Rockingham: Twenty Years On
A look at the history of Britain's last circuit to be built, twenty years after it's official opening and two and a half after it's closure.
For many, Rockingham was a strange track and never really caught the imagination of the British motorsport community. You could argue this was justified, the UK at the time hadn’t really embraced American Motorsport, with many smugly suggesting that “all you do is turn left.”
The grandstands were all a fair distance from the track in comparison to other circuits around the country, towering over the main straight were five steal structures including one main covered grandstand. Although you could see the entire circuit from each grandstand, you never really felt connected to the action below you. In addition to this, the access to the infield was limited at best and there was no access at all to the outside of the oval. It wasn’t much better for viewing on TV either, two of the main stands were not used from 2002 onwards ensuring that even with healthy crowds, the place always looked and felt empty.
Its proximity to classic, well established circuits such as Silverstone and Donington Park also hampered the circuit’s progression, as well as noise restrictions put in place by locals and criticism from environmentalists.
After years of losses and dwindling crowds, at the beginning of 2019 after 18 years of use, Rockingham closed and was sold off to make way for a hub for automotive logistics companies.
You may have thought, with so much going against it, the motorsport community and fans alike would not have been bothered about the closure however for me, and many other motorsport enthusiasts this proved to be a very sad day for British motorsport.
The circuit had a troubled start, the plans for an oval circuit were a dream of the original owner Peter Davies, a local petrolhead who had a dream of bringing motorsport to his local area. He bought the land that Rockingham would eventually lay on in 1991 for £60,000, land which was once a quarry site by British Steel until 1980, when the site closed.
The site was one of many which was used around the area to dump toxic waste from the steelworks. The High Court ruled that Corby Council had been negligent in how they transported this waste around the town, resulting in birth defects of 18 children. The ruling resulted in Corby Council having to pay millions in compensation to the families of those affected. Because of the land’s past it also meant it could never be used for housing.
Two years after purchasing the land, Davies secured planning permission for the £50million raceway in February 1993 with the intention of having facilities suitable to host racing as high as Formula 1.
Immediately however, serious concerns started to grow from locals who were pessimistic at the thought of extra traffic to the area and the additional noise a motorsport circuit brings. Despite this, Corby Council considered it a coup for the local area following years of negative press for the Toxic waste scandal through the 80s and 90s and felt it was a new dawn for a derelict plot of land.
However, Davies’ problems did not relent as he struggled to appeal to backers and with his five years of planning permission running out, he took a JCB to the site in 1998 and started digging, therefore legitimising the plans. This invigorated backers and soon after, Davies found backing from Guy Hands, who agreed to fund the project. Hands would go on to own the EMI music empire.
The final cost of the project was £70million and took just 23 months to complete, becoming one of only a few purpose built race tracks in the UK and the first built with banked turns since Brooklands in 1907. In this time though, Davies had been ousted off the board as the money men took over, potentially one of the first nails in the coffin for the circuit before it even opened.
Rockingham was formally opened by the Queen on the 26th May 2001. It was a fantastic day and one that I will never forget as it was the first time I had ever been to a proper race circuit.
Nigel Mansell drove the first laps around the new circuit in a car he was not familiar with in blistering sunshine at an average speed of 160 mph, the fastest average laps around a British circuit ever at that time, beating the previous record set by John Cobb in the beautiful Napier-Railton in 1934 around Brooklands.
For me and many others, Rockingham looked destined for greatness.
Later that year the American CART Championship came to England for the first time in the series’ history to contest the FedEx Rockingham 500 however this proved to be a troubled start for the circuit.
It was a bitterly cold September day and the race was shortened due to the lack of testing at the venue after an underground spring rose through the new tarmac, dampening the circuit. This had never happened before prior to the weekend’s action. The first day was cancelled due to rain however the second was cancelled due to the water seeping through. This led to the first two days of the event being cancelled ensuring the grid positions were made up of the championship standings at the time. The race was also shortened from the scheduled 500 kilometres to 300 kilometres due to time constraints amid concerns of fading light on the day of the event.
Despite these setbacks, the race saw cars hit top speeds of 225 mph, far faster than anyone had anticipated, and fantastic racing as Kenny Brack and Gil de Ferran battled for the lead throughout. As rubber went down some drivers were able to complete entire laps flat out due to the grip of the new surface. Gil de Ferran lead the first ever lap around Rockingham, which was immediately followed by a caution period when Max Papis spun on the main straight. Gil de Ferran won following a superb overtake around the outside of Kenny Brack at Turn Four on the final lap, with the cars inches apart at over 200 mph, a memorable spectacle for all of us fans watching.
