Early in 1992, Steve Earwood went from promotional guru to track owner when the veteran NHRA pitchman utilized some creative financing to purchase North Carolina’s Rockingham Dragway.
“I had made an inquiry a few years before that about Rockingham Dragway because I had heard it could be bought. I was just a working stiff, I didn’t have any money, but just for fun I called to see if in fact the track was for sale, and it wasn’t at the time,” Earwood explained. “Then Mr. L.G. DeWitt, the owner of the drag strip and the speedway, passed away in 1991. The DeWitt family sent word to me – I was working at the Texas Motorplex at the time – that they wanted to talk to me about buying Rockingham Dragway.
“They didn’t want the drag strip. They were concentrating on the speedway because they had the two NASCAR Cup Series races and, at the time, those races were like winning the lottery,” Earwood continued. “They were offering a price for it that I thought was reasonable, but not for me. I was just a working stiff and I couldn’t raise that kind of money.”
But a friend and eventual partner convinced him otherwise.
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“I had a racer friend of mine, Roy Hill, who lived in the Carolinas. I visited him while I was here meeting with the DeWitt family and Frank Wilson. He said I should buy the track,” Earwood said. “So I go back to Texas and Roy calls and says he’s got a guy who will bank us if we want to buy this thing. It was Cliff Stewart, who was involved in NASCAR at the time. Cliff Stewart was in the furniture business. Roy said Cliff would give us a down payment to buy the track.”
Earwood had enough business sense to inquire about a contract.
“I was assured in the Carolinas a man’s word is his bond, you don’t need a contract,” he explained. “So I kind of went along with that, quit my job and moved here. Friday before we were supposed to close on Monday morning, Cliff Stewart decided he didn’t want to do this and pulled out. That left us with no financing, so we contacted every bank in the state and everybody we knew, trying to raise the money.
“Finally, we met a banker is Sophia, N.C., and she could OK loans up to $10,000 and anything above that she had to get approval for, and she knew they wouldn’t approve financing a drag strip,” Earwood recalled. “But she told me ‘bring as many guys to me as you can and I’ll loan each one of them $10,000, and you’ll get your down payment.’ We drug every drag racer we knew in the state of North Carolina in there. I would fill out the paperwork in the lobby, they would go in and see her and she would cut them a check for 10 grand.
“We get the down payment and I walk into the track office 38 days before the Winston Invitational (a marquee NHRA special event), which was in April — no power, no equipment, no help, no secretary, no nothing, just me,” Earwood said. “I went to work, literally 20 hours a day, seven days a week. We had the Winston Invitational and we were blessed with three days of great weather. We had terrific crowds and ignorance really is bliss because I didn’t know what I was doing, but we were able to pay back those loans.”