymore," he said. "And it is such a good race, and they haven't had a lot of good races this year. You wish it was still on the schedule, but things change."
Through a spokesman, Smith said he is willing to listen to offers for the track, and he has tried to push events that way. The Sports Car Club of America rented the track earlier this year for a weekend of racing, and there's a chance similar festivities will keep people coming to Rockingham.
The state's General Assembly made a futile attempt to help the track keep its spot on the schedule, and saw firsthand how little history and longtime support seem to mean these days in NASCAR.
Charlotte is among the cities bidding for the sport's hall of fame, and state legislators have approved an increase in the Charlotte-area hotel room tax.

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