Stamp, stamp, clapperboard. Stamp, stamp, clapperboard.
When the PA system at Rockingham Motor Speedway near Corby played Queen’s We Will Rock You in the early 2000s, it was double good news. First, spectators seated in the cold stands could begin to restore circulation to their feet. Second, it signaled that an ASCAR race was about to begin.
The largely unimaginative acronym stood for Anglo-American Stock Car Racing. As implied, it was to import the NASCAR model. Big names, rivalries, lots of noise, shunts and lots of left turns. Short oval racers would move on to a larger platform, while the public would be so big and the sponsors’ money so lucrative that no driver on this side of Formula 1 was unobtainable.
The first line of Brian May’s anthem reads, “Buddy, you’re a boy, make some noise.” That’s exactly what the fledgling series set out to do. Northamptonshire’s calm would be shattered by small-block Chevrolet V8s slamming into and crashing into the concrete walls of a £70m, 1.5-mile oval laid on an ironstone quarry.
It was not designed to be a pure form of motorsport. Instead, shock and awe tactics would spin the turnstiles off their hinges.
“ASCAR is about delivering motorsport as entertainment,” said series CEO Mike Schmidt. “Teams have to be prepared not to take themselves too seriously – that will endear them to the fans.”
Everything was going wonderfully at the dawn of the new millennium. The machines were sorted: Chas Howe Racing Enterprises of Michigan would build a steel-tube chassis based on the design for the American Speed Association series on the NASCAR scale. This would be draped in one of three body styles – Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford Taurus and Pontiac Grand Prix – which resembled contemporary Winston Cup cars.
ASCAR started at Rockingham in 2001, but the first race was a farce
Photo by: Sutton Images
The thick tire sidewalls would feel muscular, but the skinny Goodyears would allow for thrilling gliding. And, thanks to 565bhp, the test car was just 2.5 seconds slower than a Super Tourer around Donington Park.
An inaugural season in 2001 was billed as a learning year, so there were plenty of teething problems. Rockingham founder Peter Davies withdrew his private funding from ASCAR due to dissatisfaction with the way it was run. Although its circuit had a capacity of 44 cars and 32 had been targeted for the first venture, as race day approached there were only talks of 19 entries. Finally, the series bowed out on Saturday May 26 with the Goodyear 100. It was part of the Coys Historic Festival, the venue’s public premiere after a closed-door nationwide meeting to troubleshoot the infrastructure.
This crucial first impression would play with the stuffing. Punters could purchase radio scanners to listen to each team. What they heard was utter frustration with the surge of engine oil, as the UK spec engines couldn’t cope with the lateral forces exerted by the bank. Drivers were told to avoid the 6800 rpm limit for what became a glorified demonstration.
ASCAR had come too close to death in its first year. The only way was to go up. And with no-frills Berridge in charge, he quickly soared higher than anyone could have imagined.
After a few V8s exploded during practice, only 12 cars took the rolling start. The AC Cobra safety car even had to be deployed to give the engines a break. At least one top-flight winner has been selected, with two-time British Touring Car champion John Cleland heading the flag. Embarrassment aside, the Scot felt: “It’s going to be the biggest thing since Ben-Hur; we just have to make the show work.”
After this most difficult start, a reciprocating engine was needed. But with the departure of Davies, which hurt fundraising, Schmidt quickly left his position as the ASCAR company ceased operations and the calendar was suspended for three months. Fortunately, team owner Bob Berridge came to the rescue as head of Oval Racing Management. The new promoter was funded almost entirely from the deep pockets of Rockingham to secure an offer to lease less powerful General Motors LS1 5.7-liter engines direct from the United States.
Then came to take two. The revitalized ASCAR emerged on the bank holiday Monday, August 27, for two 70-lap sprints and was backed by a stronger entry roster, with teams now confident that the future of the series was stable. While there were only 14 starters, at least the cars were reliable, the competitors happy and 15,000 onlookers entertained. John Mickel took the first real victory and then sealed the inaugural title (his third of 2001 to go along with his British and World Legends crowns) by a single point.