This race saw the lap record of the circuit being set by Brazilian Tony Kanaan who completed the oval in 24.719 seconds averaging 215.397 mph. This is by far the fastest lap ever recorded in British Motorsport, and will probably never be beaten.
There are rumours that Peter Davies was there watching in the stands after being dropped from the board of his own dream.
A year later the CART Championship returned to Rockingham for the 2002 Sure for Men Rockingham 500. Brack was once again on pole lapping in 24.908 seconds. Despite dominating the race and leading for 134 laps, the race was won by Scotsman Dario Franchitti, his first on an oval circuit. It was another fantastic race and the home crowd created a special atmosphere for the likeable Scot.
I was lucky enough to be at both of the races as well as the opening event in April 2001, my first ever motorsport day out. It gave me a real close connection to the circuit, and a deep love for Oval Racing as a whole, something I maintain to this day.
All three early events saw fantastic races and crowds of 52,000 spectators however each event saw the hosts make a loss and when CART returned to the UK in 2003, it was at Brands Hatch, rather than the Oval of Rockingham.
I love Brands Hatch, it is pure motorsport heaven in every way however I must admit the 2003 CART Championship race there was probably the most boring race I have ever watched live, so much so that I fell asleep for parts of it!
It just didn’t have the same buzz to it as the previous two at Rockingham and the championship would never return to the Northamptonshire Oval, or indeed to the UK.
For me though, for two years, Rockingham was the most exciting place in European Motorsport and was by far the fastest with only Germany’s EuroSpeedway Lausitz getting close to the speeds seen. This was one of the reasons I felt Rockingham was a special place, in addition to this it was the first Oval constructed in the UK since 1907 when legendary circuit Brooklands was opened.
At the time, there was a serious demand for the circuit. American motorsport was gaining popularity and the CART Championship’s two major chassis makers Lola and Cosworth were both based in the UK and in need of a British testing base.
It also had a fantastic location in the centre of the country with good links to major roads and rail networks as well as modern facilities which ensured it could host major testing events all year round.
You could argue it was a case of right place wrong time for Rockingham as by the end of 2002, the circuit had probably hit its peak. At the time, the CART series was in a steady decline following its long battle with IndyCar to be the United States’ premier single seater series. IndyCar eventually won the duel between the two in part to hosting the Indy500. By 2004 the CART Championship had rebranded to Champ Car and in 2008 the series folded altogether.
As well as this, IndyCar’s appeal was an all American calendar, at the time CART was attempting to expand globally, so seeing CART lose the battle was a big blow for Rockingham.
Although Rockingham continued to try to keep American style oval racing going in the UK with its own ASCAR series, later rebranded as Days of Thunder, it never saw the same heights again. ASCAR folded in 2007 which ensured that only club-level pick-up truck series’ ran on the oval from then on.
Despite this setback the infield track, which also used almost half of the oval, was still used frequently throughout the years with the British Touring Car Championship making its debut at the circuit in 2003, before becoming a regular from 2007 onwards. I always found the infield to be a fantastic circuit for races and it was a stroke of genius putting a hairpin at the end of Turn One of the oval to rejoin the infield section. After countless seconds of flat out running with around four racing lines going into it, the hairpin ensured constant battling under heavy braking going into the corner, a real test of skill and courage and fantastic viewing. The Tarzan hairpin was also a superb place for action as well as the final chicane before heading back onto the oval section.
As well as the BTCC, the infield circuit was also used for British GT, British Formula 3 and the British Superbike Championship, with various layouts of the infield being used.
As a circuit it had everything, the speed that every driver craves, as well as heavy braking zones and a huge amount of overtaking opportunities, which makes its demise even sadder.
For me though, its demise is much sadder to the personal affection I have for the place, I am sure there are better circuits and ovals in the world, however to see a full size oval in England was a sight to behold, and with the CART Championship competing on it, it was a phenomenal experience filled with memories I will never forget.
The circuit must also hold some of the best and coolest official and unofficial UK records of all time, including the highest average speed lap, highest top speed on a UK circuit, with unofficial records including fastest and closest overtake of all time on a British circuit.
There were some great moments at the circuit which did not include the CART Championship, with the BTCC putting on events at the venue to get drivers involved with the spectators, including a makeshift band made up of the class of 2009, seeing Jason Plato on drums, Johnny Herbert dancing and Tom Chilton perfecting the tambourine jiggle! All of these moments will be lost at a circuit which for the most part was underused however never under loved.
I for one was very sad to see the end of Rockingham.