t’s 10 years shce RocKhgnam Votor Speedway opened wfn a dramatt Cnamp Car race, The new ova owed tnanKs to one man’s /sbn but by tnen ne was on tne sbe nes BY DAMIEN SMITH Saturday afternoons go, this is trippy. The collective howl of 26 Champ Car engines engulfs all the senses as the multicoloured missiles sweep off Turn 4. Oval racing must be seen to be believed, but we’re not believing. Deep breath, blink, pinch a forearm. Have we been teleported to the American Midwest? No, apparently not. We’re standing in what used to be a derelict quarry, just outside the steel town of Corby, Northamptonshire. This is Middle England, not
the Midwest. And this is really happening.
That Saturday was 10 years ago — September 22, 2001. For the first time since Brooklands closed in 1939, Britain had a full-sized motor racing oval, and here were the world’s fastest single-seaters giving it a baptism that should never be forgotten. But for one man who walked quietly around the Rockingham Motor Speedway that day, the memory is bittersweet. Peter Davies was the reason it all happened, and yet he was an outsider in his own dream. The entrepreneur with the devilish grin had charmed motor sport moguls on both sides of
the Pond, and defied widespread cynicism to get his race track — incorporating an infield road course — built after 10 years of hard graft. But in the final months before Champ Car arrived at his circuit he was ousted in a corporate coup that left him shellshocked, exhausted and a spectator at the race that should have been the greatest day of his life. Today, Davies hasn’t changed much. The grin’s still there, the waistband has stretched a little (whose hasn’t?) and the fill-the-room personality clearly hasn’t withered. The red lines around the eyes suggest he’s still living life
at 200mph, but he’s powered by solar energy rather than methanol now. We’re in a converted farmhouse just a few miles from his beloved Rockingham, where Davies is harnessing the power of the sun, no less. Nothing with this man is small-scale. We’re here to listen to the remarkable story of how and why he built Rockingham from nothing, but Wirsol Solar UK’s ‘farm’ of solar panels is taking shape in a nearby field and there’s little time for reminiscing. Still, once Davies starts, I don’t have to ask another question. “I went into the military after school,” he says
when I ask him to begin his story. “I joined the Light Infantry and after four years I went into the Army Air Corp flying Gazelle helicopters, mostly overseas, two tours every year.”
He’d grown up around cars and decided to spend his leave going motor racing. “I did some Formula Ford 2000, but at 23 I was already too old and too fat to do it seriously.” Davies left the army with a few irons in the fire. He worked for and invested in the small automotive engineering company that ran his FF2000, and dabbled in property development when an idea took root. El>
Much of Corby’s environs bore the scars of the steel industry, which had abandoned the town and its workforce in the early 1980s. “I looked at this old industrial land and thought, how hard can it be to build a test track?” says Davies. Buying the land was the easy part because no one wanted it. Davies paid a nominal fee and took on certain liabilities for the site, which he describes as “pretty horrid”. Then the simple test track idea began to snowball.
“£60,000 and six months later I had outline planning consent for Rockingham Motor Speedway… or Deene Raceway as it was called then because that was the name of the former open ironstone quarry.” The track would later adopt the Rockingham moniker from a local castle, a marketing brainwave from a happy coincidence that made a neat US connection to the North Carolina oval of the same name. During 1991 Davies’ vision began to run away with itself. “I thought, if we’ve got a race track for testing, why not have racing on it?” he
says. “I’d created a monster.”
So where did the idea for a US-style oval come from? “We had to go for detailed planning and we knew we’d have to set ourselves apart,” he says. “Travelling through the US, I’d gone to see a NASCAR race, and then I’d gone to the Indy 500. I did some research and spent a number of years getting to know American racing. Not being too shy, I managed to get myself into Tony George’s corporate box and became good mates with him.”
Davies tells a great story about the morning in 1992 when he told George over breakfast at the Speedway Motel that Indy should host more than one race meeting a year, that it should attract NASCAR and build an infield course for Formula 1. He even suggested a Glastonburystyle festival at the Speedway. “They haven’t done the rock concerts yet,” he grins. “The day they do, I’m going to f” ” ” ” ” ” shoot myself!”
back to Rockingham. “We got the detailed application in 1993, two years almost to the day since having taken on the land.
The outline planning always had an oval track, but at that stage it was pretty conceptual. It was also about saving cost. The land was really poor quality and with major earthworks on the cards, we thought why don’t we use what we dig out to build a complete earth bank for acoustic protection and spectator viewing?” It was a “pragmatic approach” and the business plan targeted the booming British Touring Car Championship ahead of the likes of Champ Car. Christopher Tate, who would later work for Panoz, Lola and the Masters historic series, came on board as marketing/PR director in ’94, and in the years ahead spent time knocking on doors in America. As a duo, Davies and Tate made a convincing case. “As a general rule, people are quite flattered if you ask their advice,” says Davies. “Roger Penske and Walt Czarnecki, his longtime partner, were very helpful. They allowed us to take our designers and engineers to Fontana, Michigan and Miami
[Homestead]. We spent a lot of time out there, with Richard Petty’s people at Charlotte, and at Daytona. They were all very generous with their time and information. We learnt all the lessons.”
