rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

Requiem for the Rock

I think it was Steve Slater, a motorsport colleague of mine, who first told me about the Rock. Knowing my passion for oval-based motorsport and particularly NASCAR, he knew I would be enthused at the prospect of Britain finally getting its very own full-blown oval speedway.

I first visited what was to become Rockingham Motor Speedway at the turn of the millennium, when it was under construction. My connection and appreciation for the place began there and has lasted to this day. Back then there was a real air of excitement that Britain was finally getting a proper US-style oval, together with a sense of wonder that this was rising from what had previously been a steelworks site in Corby – hardly Daytona, Indy or Charlotte…

We got a full-blown oval race facility, in Corby…

I was there, with a media pass, at the opening meeting in 2001, the Coy’s Historic Festival, where the first oval lap record was set in a US ChampCar single seater by one Nigel Mansell.

I was in the grandstand on Turn One a few months later, for the first of only two Rockingham 500s, ChampCars in Britain again, not this time at Brands Hatch or Silverstone, but on a real oval. That meeting was frustrating as we waited for the ‘weepers’, dampness issuing through the tarmac from rain over the preceding days, to be dealt with. The one thing we couldn’t control was the weather.

The race did happen, later in the afternoon, and boy were those cars fast – an average speed of 153mph… And what a last lap pass of Kenny Brack sealed the win for Gil de Ferran. A year later it got even better – my view was from Turn 4 this time, and the victory was taken by Dario Franchitti, the Scots superstar in ChampCar, winning at home.

The very best memories, however, were reserved for Rockingham’s very own NASCAR championship. It started as ASCAR, became the Days of Thunder Series, and finally SCSA, and the Charman family were at virtually all of them.

Britain’s NASCAR – the fastest motorsport action in the UK…

rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

When the stock cars hit the wall at the Rock, they felt it…

For me there was a truly memorable year working at SCSA meetings as a journalist for the circuit, under PR head Jeff Carter. We even had NASCAR-style shirts and jackets to wear, and I was on the inside of proper US stock car racing at a time when it was really good, each meeting highly entertaining – especially with the supporting pickup championship that routinely provided the most frantic action around the oval.

Clever marketing, combining the race action with evening music from the rising stars of the time, created family days out which proved a hit – I particularly remember a surreal night with the Charman clan rocking to The Darkness… More than 30,000 people watched the final Days of Thunder meeting in the 2003 season – they were heady days…

rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

Pickup Truck racing – even more frantic than ASCAR…

Then, however, the money went away. SCSA declined and died. The circuit was sold, there was talk of swathes of houses being built adjacent to it, its race days being slashed. For the Rock the really good times were over, and my presence became irregular, in recent years just one annual visit with the British Touring Car Championship circus.

As I drove out of the track last weekend, at the end of what had already been announced as the BTCC’s final visit to the track, I had the distinct feeling I was doing so for the last time. At that point Rockingham’s future was merely ‘uncertain’, the track up for sale, but within days it was confirmed that the sale had been concluded, and all motorsport would stop at the end of 2018 as the track closed its doors to become a storage facility for deflated and caution vehicles.

Dividing opinions

I know Rockingham is a divisive venue – we are told drivers don’t like its contrived road course.When you compare its typical race-day crowds to other BTCC venues it’s clearly not a favourite with spectators either – though it looked as if there were a goodly number present at the last BTCC weekend…

rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

No other BTCC venue offered quite the challenge of Rockingham…

I find the distaste for the place surprising – Rockingham meetings are always very well run, the basic facilities are good (clean toilets and plenty of them), and most of all, sit in the grandstand and you can see every inch of the circuit. No other BTCC venue can claim that..

rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

Very American but sadly also very defunct…

Admittedly, we didn’t quite get the proper US oval we were looking for – perhaps the designers would have been better going for a typical US ‘oval’, rather than the four corners of a square format, with a quartet of corners each with straights between them.

The Rock didn’t quite match up to what we are used to watching NASCAR, but then again NASCAR’s packed schedule ensured that series was never going to come to the UK. At least not from America – it’s a sad irony that just as Rockingham goes the NASCAR-sanctioned Euro series is growing in stature, but really needs more ovals to compete on.

