- Image: Paul Reynolds, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Rockingham 500: CART's failed excursion onto British soil

What went wrong when American open-wheel racing travelled to the United Kingdom?

13w ago

Rockingham. If you're British, like me, it's a circuit that was a huge part of the motor racing culture I grew up in for nearly two decades. It was one of the few US-style motor racing complexes in Europe, boasting multiple 'road course' (as the yanks like to say) layouts as well as a banked oval. Sadly cars no longer race there anymore, as the circuit shut in 2018 due to racing there becoming financially unviable. Its last mainstay was the British Touring Car Championship, which held one of the last races to ever be held at the circuit.

I was on the internet one day doing a bit of research into Rockingham my own time and I found a very odd thing on the section of Wikipedia that talked about lap records. On the section for the oval, a very familiar name popped up. That name was none other than American open-wheel racing legend Tony Kanaan and it had been set in a CART car during a race in 2001. This lap record stood until the circuit was closed 17 years later. I dug a little further into it and found out that CART had actually come to Rockingham not once but twice during the early 2000s!

The event was called the Rockingham 500 and it seems like it was something that was planned to be a huge part of Rockingham's calendar from the very start. It was announced whilst the circuit was still being constructed in 1999 that they wanted American open-wheelers to run at the circuit. "We can say quite categorically that we are not looking to host Formula One races, although the circuit will be looking to stage the British Touring Car Championship and other international car and motorcycle events, as well as a full national programme," said the circuit's owner and developer Peter Davies, a former army officer who got into property development after leaving the military. "Our dream would be to host an Indycar race - the first on an oval in Europe."

By the time things rolled around to July 2000, it was announced that the first edition of the Rockingham 500 would take place during the 2001 CART season. The race was run twice in two back-to-back years (2001 and 2002) before a myriad of issues caused a relocation to a traditional circuit race at Brands Hatch (using the Indy Circuit layout) in 2003 and a withdrawal from the UK market altogether after that.

Rockingham wasn't the only race CART was running in Europe at the time. The series paid a visit to Germany's EuroSpeedway Lausitz (more commonly known now as the Lausitzring) twice in 2001 and 2003. When CART visited there, it decided to use the triangular 'tri-oval' that's not too dissimilar to the famously tricky Pocono Raceway in the US. The 2001 race (the American Memorial 500) is a particularly dark time in CART's history, as it was the race where Alex Zanardi had his massive accident that resulted in his legs having to be amputated in the hospital. This caused a particularly sombre mood going into the 2001 Rockingham 500, as it was held only a week afterwards. Interestingly enough, Tony Kanaan also still holds the lap record for the tri-oval thanks to his performance at the 2001 race!

Why did CART's British experiment fail? That's the question I'm attempting to set out to answer here.

Marketing problems

Straight away, the organisers of the Rockingham 500 had a real problem with trying to market the event to British audiences. Considering that CART (and indeed American open-wheel racing in general) was completely alien to British audiences, you'd expect there to be at least a few initial problems with trying to get us Brits to watch it. It seems though that those problems extended a fair bit beyond just a lack of awareness. In a country where Formula 1 and BTCC are the premier motorsports and Formula 1 could view CART as genuine competition on British soil, the American racing league had a real uphill battle on its hands.

According to an article from the time written by Mark Cipolloni, Rockingham had approached Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone about running an advert for the Rockingham 500 in the programme for that year's British Grand Prix. This idea was nixed by Ecclestone himself. Why? If you believe Cipolloni's reasoning, Ecclestone viewed CART as "a potential threat" to his Formula 1 empire. "He's not going to do anything to help CART, unless of course CART were to do a deal with him at one of the race tracks he owns."

As Cipolloni pointed out, CART had a real problem generally with getting itself out there as a racing series as it was "not in bed with three of the biggest movers and shakers in racing". These "movers and shakers" Cipolloni pointed out where the aforementioned Bernie Ecclestone (Formula 1), the France Family (NASCAR) and Tony George (Indy Racing League and then-owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). Combine that with trying to market CART in a part of the world where Formula 1 really is (and still continues to be to this day) king and you really start to see the uphill battle CART was facing here.

Despite the inability to market the race effectively, it seems like word did get around well enough organically to generate some serious interest and get big numbers of tickets sold. Cipolloni claimed at the time that interest in the race was incredibly strong amongst British fans. "People in England that we quizzed seemed to know about the race," Cipolloni said, also stating that "all 7,500 seats [were] nearly sold out in the main Rockingham Grandstand". Perhaps a lot of people in Britain did know about it, but would just rather have gone to watch F1 or BTCC instead.