But wheeler-dealer Davies was running out of time and money. He talks about his impressive car collection that had to be sold to ensure momentum at Rockingham didn’t die. At the end of 1997, and again exactly a year later, a major figure in US racing looked set to pledge finance to the cause, only to back out on both occasions. “Then a good friend of mine suggested [financier and investor] Guy Hands. He told me to go and see him, but warned I wouldn’t get more than 15 minutes. So I went and saw Guy, and at 14 and a half minutes he said ‘right, that’s good’. I had loads more to tell him but he said ‘no, if you’re here more than 15 minutes I lose £50!’ He’d taken a bet with my friend about how long I’d get. Having been turned down numerous venture
down by numerous venture capitalists and bankers over five years, Guy, in a very short space of time, focused on the four most pertinent questions: what’s the weather risk, the construction risk, will they come and do people understand it?” Davies and Tate went public on their plans with a scale model in February 1999. But at this stage they still didn’t have the finance. “We had to start building on site because you get five years with planning permission — and there was no way we were going to get it again,” says Davies. “We had
this 383-acre site and in order to implement the planning you have to do something. So I went and borrowed a JCB, we went out on a Saturday three days before the planning expired, dug some foundations — about six feet by four feet — and poured the concrete base for what became, and remains, the security office. We had therefore implemented the construction process. We didn’t build much else for two years.”
In September, after protracted negotiations, Guy Hands signed up as the project’s main backer. It was the key deal that would make the vision a reality. And significantly, for the man who would go on to found Terra Firma Capital Partners and buy the EMI music empire, this would be a private investment.
Meanwhile, Tate and Davies were touring village halls and facing a hostile reception from outraged locals. They ducked the odd egg. The land might have been barren, but a noisy motor racing circuit would not be welcome. It was the morning after one of these meetings that Tate remembers a call from the final big player in the story. Jerry Forsythe was El)
much more than a Champ Car team owner. A man with over 100 businesses under his control, he owned the biggest individual share in Champ Car governing body CART and wanted to bring the series to Europe. He joined the party. Davies intended to build a national race calendar with the BARC and establish a Richard Petty Driving Experience stock car school to add the required US flavour. But Hands wasn’t patient. Once he’d committed finance, he put his own people into the project. Accountant
Michael Fitzgerald and later chairman Peter Middleton came in to see the project through to a finish — and deliver a Champ Car contract. For Davies, control over his vision was slipping. His shares were “crunched down to zero” as Hands chose to accelerate the build process, doubling the required investment in his push for a Champ Car deal. On more than one occasion Davies had to convince contractors, who were on the board of Rockingham, not to not to walk away from the site because they hadn’t been paid. On the Champ Car deal, Davies was working with the owners of the new Lausitzring oval in Germany, for the good
of both tracks, but watched helplessly in the autumn of 2000 as the Hands team waded into negotiations. “We ended up paying a ludicrous amount of money,” Davies says. A five-year deal with CART, at nearly twice the annual going rate, would almost sink the circuit. public, he kept up appearances. But he and Tate knew what was coming. “Without Guy Hands Rockingham wouldn’t exist, but sadly he was
persuaded that we weren’t to be trusted,” Davies shrugs. “It was deeply offensive and hurtful to be told we were trying to feather our own nests. I hadn’t taken a salary for nine years, my children’s school fees hadn’t been paid for 18 months, I hadn’t paid my mortgage for nearly a year.”
Davies’ fate was sealed at an acrimonious board meeting in December 2000. In January, it was clear he was out. Loyal Tate and finance director Robin Smith followed in his wake: “We never really found out why,” says Tate. Former hillclimb champion David Grace, who had a proven track record in the leisure industry, was brought in to see the job through. When the homesick and weary Champ Car teams arrived at Rockingham in September — in the wake of
9/11 and just days after Alex Zanardi had lost his legs in a horrific crash at the Lausitzring — Grace would offer steady leadership during a dramatic race meeting (see sidebar). Davies cut a sad figure in the paddock that day. “I hadn’t been invited by the company,” he says. “I sat up in the back row of the grandstand with the circuit’s project manager, Gordon Calder. We held hands and screamed as the cars crossed the line! It was so exciting. No one
could take away the fact that we had built this.”
Davies would land on his feet: Jerry Forsythe scooped him up to work for his empire in the States. “He was a prince to work with, a fantastic mentor and friend,” says Davies. At Rockingham, the future was… rocky. Just 40,000 turned out for that first race. It was far from a sell-out. Then a year later, just 25,000 saw Dario Fr anchitti score a popular home win, and again the race was a loss-maker. Grace was happy to step aside, as Hands put Ashley Pover and Joe Dickinson in the hot seats. They extracted the track
from its crippling CART contract, and for 2003 Champ Car went to Brands Hatch instead.
In 2004 Hands sold his shares to Pover and Dickinson for a nominal fee. Rockingham had cost around £50m to build and Hands had held a share of over 65 per cent. He wouldn’t be returning to motor sport in a hurry.
But there is a silver lining for the circuit. Since 2006 a Northern Irish consortium, led by Len O’Hagan, has turned the place around. For the past two years, Rockingham reports it has run to a profit. The new owners have built a healthy national calendar of races, with the track’s BTCC round the season highlight. Weekend races, testing, track days and corporate events keep the place busy. Sound familiar? It matches Davies’ vision from way back in the early 1990s. It’s a testament to the current owners that Rockingham has survived to celebrate its 10th birthday, which will be marked at the BTCC meeting on September 18. But the real legacy belongs to the forgotten man who founded the place. At Wirsol Solar UK, Davies has talked his old friend Tate into joining him in his new venture. The team is back together — and for both men, the sun is still shining a)