And to be honest, in recent times it’s been quite sad to go to Rockingham. Don’t get me wrong, the staff were as efficient and friendly as ever and the working facilities as good as they’ve always been.

But sitting in the media centre (or the main grandstand above) one looked directly at the scoring tower soaring above the paddock – so American, but something that has not worked for most of the track’s life, and which now appears effectively derelict.

On either side were the four massive grandstands – I’ve watched races from all four of those stands, now no-one can watch races from any of them, each deemed unsafe and apparently slowly sinking into the ground. Perhaps it was us that started that, back in the ASCAR days, when the big crowds used to make those stands shake stamping their feet to the track’s theme tune, ‘We will Rock You’.

rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

When the grandstands remained in use they were great places to watch from…

Missing the point

Don’t get me wrong – Rockingham has been a busy place in recent years, especially during the week with a host of corporate bookings, so the fact it hasn’t been sold as a motorsport venue is a cruel finale. Sadly, however, it’s not a surprising one – it’s difficult to get away from the view that all through its mere 17-year life (far too short for any race circuit) Rockingham has been one big missed opportunity.

It could be one heck of a motorsport venue – as one of my colleagues in the BTCC media pack commented during that final weekend there’s room for a short oval, a rallycross circuit, even a rally stage. Sort the grandstands too, so that people can sit in them and make the place look occupied, make the most of the venue’s unique feature – that oval, and market it properly.

What Rockingham really needs is not the new owner it’s got, but one with the vision  – and pretty deep pockets – to make the most of the unique place it has occupied on the UK motorsport scene. Any takers?

rockingham, ASCAR, NASCAr, Andrew Charman, Shortaxle

End of race doughnuts – and end of the line for the Rock?

Advertisements

Today’s BTCC is great – but so was Super Touring…

Super Touring and NGTC – same makes, very different eras. Photos: Andrew Charman and BTCC

 

The British Touring Car Championship has been celebrating this season, looking back on 60 years of action and as I write these words I’m recalling the excellent Diamond Double anniversary race at Snetterton just a week or so ago. This was won so appropriately by Matt Neal, the only one of today’s BTCC drivers who competed throughout the period any look back inevitably focuses on – 1990 to 2000, the Super Touring era.

This is one era I feel qualified to comment on, because like a declining number of the personnel in today’s BTCC I was there, from start to finish. I feel it particularly in the media centre, because there I am in a club of one – today I am very much the ‘Old Fahrt’, amongst a press pack many of whom were not born when the Super Touring era began.

One other person who was very much there, of course, is the BTCC series director, Alan Gow. He is the man credited with creating Super Touring, and the global success story that it mushroomed into. So my attention was taken by a recent video interview in which Mr Gow effectively poured cold water on Super Touring, suggesting that the racing was not as memorable as we might think. Such comments had me searching in my desk drawer, finding my rose-tinted glasses…

To start with, I fully understand why Alan Gow makes such comments. He’s always been a man to look firmly forward rather than back, and it’s in his interest to big up the BTCC in its current form as much as possible.

In some, many, ways he’s right – never mind the controversies and moans we get at every meeting, that’s a sign of a successful championship, and the BTCC is a very successful championship. Yes costs are a concern, but Gow knows that, and he’s not going to do anything that runs the risk of damaging what is a very good product – you can see that in the fact that the BTCC provides many a British circuit with its biggest crowds of the season, and that the drivers are supported and slated in equal measure with an almost tribal mentality on social media (something we didn’t have in the 1990s).

Gimmicks? what gimmicks…

I find it hard to agree, however, with Gow’s comment that in the Super Touring years “the racing wasn’t great and eventually we had to introduce gimmicks to improve it…” The fact is, at the height of the Super Touring era we had good races, and poor races, and we still get that today.

Even now not every BTCC race is a classic, though they are generally more frenetic, yes, because the races are shorter – three sprints compared to one and later two races of significantly longer distance in Super Touring days – Knockhill 1994, two races of 32 laps each, Knockhill 2017 three of 24 laps each.

