The omens were not good. Rockingham Motor Speedway looked half-built for its May debut, played a desperate game of catch-up over summer, and then, when its much-heralded ChampCar spectacular arrived, hit a major hurdle. While the CART circus waited in the pits to show us what oval racing is all about, officials battled with a novel problem weepers. Trickles of water oozing through the banking.
To British fans well used to wet racing, it sounded trivial. But water and ovals don’t mix. On a concrete-rimmed bowl a flick of opposite lock can mean a head-on impact with the barrier. Only a week before, Alex Zanardi’s awful crash at the Lausitzring showed the risks.
So as Friday’s practice was cancelled, then Saturday’s, the crowd sat in patient silence wondering if there would be a race at all. And the Rockingham date was only days after the terrorist atrocities in the USA. Franldy, none of the CART community really wanted to be there.
Yet it came right The weepers were staunched and, after the briefest of warm-ups, the teams launched into a Hollywood script of a race which culminated in Gil de Ferran’s spectacular last-corner pass for victory. And it got two hours of coverage on BBC the following day. Britain’s racing landscape had shifted significantly.
With Rockingham suddenly a serious bidder for fans’ cash, and Octagon’s decision to move the Historic Festival from Silverstone to Oulton Park, we are surely about to see a change in the old patterns. As Silverstone’s facilities improve in line with its F1 status, so its entrance and circuit hire charges soar; smaller clubs are already moving their meetings to smaller circuits. Will this level out the cash flow and allow improvements at Snetterton, Mallory and Knockhill, or overstress the less glamorous venues? If the Historic Festival takes large crowds to Oulton, how will those Cheshire lanes cope?
This redistribution may be more than geographic, too. We now have one circuit devoted purely to historic events (Goodwood), a banked track offering its unique style of racing (and exceptional viewing), and a grand prix venue where clubbie racing looks unlikely to have much future.
This specialisation might turn out to be good news. It may well be introducing newcomers to the sport.Non-racing people ask me about tickets for Goodwood, drawn by the ‘costume party’ atmosphere. TV-watching sport fans, put off grands prix by queues and costs, are used to seeing lower-tech but higher energy oval racing on satellite and late-night Channel 5. Many went to Corby to watch the real thing, and many more will go next year.
Even if these new fans attend only one prime meeting in a year, it’s new blood, and new money. Perhaps proliferating digital TV channels will deliver up new audiences dedicated to single areas of competition. Niche motor-racing, anyone? Paul Fearnley is away
Mario Andretti’s Lotus 80 in the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix