Columns - Big Al

Can Rockingham change the balance of power?


This coming weekend sees what could be a seminal moment in the history of British domestic motorsport as the Rockingham Speedway opens its doors officially with Nigel Mansell demonstrating a Champcar - albeit at reduced speed - as part of the promotional razzmatazz surrounding the event.

Rockingham is situated barely 50-miles from the traditional home of British motorsport at Silverstone and its emergence, against the commercial odds, some might say, raises penetrating questions for the sport's evolution in the UK. In short, we are all waiting with keen anticipation to see whether Rockingham will be a one-shot wonder - or whether it came make serious inroads into the established appeal of Silverstone's more conventional attractions.

Certainly, Rockingham's arrival on the scene has come at an interesting time. Silverstone is poised to launch a 45 million pound upgrading program which is designed to effectively rebuild the Second World War aerodrome into a state-of-the-art, 21st century rival to Malaysia's Sepang track in terms of refinement and facilities. Yet the deal between Silverstone's owners, the British Racing Drivers' Club, and Octagon Motorsports, owners of Brands Hatch, whereby the British GP will continue to be staged at its traditional venue, has yet to be examined by the British government's Competition Commission.

In fairness, there is nothing contained within the BRDC/Octagon deal which is not positive for the long-term development of motorsport in the UK. Even so, Rockingham has pitched its appeal as being more spectator friendly to the fans in a way that only American race-goers can understand.

Rockingham's Chief Executive David Grace knows that of which he speaks. A former British hillclimb champion who previously worked for the Grand Metropolitan Leisure Group, he moved into the job earlier this year.

"Rockingham is probably an opportunity whose time has come," said Grace. "Everything in the commercial world has become more competitive, including competition for people's leisure time and money. So maybe the things that traditionally aren't supposed to work - like a big motorsport venue - are worth another look.

"This is the first new, purpose-built track of any size in the last 40-odd years (in the UK), so we're creating an opportunity that was not supposed to exist.'

Grace appreciates the current apparently pre-eminent appeal of F1 racing will be difficult to break - and acknowledges it will be an uphill struggle to convince the UK public that there is another way to go racing. However, he believes that Rockingham has some distinct advantages.

"We have an oval and a stadium that no one else really has," he said. "We'll have the Champcars lapping at more than 200mph, and we'll have ASCAR stock cars and motorcycles - and we'll be able to seat everybody, like they do in America.

"We have kept all the infield buildings to a single storey, so from any seat in the grandstand or terraces, you will be able to see 90 per cent of the tracks, including the infield road courses. We won't have the traditional 'stand on one corner and see a car for 10 seconds' thing that you have at most places. We're doing everything the American way, rather than the traditional British way.'

I fervently hope it works because British motorsport has always been very much a 'broad church' with diverse appeal. Trouble is, that appeal is very often spread too thinly across too many categories. The Bottom Line is that F1 has sucked so much in the way of commercial resources out of the sport as a whole that there is precious little jam left for anybody else to enjoy.

The only downside I see on Rockingham's horizon could be a political one. Banking on Champcar races in the longer term might be fraught with difficulty. The day may well be coming in the not-too-distant future when CART has to align itself with Tony George's Indy Racing League simply to secure its long-term survival.

When that day comes, there could be trouble for Rockingham as George is the man who brought F1 back to the USA last year, courtesy a deal with Bernie Ecclestone. And if Ecclestone perceives that Champcar racing in Europe is a threat to F1, there could be pressure on George to ensure that the roundy-round boys stay on their side of the Pond.

And that would be Bad News indeed for Rockingham. Undeservedly so.