An isolated circuit

One of Rockingham's perennial problems as a motorsport venue was that it was, basically, in the middle of nowhere. The old industrial town of Corby, the outskirts of which serves as Rockingham's location, isn't too far away from a few of the UK's major urban centres (Leicester, Northampton and Peterborough to name just three) but it's noticeably distant from the UK's 'motorsport valley'. Corby also had no railway station at the time (it wasn't re-instated until 2009 and it wasn't electrified until earlier this year), so anyone who wanted to get to the racetrack would have had to have access to a car or be happy with taking a bus from nearby Kettering.

Whilst it's not unusual for circuits to be miles away from the nearest town or city and therefore miles away from the nearest train station (other popular British circuits such as Silverstone, Donnington Park, Oulton Park, Knockhill and Brands Hatch are fairly far away from their nearest train connections), this (combined with Corby's relatively isolated location) would be a huge hindrance for anyone who was hoping for an easy journey to Rockingham. Whilst Silverstone is a fair way away from Milton Keynes (its nearest city), Milton Keynes is still a very important transport hub in the UK as one of the country's main high-speed rail lines passes through it. Whilst Corby did have a mainline railway connection at the time via Kettering, Kettering isn't exactly a major urban centre!

Inadequate facilities

A big problem that CART encountered once it began to set up shop at Rockingham for the first time back in 2001 was that the track they'd rolled up to wasn't that well-equipped to deal with the demands the American racing series placed upon it. The key offender was the track itself, which didn't have adequate draining to deal with the typically rainy British weather (we'll get to this later). As a result, the practice sessions were abandoned and the starting positions for the race were decided according to each driver's position in the championship. Because the cancellations had delayed the start of the race by 4 and a half hours and CART's officials were worried about fading light, the race had to be shortened to 140 laps (333 km/210 miles) from 210 laps (500 km/310 miles).

As you can imagine, this wasn't very encouraging for Rockingham. The circuit made improving the facilities a major priority between 2001 and 2002, including adding a new layer to the track surface. This was done in a bid to improve the poor drainage that almost rained off 2001's race. "During the winter we've sealed the original Tarmac surface and added 35mm on top of that with a special sealant which helps it drain," track chief David Grace told Autosport prior to the 2002 edition of the race. "We know much more now about how the track behaves - how to get the moisture out. It should be a much smoother event, but people will expect more this time." Rockingham also added extra access roads and signage, hoping that these would make things easier for spectators trying to get into the circuit.

Did the improvements work? Well, the weather for 2002's edition of the race ended up being better than 2001, so thankfully we didn't have to find out. Practice and qualifying went ahead as planned and the race ran its full distance of 210 laps, with the crowd being sent home with win from a British driver in Dario Franchitti. I guess not having to really find out if the improvements worked is a positive, in some way.

The British weather

Perhaps one of the Rockingham 500's biggest enemies, at least in its first outing, was Britain's tendency to have... well... typically British weather. As I've already mentioned, the first running of the race in 2001 was severely disrupted due to the rain. As anyone who is familiar with oval racing knows, ovals and rain really do not mix. In fact, the powers that be collectively decided many moons ago that ovals and rain shouldn't mix at all in the slightest. In the various different tiers of Nascar, if it rains on the day of an oval race it's common practice for the entire race to be postponed to the following day.

When you combine the inability to run on ovals in the rain with the ever-present danger of British weather being British weather, it's not surprising that trying to run an American-style oval race on British shores was an undertaking that was doomed for failure. If the event had carried on running past 2002, there was every bit of a chance that the race could have been shortened due to bad weather again or even rained off completely.

Perhaps, in hindsight, it would have been better for CART to use Rockingham's 'road course' layout instead. If the road course had been used, there would have been far less potential issues with weather as it's absolutely fine to run road courses in the wet. This is kind of what CART (by then Champ Car) ended up doing for the final year of its attempt at cracking the UK market, running a road course race at Brands Hatch using the Indy layout in 2003 that it called the London Champ Car Trophy. Like the Rockingham races before it, this race was a colossal failure. Derek Allsop remarked at the time that, whilst the racing itself was relatively free of any nasty incidents, it wasn't a race that impressed the local crowds. The Brands Hatch circuit was relatively very restrictive to the cars Champ Car was running at the time. "The cars don't get the chance to stretch their legs here." remarked a young Darren Manning. "It's also so easy to block other cars here. And then you have the problem of conserving fuel."

The only major point of interest from this odd race is that it was where Sebastian Bourdais took his first win in the series; the first of many that would make him one of the most decorated drivers in American open-wheel history. As if we didn't need any more reminders of how farcial the series's attempt at carrying on with the British experiment was, Bourdais stalled whilst doing doughnuts after his victory. As Allsop quipped, "it was that kind of day."

Financially unviable?