ASCAR had come too close to death in its first year. The only way was to go up. And with Berridge in charge, he quickly soared higher than anyone could have imagined. For 2002, Channel 4 took over the TV contract, support categories were held and a £100,000 prize was offered for the first woman to win a race. Then, in the biggest blow of all, reigning BTCC champion Jason Plato was signed ahead of a season launch party at the Sports Cafe in Piccadilly, London.
Reigning BTCC champion Jason Plato and eventual Le Mans class winner Darren Turner entered for 2002
Photo by: Jeff Carter
Never one to mince words, Plato was clear that ASCAR would serve as a means to an end: “The main reason I’m doing ASCAR is that I despair of going to America. I want live there and race there, but the longer I focused on touring cars, the harder it was going to be to get into American oval racing.”
For the series, this ulterior motive had no importance. Plato’s defection was a huge bullet in the arm. And they kept coming. The Crack tin-top RML team was to form a team, former Formula 3000 driver Darren Manning signed up, as did 1993 British Formula 3 champion Kelvin Burt, McLaren F1 tester Darren Turner, Toby Scheckter (son of the 1979 F1 world champion Jody) etc. The names of the stars had people interested. A £15 ticket for adults and under 16s free turned that plot into bums on the seats.
Nic Minassian, ousted Chip Ganassi Racing CART driver, explains his involvement: “I arrived reading Autosport. It was just getting started and when I saw that Bob was recruiting so many top riders, I called him. He offered to drive me. see with the push they had it was going to be fun. Bringing oval racing to Europe, I thought, was a very good idea.
But in what was already becoming a tradition, things could not go smoothly. The opening race was threatened due to an eleventh-hour need to resurface at Rockingham. It was a question of solving the “weepers” on the industrial wasteland. Water seeping through the asphalt was nothing new. However, this became a major problem when the cracks were filled with a sealant, which had all the adhesion properties of glass, for a clogged solution.
During a test in two ASCAR two-seaters, Mickel and Paul Sheard take turns in the wall. Plato, a nervous passenger anyway, was driving a shotgun and broke two ribs and a vertebra in the smash. That probably wasn’t what the glossy pre-race ad campaign meant when it proclaimed, “Jason Plato, look at this. These cars BIT!”
Short oval king Colin White won the first fight before Minassian’s triumph. Plato was sixth and eighth in the double header. He said: “ASCAR is definitely the way to go for motorsport. It’s hard work, but it’s going to be an amazing year. I’m glad I gave up on touring cars – that’s the better.”
The series then docked in Europe for the first of three scheduled reunions at the Lausitzring in Germany. But in another long-standing fault, adverse conditions derailed plans. Sunday’s action was lost due to downpour as the drivers played football in the pit lane instead. For the following round at Corby, race two was canceled for equally slippery reasons. The equipment was too basic and the tracks too dangerous to venture on slicks. Goodyear developed a wet weather tire that could have been used on the indoor track at Rockingham, but it wasn’t very copious and never progressed beyond testing.
McRae was one of many stars who showed up for a ride in 2002, although the show continued to struggle.
Photo by: Sutton Images
A second visit to EuroSpeedway went reasonably well, but a third at the end of September was canceled when ASCAR could not put together a cross-Channel support package, as CART had already pulled out of their event due to the filing of balance sheet of the circuit. At least Berridge and co had felt the Championship was too dependent on one venue, so recces were completed from the planned tri-oval at Abbeville in northern France and Venray in the Netherlands. If the schedule could stretch, ASCAR could continue to kick their domestic rivals when they were down.
“We just launched when BTCC was in one of its natural lows [following the post-Super Touring manufacturer exodus and the sale of TOCA by Alan Gow]”, says Berridge. “ASCAR was launched accidentally at the perfect time.”
To help things, the list of registrants was increasingly starred. Matt Neal and Kevin McGarrity made appearances, as did 1995 World Rally Champion Colin McRae, who recruited fellow countryman Dario Franchitti to be his spotter. The grids were still far from shocked, but there was no shortage of compelling storylines. On the one hand, Turner hadn’t been able to contest the first races as the budget was found and his car was shaken. He then showed up, won a remarkable six races, and should only have been the 2002 champion for the points system to strongly favor consistency, so his early absences could not be overcome.
