In 2001 we rolled up to what was a brand new track on the PowerTour Calendar. Something we had never seen in the UK. And at that point I had never seen in real life. It would be another 3 years before we would compete in the Daytona 24 hours and a super speedway and a full 8 years before we visited Talledega for our first Nascar race,
The first purpose built venue in the UK since Brooklands, it promised so much, had so much potential, but a number of things not all of them in its control left it destined to fail.
Built on a abandoned British Steel quarry site in Corby, Rockingham was designed to be a the first high speed US Oval track in the UK, with the aim of attracting the US-based CART Champ Car World Series for Indy-style cars. It took ten years of planning before the £70 million venue was built in 23 months.
I was there in 2001 when the Camp cars came to town, with a lesser profile than F1 - the Champ car series had been won by Nigel Mansell a few years earlier so there was some following in the UK. But Indy Car and Champ car were themselves unsustainable series separately, and within a few years Champ Car would be consumed into the Indy Car series which now remains today, and where Alonso heads off too after the F1 race today.
There was always the hope the high profile Nascar series would come over to the UK, but they never did. To host a crowd of 55,000-plus, the venue has five big grandstands, although two of them haven’t been open since the last CART race. They probably contain seats that have never been sat in and have in part remained for the 17 years as a reminder of what might have been.
Rockingham tried to grow oval racing with its own stock car series (originally called ASCAR, re-branded Days of Thunder after the Tom Cruise film), which it ran alongside a series of high-profile concerts. One team from TVR even ran a team of cars as Blower Motorsport. But the absence of suitable tracks for the series limited their appeal. Only so many times you could visit Rockingham right?
In 2003 I remember one of the biggest crowds around 33,000 descended on Rockingham as car maker Seat took center stage and gave away tickets, likely popular because of the Pop concert after the race rather than the racing. We raced in front of 33,000 spectators, the next time we would see such a big crowd was Le Mans. We came 3rd that day behind The Boyzone Driver Shane Lynch in his TVR Tuscan and our Sister Mosler that won. We would go on to win the championship in British GT that year.
Perhaps the name is set in bad luck, after all Rockingham in the US - also closed its doors in 2014 Dubbed "the Rock" - this also is a fated circuit. A once major player in Single Seater and Nascar series, it has for the past 4 years itself sat disused. Mother nature is already taking over with the track surface cracking up and what were once well maintained facilities crumbling to the ground.
While I probably only ever visited 4 times until yesterday, 3 times in GT with the Cerbera, Tuscan R and Mosler and once for the Cart Race in 2001. It felt strangely familiar, nothing had really changed, sure they had re profiled Turn 1 and the final banking turn. But everything was still strangely familiar. But older, so much older. Its clear investment has been little and the circuit has failed to keep up with time. Sitting with some race fans yesterday - they couldn't explain really why they had come back, almost like sitting by the bedside of a close family member in hospital, not much to say, more duty than reason.
Sure in 2001 when we rolled up, I was in ore of the facilities, new garages with compressed air, water, power pickups, and space for the teams. No generators on the pit walls there was TV pickups the likes we would not see anywhere else apart from Silverstone perhaps. But turn one was soon a pain as cars (not least the F3 cars) launched themselves off it.
I had a strange mix of emotions as I drove out of the main gates yesterday. Sadness of what it might have been, a track which lets face it up until yesterday was my closest that I never built the love for, a track which had always been considered out on its own. A track which I wanted to love but just couldn't. A friend I made in my life who I lost touch with, yesterday I was tinged with guilt I had not given it the time I should, not given it as much attention, but we simply grew apart.
Today we must not forget a number of track staff are out looking for jobs, a area of the country already not blessed with the most opportunity. For me I am sure these feelings will pass and it will form part of my Nostalgia - the years we raced and nearly won at Rockingham (13th - DNF in 2001, 2002 - 3rd and 2003 - 3rd). Just like the track - it could have been so much and never was. Good bye Rockingham its been fun. Strangely I will miss you. I just will never really know why.
A Few Pictures from yesterday.
Its fair to say the cars (the few who turned up) were struggling for grip on what was a extremely cold November day.
The old Scoring tower - reminded me of the Champ cars - sat un-used and showing the signs of age.
The last time I had seen this view 33,000 fans packed the stands. Not today. The crowd numbers were low - perhaps a few hundred. A reminder that even on its passing few people came to grieve.
The majority of the cars attending were Radical or Catterham - the big teams stayed away. Radical had the team truck on site to help with the cars but it was a low profile event. Shows how little the teams thought of it. Even they didn't come to say goodbye.
The grand stands mainly sit un-used showing that time has not been kind - many seats never were used. I am sure if you searched around you could find one that never had a paid customer watch a race. The Rockingham flag perhaps more poignantly should have been at half.
The Safety car sat lonely at the end of the pit lane.
A reminder of days gone.
Even the Nissan 350z Drift Cars sat in the car park abandoned - they have taught their last customers at Rockingham and await I would guess a new home.
The Garages and Paddock a reminder of the more glorious days.
A few came to say goodbye.
As did we,
As for the racing, it was mainly club teams, lots of old race cars more a track day than a race meeting. It became somewhat irrelevant.
This was the start of the first of the last ever races at Rockingham
As for the Super Send off. A two day celebration which ended up being about 2 hours of qualifying and 4 hours of racing. A mix of 2CVs - and national saloon cars. The badly mixed races of over powered cars with under powered cars, lacked excitement and to be honest probably said it all about Rockingham. Promised so much but in the end just couldn't deliver it. Bye old friend. You were part of my life for that I will always be grateful.