Wednesday afternoon I headed out to Rockingham Speedway to meet with track President, Andy Hillenburg. I wanted to find out a little more about the man who made it his mission to bring NASCAR racing back to Rockingham Speedway.
I arrived for my appointment a little early and sat in my car for a few minutes before going inside. As I sat waiting, I noticed someone out front trimming the hedges while another man stood nearby checking periodically to make sure everything looked just right. I suddenly realized that the other man was Andy Hillenburg. This was my first clue about the type of man I was about to interview.
He calls himself a ‘blue collar man’ and he is willing to do whatever it takes to make one of his dreams come true. If something needs to be painted, you’ll likely find him with a paint brush in hand. He’s quick to point out that the track doesn’t have a huge budget so he often has to get creative in order to get things accomplished.
One of his latest endeavors is a car he calls the “Rockmobile.” It’s a 1975 Dodge Coronet with a paint scheme designed to resemble a police car. On one side it reads, “To Serve and Promote,” and the phone number for ticket sales is prominently displayed. It’s a rolling advertisement that Hillenburg often drives around town.
Another thing that stood out as we talked is his passion for racing. It’s a passion he has carried with him his entire life.
Hillenburg was born and raised in Indianapolis, Ind. He worked in the family construction business but every spare moment was spent going to races.
“I’ve wanted to race for as long as I can remember,” he told me. “I never really wanted to do anything else.”
He built his first race car when he was 16 years old and began racing sprint cars. Over the next 10 years, he raced in open wheel cars whenever he had a chance. He competed in the USAC (United States Auto Club) series, the World of Outlaws series and anything else that was available. It didn’t really matter to him, as long as he was racing.
His goal was to one day race in the Indy 500.
He came close a couple of times. The first time he was actually entered to run but the team abruptly folded just prior to the race. The following year he thought he had a deal put together but a couple of weeks before the race, he realized it wasn’t going to happen.
He was becoming increasingly frustrated when a good friend suggested that he move to North Carolina and try his hand at stock car racing.
“I hadn’t really given it much thought,” he said. “In Indianapolis, there’s so much racing. It’s everywhere you go. You just drive two miles down the road and there’s another race shop. I didn’t think any place could match that. I was perfectly content to stay in Indianapolis.”
But then his friend took him to a Busch (now Nationwide Series) race in Hickory, N.C. in the spring of 1990.
Hillenburg was so impressed that he made a drastic decision. With only a duffle bag full of clothes, his helmet, and a hundred dollars he borrowed from another friend, he got in his truck and drove to Charlotte, N.C. Hillenburg spent the first four nights sleeping in that truck across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Then he ran into Kenny Schrader. He’d raced against Schrader so they knew each other slightly, but they weren’t what you’d call good friends. They stood around talking for a while and Schrader asked Hillenburg what he was doing in town.
“I moved here,” Hillenburg told him.
Schrader said, “That’s great. Do you have a deal?” “No,” Hillenburg replied.
Schrader then asked, “Where are you living?” “Right there in my truck,” Hillenburg responded.
At this point, Schrader began laughing. But he ended up taking Hillenburg out to his shop and gave him a place to stay for about 6 months.
During the day, Hillenburg visited all the race shops, looking for any kind of job just to get his foot in the door. In the evenings, he helped out at the shop by mowing the grass, taking out the trash, washing cars and anything else that needed doing.
He finally got a job at Fast Track High Performance Driving School. It wasn’t long before he was running the entire shop. The owner of the shop even fielded a couple of cars for Hillenburg to run two Cup races. It wasn’t much but it was enough to keep the dream alive.
About this time Hillenburg had the opportunity to buy the school. It was a decision that would require him to put his driving career on hold for 3 years. He found that he loved the driving school business and worked hard to make it a success.
But he hadn’t given up on his racing career.
He finally had a chance to run a full season in 1995 in the ARCA series. He made the most of it by winning the championship.
As he reflected on his life, he paused and said, “I’m a person that has a lot of dreams and I’ve been fortunate to accomplish several of them.”
Then he leaned in, as if to tell me a secret. “But not all of them; because I have lots.”
In the 1990s, most of Hillenburg’s time on the track was spent as a test driver. He test drove for over 20 Cup teams, Ford Motor Company and Dodge Engineering. He was also an IROC test driver for about 10 years.
He never really had the opportunity to race full time but he has no regrets and feels like he accomplished what he set out to do.
One of the highlights of his racing career came at Daytona Speedway in 1998. He had to qualify on time to enter the race and he remembers it as “the best race I ever drove in my life.”
Then, in 2000, at 37 years of age, he went to Indianapolis and competed in the Indy 500, accomplishing yet another lifelong dream.
Hillenburg has also tried his hand as a team owner, most recently in the Camping World Truck series and the ARCA series.
Did I mention that he has a lot of dreams?
In his spare time, he also works as a stuntman and acts in commercials and movies.
In the back of his mind, he knew that there was one piece missing to complete his business circle; owning a racetrack.
It would give his driving school a home base and would come in handy for the stunt work and acting gigs that he likes to do as well.
He had looked at a few tracks but nothing seemed like a good fit until Rockingham Speedway came up for auction in 2007.
One of his goals from the very beginning was to bring NASCAR racing back to the track but he’s a little surprised at how quickly it happened.
He’s also extremely proud of what he’s been able to accomplish and excited for the future. But he doesn’t take all the credit. It’s been a team effort from everyone at the track and the support of the community has been invaluable.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that without Andy Hillenburg, it would not have happened.
It is his blue collar work ethic, his willingness to take risks and his vision that have made it all possible.
Rockingham Speedway seats approximately 30,000 and ticket sales are progressing well. But Hillenburg says they aren’t going to stop until one of two things happens.
“We’re either sold out or we give the command to start your engines.”
My last question for him was this. Why should fans come to Rockingham?
“I feel like we’re unique. I want to be the facility that’s an old comfortable pair of shoes; a nice evening on the porch. We’re that race track. All those old memories that you can relive as well as build new ones, that’s what I’m after.”
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returns to “The Rock” on April 15th. For more information and to purchase tickets please visit online at rockinghamspeedway.com.