ASCAR also enjoyed the fruits of a bitter rivalry. The independent underdog White represented those operating on modest budgets; The French enemy Minassian was in a pukka RML machine. Their dissatisfaction with each other frequently overflowed
Changes to the rules governing the rear wing, whether or not they directly target his ultra-efficient Pontiac aerokit, are also said to have hurt Turner the most. To regroup the peloto n, it was also not uncommon for a yellow flag warning period to be thrown by mistake for a piece of non-existent debris just out of sight on the other side of the circuit…
For good measure, ASCAR also enjoyed the fruits of a bitter rivalry. The independent underdog White represented those operating on modest budgets; The French enemy Minassian was in a pukka RML machine. Their dissatisfaction with each other frequently boiled over. Both were threatened with having their licenses withdrawn for repeated clashes on and off the track before it boiled over in mid-September. In race two of the penultimate round at Rockingham, with the title on the line, the pair collided as Minassian attempted to pass on the outside with a handful of laps to go. White was thrown head-to-tail.
This took place in front of an exceptional crowd during the second and final year that ASCAR would share an event with CART. Reports are a little spotty due to the drinking, but those at the end-of-season awards show remember White not enjoying eventual champion Minassian grabbing his tie…
White, who played in all seasons of ASCAR, said of his former nemesis: “Minassian knew all about the book and the rules – what you’re allowed to do and what you can’t do to give people a boost. I was mistreated!” he’s laughing. “We had meetings with the promoters, and they wanted to do more of a show. I didn’t like that idea at all because they wanted us to pay the bills! We were there because we liked racing, not because that we wanted to smash the cars.”
Minassian and White enjoyed a thrilling rivalry in 2002, with the Frenchman taking the lead
Photo by: Sutton Images
Minassian, who has only won once on the way to the crown, adds: “It was really real! He was a tough competitor, a badass! We shouted several times. cookie to play with. It was a huge rivalry together. That’s what made it fun.
A crowd of 20,000 attended the 2002 season finale to witness the final chapter of their grudge match. White says of the popularity: “I tried to go to hotels and then get back on the track, but it would take so long [due to queues] that we always end up staying on the team bus. There were so many people who wanted to talk to me that you felt like a popstar in your own right.”
Despite the popularity, the teams concluded that more needed to be done to promote the series – the grids only ever approached 20 cars in 2002 – and there was still no recognition of ASCAR across the pond . His potential to be a route to Winston Cup success was nil. This led to Rockingham appointing a new managing director in the form of Ashley Pover.
The circuit could not finance ASCAR forever, so these grandstands had to be sold. Pover imagined that motorsport couldn’t lead the pack. Instead, each round was to be headlined by chart-topping musical acts. Busted, Girls Aloud, The Darkness and Liberty X were just a few of the bands to perform on the Smash Hits stage.
It was too much for Berridge, who left shortly after Pover’s appointment. He recalls: “Rockingham spent a huge amount of money [getting the circuit up and running] but there was a mistake on the part of the management. They had no content other than a CART race. I was brought in by the general manager to create ASCAR. The idea was for it to be a franchise system, and teams would make money from sponsorship and we would make money from entry fees and tickets.
“We finally got the perfect product. The whole show was great. We were onto a winner. Rockingham had a fantastic opportunity, which they squandered. They brought in Ashley Pover, who was a financial derivatives trader. as a motor racing promoter he had no idea, I could see he had a totally different idea.
“He went completely in the wrong direction, and he died more or less in two seasons. He wanted to dumb him down, and he did. He got what he deserved. We were on the verge, at the end of 2002, for four or five years of sustainable growth.”
Trying to cut costs for 2003 resulted in a less decorated grille. Plato was released from his three-year contract and returned to the BTCC. The site has also terminated its CART hosting contract. When Jean-Paul Driot opted out of reviving his DAMS business with an oval assault, Minassian was not tempted to defend his crown. The ripple effects of the war in Iraq have also forced sponsors to tighten their purse strings. Then when NASCAR took notice, it spelled bad news.
Scratches were never far away as the action was thrilling on track, but off-track decision-making threatened the series’ survival.
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport pictures
Former ASCAR press secretary Neil Randon explains: “It didn’t help that they had to change the name because NASCAR was causing a real stench. They thought it was almost a violation of human rights. ‘author.” Therefore, for 2003, the series would be known as Days of Thunder in deference to Tom Cruise’s dubious film.
