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…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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..
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’.
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?