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Editorial

Rockingham ready for CART.  Is CART ready for Rockingham?

 

 by Mark Cipolloni
August 8, 2001

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While in England recently I made a point of stopping by the new Rockingham Motor Speedway to see the new facility first-hand in anticipation of next months inaugural CART Champ Car race.  What I saw was a first-rate facility that is nearing 100% completion and will be ready for CART in more than enough time.

Rockingham was being built for two reasons - the first is to introduce oval racing back to England, and the second is that England desperately needs more race tarmac - for testing and track days (there are 73 racing clubs in UK that need a place to race). 

Click on image for larger viewWith so few ovals in Europe, the new European oval track owners effectively have a corner on the market with their new novel product, and ticket costs for the CART race will be less than a F-1 race, though not as low as some fans feel they should be a for a first-year event.  At the recent Silverstone F1 race a three day pass, with seat, a hat and a program, costs a little over $600 (yes, six US hundred dollars).  Standard general admission for Silverstone is just over $140 (to stand on an earth embankment) and $250 minimum for a race day seat. The circuits have to charge that sort of price to cover the cost of bringing the F-1 show to town.  Imagine, then, if they paid significantly less, to see the world's fastest open wheel racing, with plenty of overtaking, from a comfortable seat, with US style facilities.

Ticket prices for the CART race range from $35 to about $110 on Friday, and $110 to $200 on race day.  Thursday all seats are about $33.  A 3-day grandstand seat ranges between $175 and $300.  

Though the track is centrally located in the Midlands of England, getting to it will require a car.  There is no longer any rail service to the nearby town of Corby, but Corby is working to get that changed.

Rockingham's dilemma is educating the British fans just what CART is all about.  CART has not done an effective job of marketing their brand of motorsports to the the Brits, where Formula One is king.  Quite frankly, it has been an uphill battle for the promoters at Rockingham, and although ticket sales are picking up, they are not where they hoped they would be.  So far about 22,000 tickets have been sold out of 52,000 total seats.  And while they expect a major run on tickets as the race nears, with just eight weeks to go they have a lot of selling to do.

Rockingham tried to run an ad in this years British GP race program but Bernie Ecclestone nixed the idea at the last minute.  Don't think for one minute Bernie doesn't view CART as a potential threat.  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.  One of CART's primary weaknesses is that it is not in bed with three of the biggest movers and shakers in racing, that being The France Family (NASCAR), Bernie (F1) and Tony George (IRL).  At the end of the day in the racing  business, it's better to have more friends than less.  CART would be wise to develop an alliance with Bernie.

A major marketing plan is kicking in now, and Jeff Carter, one of Rockingham's Public Relations representatives tells us it's not unusual for Europeans to wait until the last minute to buy their tickets.  What will be key to their success is whether CART can line up a big-name British driver like Johnny Herbert of Mark Blundell to give the Brits someone to cheer for and part with their hard earned money.

Is interest strong?  You bet it is. People in England that we quizzed seemed to know about the race.   Already, all 7,500 seats are nearly sold out in the main Rockingham Grandstand and those ticket holders will have opportunities to drive Rockingham as part of a racing club. Corporately, there is great involvement in Rockingham. With Rockingham's marketing partners and agents worldwide, they are putting together attractive packages on every aspect of their commercial development. 

Media interest is very high for the race. Already there have been requests for 500 media credentials, though they are looking to weed that down to about 350 the first year.  A lot of F1 reporters have applied for media credentials, which is good news as the race should get good media coverage, unless......read on.

While in England we hit off and on rain everyday over a 4-day period.  It is not inconceivable that the entire race weekend could be a wash out given how wet Europe is.  Of course, were that to happen, CART would have a another major public relations nightmare on their hands.  While every effort should be made to run the race on the oval, CART would be well advised to have a last-ditch contingency plan in place.  If Saturday is a washout and it's still raining on Sunday morning. all the teams should be prepared to run the race on the road course.  The only concern we have with that is the speed the cars will carry into the banked Turn 4, which is part of the road course.  Perhaps the Champ Cars would need to run the motorcycle course, which bypasses Turn 4 completely. 

We would expect any driver or team member reading this to have hit the ceiling at this point.  However, what they must remember, is that the race must be run by Sunday, the official rain date.  And we do mean MUST.  CART should instruct all the teams to also pack road course gears, wings and whatever else is necessary to run the road course should the weekend be a washout.  That means Firestone must have rain tires in the truck as well, and the engine manufacturers must have all the engine computer mapping necessary to run the cars on the road course.

Certainly, this will not be an ideal situation.  The engines will not perform as good as they could, and the teams will only have perhaps 1-hour on Sunday morning to setup the cars for the road course and in wet conditions.  In no uncertain terms, the show must go on.  For if the race is run on Monday, no fans will be there to watch.  Europeans do not have their races cancelled because of rain and they don't miss work on Monday for a race, certainly not a CART race.  CART will be faced with yet another embarrassing situation, like they need another one this year.  And to make matters worse, according to Jeff Carter, there is a real possibility the track would just cancel the race and refund all the fans their money. The critical F1 media on hand will have a field day with CART.   That's how serious this is.  CART must NOT fail in Europe and they must be prepared to run, rain or shine.  CART prides itself on being versatile.  Let's see just how versatile they can be.

P0002900.JPG
Looking toward Turn 3

Rockingham Motor Speedway in pictures

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Looking toward Turn 2
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Back of main grandstand
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Turn 4 grandstand
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Turn 1 grandstand
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Turn 1 grandstand
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South grandstand
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Coming out of Turn 1
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Turn 2
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Out of 2 heading to 3
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Turn 3
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Out of 3 heading to 4
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North grandstand
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Turn 4
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Out of 4 onto main straight
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Turn 1 of road circuit
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RC heading toward 1
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RC straight behind paddock
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Race Control Room
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Race Control Room
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Adjacent Suite
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Typical Suite
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Trackside Press Room
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Victory Podium
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Looking out to Turn 1
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Looking out to Turn 4
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Straight between 3 & 4

Track Details

Click to enlarge.  Courtesy Rockingham Motor Speedway
Click all images for larger view

The oval race track is 1.5 miles long. Width is a constant 60 feet, plus a slow running lane, plus the long pit in and out width.  Maximum banking in the turns is a flat 7.5% (4.2 degrees) with 3.5% (2 degrees) on the straightaways. The full combined oval and road course gives them a full FIA spec 2.7 miles road course, (same direction as oval, left handed of course). Shorter combinations are available for race schools, corporate days, and the motorcycle circuit for non oval start/finish straight use. The track reminds us a little bit of Nazareth, only 1/2 mile bigger, and the very flat Milwaukee track which affords a lot of side-by-side racing.

The main oval's shape is very wide and open. Recent tests by Alex Barron and Johnny Herbert saw average speeds approaching 200 mph on a green track.  Turns 2 and 3 are pretty much one high-speed big arc, with a proper lift needed for Turn 4 and certainly for Turn 1.

Having driven around many race tracks in my day, my guess is that this is probably going to be a two groove race track.  If I am correct, and marbles don't ruin the top groove, we should see some good side-by-side racing.  If a car is hooked up they will be able to pass both high and low.

Here's hoping I'm right.  And cross your fingers it doesn't rain.  It should be spectacular.  And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Brits were quite friendly to me, everywhere in England I went.  There is also a lot of History in England, far more than the USA, so any Americans fans thinking about going to the Europe races will find plenty of things to do, especially in London.  But why make the trip and not take in Germany the weekend before?  It will be an experience you won't soon forget.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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