History of Rockingham Speedway
With the construction of superspeedways booming in the 1960s, there were those who believed a race track in North Carolina’s Sandhills could benefit that area’s economy. Southern Pines and the famed Pinehurst No. 2 golf course were within an hour in Moore County, but rural Richmond County needed something for its residents.
There were two types of race tracks during that era. Short tracks, which were less than a mile in length, and superspeedways, which were one mile or longer. The term intermediate tracks didn’t exist. With the 2.5-mile Daytona track opening in 1959 and the 1.5-mile facilities at Charlotte and Atlanta a year later, it was believed a one-mile track best suited Rockingham.
Initially named North Carolina Motor Speedway, the track that became affectionately known as “The Rock” was located 10 miles north of Rockingham adjacent to U.S. Highway 1. Harold Brasington, who built Darlington (S.C.) Raceway which opened in 1950, was the contractor. He and Bill Land, who owned the property, began constructing the track in 1964. However, financial problems soon ensued.
One man who played a key role in the rescue of the fledgling project was businessman L.G. DeWitt.
The fifth of five children, DeWitt moved with his family to North Carolina’s Sandhills from South Carolina’s low country when he was 12 years old. He and his siblings picked cotton and worked in potato and sugar cane fields. Most of his family finished high school but didn’t attend college. A self-made businessman. DeWitt was once the person behind 25 corporations. DeWitt was once the largest peach grower in the world with peach orchards in North and South Carolina and Florida. For those living in Ellerbe, N.C., and Rockingham who worked at DeWitt’s peach packing houses, he even had a bus that picked up his employees. DeWitt also possessed his own trucking company for shipping the peaches, a favorite fruit to add to moonshine. Just place peaches in a jar, fill it with finished moonshine and let it sit for about nine months before drinking it.
However, it wasn’t the peach and moonshine connection that lured DeWitt into the racing business. It was the fact he was among those who viewed the speedway as benefitting Richmond County. He became involved in the race track’s construction when Brasington’s and Land’s relationship became strained. Each man wanted to buy out the other, so they went to see J. Elsie Webb, a local attorney who was a close friend of DeWitt.
Webb decided to call a meeting of a few local leaders in January 1965. In addition to DeWitt, Sheriff R.W. Goodman, Hubert Lathan, and banker E. Vernon Hogan attended the meeting. Since they already had a NASCAR-sanctioned race on the calendar for October of that year, the five men decided to proceed with the construction of the one-mile facility. Webb was named president and DeWitt the vice president. In addition to supervising the building of the track, the group also financed it.
By the time the track opened on Oct. 31, 1965, American 500, Webb’s, and DeWitt’s group had invested a million dollars. DeWitt also had started a NASCAR Cup team, first hiring local drivers John Hill and John Sears. However, it was after he hired Ellerbe resident Benny Parsons that the two men enjoyed their only Cup championship in 1973.
Rockingham’s inaugural race paid dividends for NASCAR as well as Richmond County. The 1965 season had been a tough one for NASCAR with Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge boycotting after the Hemi engine was outlawed. That meant Richard Petty wasn’t defending his 1964 title. Also, fan favorite Curtis Turner was still banned from NASCAR for attempting to unionize the drivers in 1961. Petty finally returned in July at Bristol, Tenn., the 34th event in the 55-race season.
Turner was notified nearly two months before the Rockingham race that his four-year suspension had ended. Darlington Raceway’s Bob Colvin and A.C. Goines and Richard Howard of Charlotte Motor Speedway convinced NASCAR head Bill France Sr. that the only way to salvage the dismal year in which the fans, track promoters, and officials were unhappy was to allow Turner’s return.
The Rockingham race marked the first time that season that the most popular drivers and all of the manufacturers and car makers were in a NASCAR Cup event.
Petty earned the pole for the inaugural American 500 and Turner claimed the race victory in a Wood Brothers Ford. The man who began running moonshine at age 9 had claimed his 17th NASCAR Cup victory at age 41, defeating Cale Yarborough by 11 seconds. It was Turner’s first victory since March 1959, but it was the last of his career.
Four years after North Carolina Motor Speedway opened it underwent an extensive reconfiguration, becoming a high-banked, slightly D-shaped oval slightly more than a mile in length. DeWitt eventually gained sole control of the speedway and it was owned by his family until 1997 when it was sold to Roger Penske, who renamed the track North Carolina Speedway. Two years later International Speedway Corp. acquired the speedways owned by Penske. ISC then sold Rockingham to Speedway Motorsport Inc., which closed the track.
SMI put the track up for auction in 2007 and former driver Andy Hillenburg with a few investors purchased it. It shut down again in 2014 due to financial issues. “The Rock” is now owned by Rockingham Properties LLC.
- Contributed by Deb Williams