The grids are bigger too, so have a bad qualifying session, or previous result, today and you have to make your way through from the back pretty forcefully to get anything worthwhile out of your day. That inevitably means more aggression and more panel bashing, all caught by TV technology that has moved on a long way over the last couple of decades.

Today’s BTCC admirably fulfils the brief of entertainment overload in short, sharp segments – it is a child of its time.

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

Today’s short races and big grids leads to frenetic action. Photo: BTCC/Ebrey

Gimmicks in Super Touring? They consisted of such things as having races of different lengths, introducing pit stops with tyre changes – so the same for everyone. Not until the very last year of the Super Touring era did race success mean being penalised by having lumps of lead ballast added to your car for the next one.

In Super Touring days you did not by winning a race run the risk of starting the next one several rows back courtesy of a numbered ball pulled out of a jar. And there was certainly never any thought of an extra hybrid-generated ‘push-to-pass’ power boost, something we are told is coming to the BTCC in 2022…

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

We did, however, have plenty of action in the Super Touring era – here Toyota and Volvo clash at Snetterton in 1994. Photo: Andrew Charman

So clearly I have happy memories of the Super Touring years, and so no doubt I would prefer those times to what we have today? Not necessarily… To be honest, I don’t think the two eras can be directly compared, because they were so very different.

Today’s BTCC is a phenomenally successful championship, as I’ve already stated. But it is also by far the top national series in the UK, and certainly halfway into the Super Touring era I’m not so sure it could be described in the same way.

I consider myself very lucky to have been centrally involved in the series in those times, and looking back I contend that by the mid 1990s what we had was effectively an international championship that just happened to hold all of its meetings in one country.

The drivers, for example – right through the grid the cars were driven by pilots at the very top of their game, with previous experience of international sports cars, single seaters, even Formula One. In many cases they were earning the kind of money for running at Thruxton, Croft and Knockhill in one season that they previously had for a competitive year that included the likes of Spa, Monza and Le Mans.

Today the official in charge of playing the national anthem for the winning driver has it easy – “God save the Queen? – Check..” In 1994 they needed eight different anthems on hand, in 1997, nine…

The same was true of the teams that ran the cars – they were generally official manufacturer motorsport departments or international teams that would run their BTCC effort alongside their Le Mans and in some cases their F1 programmes.

The money flowed with seemingly little to stop it, and being amongst it was memorable way beyond the racing. Even on qualifying day the paddocks were jammed with fans savouring a taste of something that felt globally significant. This was a feeling shared by the core journalist pack, and not just because raceday Audi lunches in particular were legendary…

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

The crowds were big in Super Touring days too, even in the paddocks on qualifying day. Photo: Andrew Charman

The fact is, the vast majority of the drivers, and the teams, that occupy today’s BTCC and feature at the top of the results would have been a mere sideshow in the Super Touring years. They would have been fighting out the privateers cup at the back of the grid, denied any greater success by resources – in terms of budget and the elite personnel both behind the wheel and in the workshop that such money buys.

No going back

Of course it was this rampant spending that almost killed the BTCC, and did kill the Super Touring formula. And that is why, despite looking back with those rose-tinted specs firmly on, I would not advocate a return to anything like the Super Touring era.

You see what Alan Gow and his team at TOCA have achieved with the BTCC in recent years is sustainability. There is very little chance of the championship ever returning to a ‘boom and bust’ era such as was Super Touring. The BTCC is in a far stronger position to react to the challenges that the changing face of motor sport and particularly today’s financial environment brings.

Today teams that in Super Touring days could only have run at the back as privateers can now compete with and beat the few surviving works squads that were there, such as West Surrey Racing and Dynamics (a team that in the Super Touring era was a privateer). This clearly demonstrates how radically the demographic of the BTCC has changed.

So yes, today’s BTCC is great. But don’t try to convince us that the Super Touring era was not. All involved with that short period should recall it with pride, particularly those such as Alan Gow who were responsible for creating it. That we still talk about it so reverently, two decades on, shows just how special it was…

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

Peugeot works team at Knockhill in 1995. Peugeot was one of the first to be defeated by the costs of Super Touring, the kind of concept the BTCC could not go back to. Photo: Andrew Charman