SAFER walls coming to The Rock

Updated: August 16, 2011, 3:45 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

The Rockingham Speedway, which hosted NASCAR Sprint Cup races from 1965 to 2004, is taking a huge step toward once again hosting big-league racing as SAFER "soft wall" barriers will be installed next month.

The energy-absorbing system will be installed in two phases, in mid-September and late December, covering all four turns of the one-mile oval and the inside of the backstretch wall.

The most common estimate of the SAFER barrier cost is $1 million per mile. "Yes, that's expensive," said Robert Ingraham, the track's general manager, "but nothing's more expensive than having someone hurt."

NASCAR requires racetracks to have the SAFER barrier in place before they can host one of the sanctioning body's top three national series -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide, or Camping World Trucks. Rockingham, then known as North Carolina Motor Speedway, hosted 78 Sprint Cup events and 42 Nationwide Series races, but it hasn't held a NASCAR event since Matt Kenseth's victory in the Subway 400 on Feb. 22, 2004.

The track and the 244 acres it sits on were dormant for nearly four years before it was purchased by veteran racer Andy Hillenburg at auction on Sept. 27, 2007.

Hillenburg has kept the complex open thanks to a patchwork of racing from smaller non-NASCAR divisions such as ARCA and UARA, but has struggled to attract crowds.

The facility received a boost in 2009 with NASCAR's current "testing ban" rules. NASCAR teams can be found participating in near-weekly test sessions on both the big oval and the half-mile "Little Rock" test track, a near-clone of the Martinsville Speedway.

Rockingham officials have had discussions with NASCAR, albeit informal, about the possibility of a Nationwide or Truck Series event returning to the track more commonly known as The Rock. A source within NASCAR, speaking on condition of anonymity, admits as much.

However, the lack of a SAFER barrier had always been an insurmountable issue. Without the promise of a NASCAR race, Hillenburg wasn't confident enough to try and secure funds for SAFER installation. That now appears to have changed.

Just last month, Nashville Superspeedway announced it was closing, essentially orphaning four NASCAR events, two each in Nationwide and Trucks. Since that announcement, speculation has run rampant as to where those races might end up in 2012. Next season's NASCAR schedules have not yet been finalized.

Ingraham is quick to say that these new SAFER plans are "all about driver safety."

But he added, "If it looks like we are being proactive about attracting a larger event, that's not an accident."

NASCAR president Mike Helton told ESPN.com's David Newton that while he "wouldn't want to give anybody false hope," the installation of SAFER barriers "gives us more options."

"A lot of it might have to do with the fact that a lot of teams test there. So I wouldn't read too much between the lines. But with SAFER barriers in place that's an obstacle that would be cleared," said Helton, who didn't rule out that the Nationwide Series schedule could have fewer races next season.

Senior writer Ryan McGee covers motorsports for ESPN The Magazine. ESPN.com's David Newton contributed to this report.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR