The End Of “The Rock” – Memories Of Rockingham Speedway

Recent news that Rockingham Speedway near Corby is closing and that it’s days as a race circuit appear to be over brought to mind a few memories of early days at the venue.

Firstly it’s the only place I have ever been stuck in a lift / elevator.

Secondly it’s the place were I saw probably the most famous person I have ever seen face to face…and I walked right past!

Thirdly I arrived there in a Pontiac Trans Am, which made a change from the diesel Austin Maestro I usually drove at that time!

Fourthly 200mph didn’t actually look as fast as I was expecting….

THE LIFT :

Because Rockingham was brand new, built to resemble an American style venue and they anticipated a huge turnout of fans, it was built with enormous grandstands. On the top level of the main stand was an area for the team ‘spotters’ who radioed back to the drivers when anyone was trying to pass, or when they were clear of another car to resume a certain line through a corners. To get there the spotter walked through the tunnel from the pits and had a nice elevator which took them up the five or six stories to this lofty enclosure, where they could see the whole track. A wonderful view it was too (above right). I had a press pass back then and I was up there with them watching when the CART race ended. There followed a mad scramble to get back to the pits and congratulate/photograph/heckle/cheer the winner. So we all ran for it. Piled in like commuters on the Tokyo underground and as the last two or three squeezed in someone said “there’s too many of us..” the doors closed, the evelvator began to decend and having done so for all of two feet, cluncked to a halt and a red light came on!

Now I’m old (not THAT old, but…) so I instantly thought of Tony Hancock in that famous episode of his TV series “The Lift” in which exactly this happens because the lift/elevator in question held “8 persons” and Hancock , squeezing in, made number 9…

Unlike him , we didn’t have to wait long before someone levered the doors open and we all stepped up and out, mostly grinning nervously and headed for the stairs! As you can see (left) that lift did have a fair distance to climb…or fall…depending on how you looked at it because the main stand really was very high up by Brands Hatch or Silverstone standards.

THE FAMOUS FACE

On the practice day at the first CART event, nothing much happened. Infamously there was a problem with moisture seeping up through the newly laid track surface from the soil beneath forming ‘weepers’ that stopped the CART series cars running untill they were dried up. And as soon as one was dried another of the little devils seemed to appear! It meant a lot of ‘down time’ with cars secured in garages and drivers chewing their finger nails .

While this was a pain for everyone taking part or watching from those big grandstands, it allowed anyone with pit access a lot of time to look around and photograph everything. Almost.

I saw this very pale, very thin figure in a baseball hat and sunglasses shuffling across the paddock all on his own. He looked very old and the thing that struck my most was he seemed almost transparant. The hat said “NewmanHaas Racing”, or something similar and I walked past before doing a double take. It was Paul Newman.  PAUL NEWMAN! But I was changing the film in my camera and by the time I had done so he was gone! Back inside the motor home.   I have seen Prince Charles at a distance once or twice and my good lady, Philippa once stood beside Her Majesty the Queen at Badminton horse trials as they waited for a crossing point to open up  – but I reckon being within two feet of  “Butch Cassidy”/ “Frank Capua”/”Cool Hand Luke” was almost as good as Philippa’s royal encounter. Although, in fairness, HMQ did actually speak to her, “Butch Cassidy” was a passing phantom by comparison.

THE TRANS AM

That was my brother’s car. We borrowed it for the opening “Coys Historic Festival” event earlier in the season as it seemed appropriate to arrive in something American . It was very relaxing to rumble up the motorway in a 5 litre V8 with an auto gearbox and left hand drive.  Sadly the car was almost written off some years later when the new owner was ‘tail gated’ at traffic lights although I believe the wreck went back to a previous owner, the one my brother purchased it from (I trust you are following this?) where it’s still waiting to be restored.

 

200 MPH (and change)

With my precious pass  I was able to wander round the entire 1.5 mile oval , three quarters of which was not open to spectators, who were limited to the massive grandstands. That meant I got a good view of the off-limits turn 2 (Right). This was flat out in a CART car at something like 225mph I think (fastest lasp was an average of around 210mph) and to get this shot I had to poke my lens through a fairly large  slot in the outer debris fence while leaning against it, which , I admit, seemed a vulnerable location even back then, when  I was dafter than I am now about such things. It felt a bit like being in the firing line but the sensation of speed wasn’t quite as mind boggling as I somehow imagined it would be.  It could have been the billiard-table smoothness of the wide track or the comparitively quiet whistle of the turbocharged engines but it wasn’t as visceral an experience as standing on the Mulsanne straight while a McLaren F1 GTR screamed past or even in the middle of Hanger straight at Silverstone during F1 testing during the V10 era. In neither case were cars travelling at quite such high speeds as those Lolas and Reynards, but the impression was greater.  People complain about the current hybrid/turbo F1 for exactly the same reasons. A few bumps in the track and proper full-fat, high-caffiene noise is what you need!

That 2001 race, when it got going , was amazing with a last lap, last corner pass for victory by Gil de Ferran, which helped a little to ease the pain of the previous week , marred as it had been by Alex Zanardi’s  terrible accident in Germany and then the horrors of 9-11  in NewYork. Such a shame the gardnstands were ot even half full.

After the 2002 CART race(which was brilliant, like the first one but topped it with victory for  local-hero Dario Franchitti) the series never returned and neither did I. Circumstances changed and the venue  struggled to find it’s niche in the sport. The NASCAR-like series that ran for some years made for entertaining TV and at least used the full oval but the majority of events were on the infield road course  which was, as these ‘rovals’ always are, a bit of a compromise and didn’t offer great close-quarter viewing. In some ways, given the run of bad luck that seemed to follow the venue, it’s a surprise it has lasted this long but  like it or loath it, Rockingham will be missed. It was a brave venture but never got the breaks it needed. If only it had arrived a decade earlier at the height of Mansell-Mania when CART briefly looked like a serious rival for F1.

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