Perhaps the key reason why the Rockingham 500 failed may have been that the race ended up becoming financially unviable. This was the main reason given by Rockingham itself as to why they cancelled the 2003 running of the race. "We have invested with CART in bringing the world's fastest motor racing to Britain, on our unique banked oval track, but have decided that a 2003 event would be fiscally unviable," CEO Ashley Pover said at the time. "We have currently less than five months to develop new marketing programmes and find sponsors. Frankly, we don't have the resources to make that work. If we were to plan towards a future date, such as mid-season 2004, that would give more time to achieve the targets, which makes a lot more sense."

This is something that, to be fair, wasn't entirely the circuit's fault. CART was at the beginning of its decline by the early 2000s. "There were 34 or 35 cars on the grid, a high proportion of oval races and a very strong television package," said Rockingham's communications director at the time Steven Slater to Sports Business Daily. "CART was perceived as a rival to Formula One. Now it's 18 cars, mainly road races, and very little European television coverage." CART also insisted on Rockingham continuing to pay a licence fee to host the event, something which wouldn't have helped Rockingham's financial situation at the time as a fairly new circuit.

As well as all issues with CART, Rockingham decided (with the help of Dale Coyne Racing) to finance its own all-British team (Team St. George, which included the aforementioned Darren Manning) for the 2002 event to try and boost local interest. Not only did this not exactly work, as around 10,000 fewer spectators attended the 2002 running of the event than the 2001 one, but it ended up costing Rockingham even more money! The circuit had to actually sell extra sponsorships to offset the cost of funding the all-British team. I don't know about you, but that seems like far too much effort to go to just to try and get more people to turn up or tune into the race...

In conclusion...

With Rockingham, CART could have had a potential game-changer on its hands. The prospect of CART not only running a race in the UK, one of the most important countries in the world for motorsport, but also running an oval race there, was almost too good to not pass up. It was a race that, sadly, was just too full of problems to last. Both Rockingham and CART didn't realise how much of a hurdle it would be to make it even happen in the first place, let alone make it into a regular event that would last for years or even decades. CART had serious problems marketing the race in the first place, Rockingham was (at the time) too isolated from the rest of the UK's motorsport world, the facilities just weren't good enough, British weather decided to be British weather and it could be argued that the race could never be financially viable.

Would it have been better to run on a road course? In hindsight, yes. Road course racing is much friendlier to the ever-changing British weather and there are plenty of great circuits in the UK that could pay host to American open-wheelers. But, there aren't any guarantees that crowds would have actually liked it. Champ Car did try this with Brands Hatch and, despite the race not being full of chaos and crashes, it just wasn't exciting enough for the crowds and the drivers weren't too happy with the circuit either.

Was it worth CART trying, though? As shambolic as that first running of the race was, I'd say it was. If nothing else, it's a bizarrely wonderful footnote in the history of American open-wheel racing that nobody has really talked about beyond the time it actually happened. Who knows, if the oval experiment hadn't failed, maybe we'd still be going to watch races at Rockingham today? Maybe that's too much wishful thinking, though.

And, here's a bonus:

When doing the research for this article, I found out the full races of both the 2001 and 2002 running of the Rockingham 500 had been uploaded in full to YouTube! If you've read this and want to actually watch what went on, I'm going to link both uploads below so you can take a peek into this weird little experiment of taking American open-wheel racing to the UK! Be warned, though... the broadcasts are both very cheesy!

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Comments (7)

  • While it might not have caught mainstream attention there was quite a buzz about CART coming to a UK oval in the motorsport press at the time, and I think that year SKY was carrying CART (it might have been Eurosport) so there was TV coverage. I seem to remember looking into getting tickets to go but the prices were quite high which rather put me off especially with the forecast of bad weather.

    The other factor that probably rather did for the Rockingham 500 was the defection of the power house Ganassi and Penske teams to IRL/Indycar in 2003 relagating CART to being the secondary single seater series in the States rather than the premier one.

      3 months ago
  • And I was there…both times!! Up until about 5 years ago in our old house I had a used rear CART tyre (one of three we retrieved from a very nice mechanic in the pits) as a garden feature with a plant in the middle. I also got Dario Francitti’s autograph and had a conversation with Jonny Herbert. Brilliant atmosphere were you could go anywhere pretty much and great racing too! 🏁🏁 isn’t it a car storage facility now?

      3 months ago
  • well the first issue is when i think Rockingham, i think of the nascar track in North Carolina

      3 months ago
  • I always thought calling it the London Trophy was stretching it a bit, Brands being well out in the sticks. Maybe they should have been sponsored by a certain budget airline.

      3 months ago
    • I used to live 30 mins from Brands, it's not THAT far out of London. Still close to the M25.

        3 months ago
    • So did we. Yes, OK, it's hardly "London Luton Airport" but I've never been one for including anything outside the M25 as London.

        3 months ago
  • For a second I got really excited at the idea that CART had raced at Rockingham Speedway especially since “The Rock” was one of my favorite 1- mile tracks. However I was sadly reminded of the existence of Rockingham Motor speedway.

      3 months ago