DAMIEN SMITH

“The first Indy­car race was a day full of colour”

Motor Sport News - - Insight -

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.

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