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?

NASCAR gimmicks? Not so much…

ShortAxle is back! Yes I know, it’s a terribly long time since I last posted here. But hopefully from now you should see more regular posts, coinciding with the launch of my new website at www.andrewcharman.co.uk. There will also be a new theme to this page soon to better sit alongside the website.

As I write this we are 24 hours away from the real start of my motorsport year– Mrs C is in the kitchen starting work on meatloaf, mudslide pies and the like, as it’s the Daytona 500 tomorrow and we always have a bit of an American-themed day to mark the arrival of the NASCAR season.

No doubt tomorrow’s race will be described by some as ‘the start of a new era’ for NASCAR, not just because of a new aerodynamic package with significantly less downforce, but the wholesale change in race formats, on which I will go into more detail shortly.

No rest come winter

NASCAR has had a few of these ‘new eras’ in recent times. I used to enjoy my annual catch-up with the sport’s technical types when they came over for the symposium staged each year in January by Race Tech, one of the magazines I write for. But these guys haven’t been able to join us for a while now because each winter they’ve been too busy getting their heads around the latest wholesale rule changes, as NASCAR tries to address a major issue – significantly fewer people are watching the sport.

Personally I don’t think the blame for a decline in spectator numbers over recent years can be completely levelled at NASCAR – the whole world knows Americans have been feeling less than comfortable and when you don’t feel comfortable you don’t spend money. But it’s sad when TV pictures show tracks such as Bristol only half full. Bristol! Where once races sold out to the degree that one went on a waiting list in the hope of getting some tickets in a couple of years time. A place very much on this writer’s bucket list.

So NASCAR can’t simply accept such declines, it has to try and arrest the slump, which is why we’ve got used to major changes between seasons. Even so, I couldn’t quite believe the reaction to the latest changes from one leading US motorsport correspondent.

NASCAR Bristol

When the great bullring of Bristol can’t sell out its race, NASCAR has to take notice – and it is. Photo courtesy Toyota Racing

Three times the winners?

In brief, under the new formula NASCAR has not cut the length of the races, as some suggested, but instead split them into three sections, and made points available to the top ten finishers at the end of the first two sections – along with bonus points to segment winners who make it to the end-of-season play-offs, what we used to call The Chase.

Matters are still very much biased towards the race victory – win either of the first two segments and you get 10 points, win the last segment and you get 40. Each segment is split by a caution period, so the way a race pans out is potentially not that different to previously, except that drivers have a reason not to trundle around until the last 50 laps or so, instead ensuring they are in position to snatch what could prove to be crucial segment points.

Well this did not impress Robin Miller, a lead writer on the series long pitched as NASCAR’s big rival, IndyCar. I’m not one to have a go at the media, especially in America where nowadays they have a President who does that, but Miller, banging home his view that the NASCAR changes were good news for IndyCar, indulged in a level of vitriol towards the stock car side of US motorsport that shocked me.

He suggested the changes could be seen as “desperate, confusing, hilarious or totally necessary to try and keep people engaged for (NASCAR’s) weekly marathons of pit stops, speeding penalties and commercials.” He added that the sport’s management had realised “what many of us have thought for a long time: It’s B-O-R-I-N-G,” and laid into NASCAR’s “phantom caution flag” culture.

Now Miller is not the first to make that last argument, and we’ve all been incredulous at the reasons for some of the cautions before, but it seems too that NASCAR is trying to do something about this – witness another new rule, stopping beaten-up cars returning to the track and dropping bits all over the place.

IndyCar can benefit, Miller says, because unlike NASCAR it is pure racing, where 20 cars can often be separated by a second and the fastest usually wins out without gimmicks such as lucky-dog cautions and such like to aid them.

Well firstly, I think one will struggle to find any completely pure circuit racing these days, apart from club events of just a few laps. All top series use safety cars, and safety cars close up the field. Even in Formula One a driver can build up a massive lead over several laps and see it completely disappear with just a few laps remaining due to a safety car period. In that respect NASCAR is no different in format to any other series, including IndyCar.

NASCAR, however, doesn’t have push-to-pass. Miller glosses over this anything-but-pure feature of IndyCar as “just extra power that each driver has to manage smartly so he’s got some at the end of the race and it helps overtaking on a narrow city circuit”. Hmmm… In NASCAR, each driver knows he has the same car package, the same tyres, as every other driver around him, from front to back. He doesn’t have to think how many more squirts of extra horsepower he has available, when he passes someone he has to do it properly. Which is the more pure?

And while we are describing as ‘gimmicks’, the awarding of extra points, we should remember that IndyCar came up with a double points finale. Score consistently all year and then get overtaken by someone who gets lucky in the final race. Though to his credit Miller does insist that this concept is not needed in IndyCar.

Yes, NASCAR has made lots of changes, but gimmicks? The latest ones, what do they do? They encourage the drivers to race harder to get results, without giving them buttons to help them overtake. Is that a bad thing?

Despite its recent issues, the fact remains that NASCAR still attracts, week after week, significantly larger audiences than IndyCar – the stock car fans that have gone away aren’t going to watch the single-seater formula instead.

This is not really the point, though. I enjoy watching IndyCar Racing, just as I really enjoy watching NASCAR racing, The stage is certainly big enough for both, without proponents of one feeling the need to take pot shots at the other…

Now, roll on the Daytona 500!

IndyCar Series

We like IndyCar but it doesn’t fill the stands either. And its proponents should not have a go at other series. Photo: IndyCar