“The first Indycar race was a day full of colour”
We had to pinch ourselves. This was somewhere deep in the American mid-west, surely. No, this was plain old Northamptonshire, middle England. Yet somehow this was real: US Indycars, driven by Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti and the rest, were racing flat-out on a pukka, 1.5-mile banked oval – in Corby. Bleedin’ Corby!
Did it actually happen? Seventeen years later, we’re still pinching ourselves. Except for those of us who witnessed Britain’s first true oval race since Brooklands shut in 1939, bittersweet memories keep it real. September 22, 2001 was a remarkable day in British motorsport history.
Old colleague and good mate Tim Scott and I were there on duty, and we weren’t happy. Autosport editor Laurence Foster had seconded us (read: bullied us) as roving pitlane reporters for the circuit commentary. Rapid-fire broadcasting up and down a busy pitlane? ‘Chub Autosport’, as we’d been cruelly dubbed? Gulp.
The backstory added to the sense of foreboding. The Rockingham 500 marked the second leg of a two-week European oval tour – and the previous Saturday, at the new Lausitzring in eastern Germany, had ended in horror when Alex Zanardi lost both his legs in an accident that traumatised the racing world, just days after 9/11 had traumatised the rest of the real world. No wonder by the time they got to Corby, the American paddock just wanted to go home.
Then there was the weather. It didn’t rain on the practice days, but it had – heavily – in the days preceding, and that moisture now revealed a significant design flaw in the oval track’s surface. The term ‘weeper’ entered the British racing lexicon. Patches just wouldn’t dry as water seeped through, and for 200mph Indycars it would have been like running on black ice. Nothing was going to happen, possibly all weekend.
That’s where Scotty and I stepped in. To fill the endless ‘dead air’, we were told to interview anyone who peeped out of their Portakabins. Most drivers were a delight – we interviewed Roberto Moreno three times because he wouldn’t stop talking – but one refused. Why? “Nothing against you guys, but this place is f***ing shit,” offered Mr Tracy. Oh.
Then on Saturday morning, race day, a breakthrough. The track was finally cleared for action. Even by Indycar standards, this place was fast, lap times hitting 215mph as drivers barely lifted. Then in the afternoon, a shortened race captivated a 40,000-strong crowd. Somewhere up in the grandstand, Peter Davies – the man who had dreamt up Rockingham, only to be ousted by the circuit’s board six months before the race – screamed in delight. It really was happening.
The frantic climax between Gil de Ferran and Kenny Brack, which went the way of the Penske ace, topped a day full of colour, set against a leaden Northamptonshire sky.
A year later, the Indycars returned as Dario Franchitti claimed an emotional home win. But it wasn’t the same. Just 25,000 turned out to see it and the Americans went home, never to return.
For some reason, I never went back either. Perhaps after Indycars, nothing else at Rockingham would ever quite stack up. It had been brief, at times personally embarrassing – and utterly magical.