Either way, fans came back in droves and 2003 was seen as a step forward. Ben Collins, who starred in his appearance the previous year, excelled with six wins from 13 races. The former Indy Lights racer didn’t long think his career was over, so he enlisted in the Territorial Army. Then he signed for RML and dominated between suspicious pit stops. This included smashing the series lap record at Rockingham as he lapped in 34.475 seconds at an average speed of 154 mph. Despite his command, Collins was unable to gain a foothold in the United States.
“You might as well run on the moon,” he says of ASCAR’s transatlantic reconnaissance. “You could show pictures and a nice winning record, but really the only thing that mattered was racing in the States. Yet I was offered an ASCAR seat when I had no driving, so I wouldn’t have done anything different. I’m proud of what we achieved as a team.”
The series was in terminal decline, barely limping as the wrecked and re-welded cars fatigued. Grid quality suffered throughout and former stragglers became title challengers
Another 31,000 people attended the season finale, and Pover intended to top that in 2004 with a colossal music booking: American rap sensation 50 Cent. But as Randon says, “He cost an absolute fortune to coax. And, because you needed parental guidance to see his events, families didn’t attend because the kids couldn’t come because of the strong language. It cost Rockingham a bloody fortune.” Berridge reckons he could have funded two full seasons of ASCAR for the price of a 50 Cent gig.
Those kinds of losses at a time when Rockingham was racking up huge debts with the flimsy Royal Bank of Scotland were unsustainable. Pover was out and Joe Dickson came in, who talked about launching ASCAR in the Middle East. A name change to the Stock Car Speed Association in an ill-fated attempt to inspire Ryder Cup-style competition with American drivers failed. Rising ticket prices then killed the crowds.
After that, the series was in terminal decline, barely limping as wrecked and re-welded cars fatigued. The quality of the grid suffered throughout and former stragglers became title challengers. Thus, with the decline in entries, in September 2007 the championship status was removed by the governing body of the Motor Sport Association.
The colossal injections of cash were short-lived as ASCAR never washed his face. Die-hard racing fans dismissed this American knockoff, and it never seemed to be the launchpad to American stardom, as Plato and Collins once thought.
While Rockingham needed a showpiece series, there was only so much excitement that could be generated by almost always racing the same oval. So, much like the now-closed circuit that housed it, the UK’s take on high-flying stock car racing is rendered like a once-loved but fleeting white elephant.
Cars couldn’t run in showers, one of many flaws that plagued the short-lived series
Photo by: Motorsport pictures
What ASCAR means to my family
Once I reluctantly accepted that “James Bond” was not a viable career choice, motorsport captured my attention. As ASCAR was my first in-person exposure to this world, it was central to the obsession. Calls of “start your engines!”, brilliant access, massive Scalextric layouts and Michael Vergers sometimes barrels captivated this eight-year-old.
It wasn’t perfect. I remember an invariably cold Corby climate and seemingly endless rain delays. There was also a kind of family “discussion” about whether it was safe to eat a sausage roll that was due to expire. I’m still here, so it must have been fine! Either way, I owe a lot to those hard-hitting V8s and their enthusiastic riders.
Having ASCAR at Rockingham on our doorstep proved an ideal introduction for Matthew and his brother to motorsport. Long intervals during which the debris was cleared or for the track to dry gave us time to move to the center of the circuit and survey the pits. We saw wheels changed, bodywork replaced and riders, including former Top Gear Stig Ben Collins, eager to go.
“Let’s go racing” was the response when I asked the boys, “What would you like to do this weekend?” They loved it. Matthew would visit the pits after races and return with various car parts. Once with a large piece of front wheel arch, which he kept in his room! Perhaps he hoped one day to build his own ASCAR.
Sounds like a corny dream all these years later. A good piece of abstraction from your subconscious. Remember there was a banked oval packed with V8s, spectators, live music and merchandise tents… just outside Corby? Rockingham’s ASCARs hold a place in my heart as it was the first time I had seen racing cars at speed, smelled the fuel and heard the “crump” as the drivers rolled into the wall. It was a momentary fireworks display of a series, but great fun while it lasted.
ASCAR meetings were popular with the Kew family and local motorsport fans, although its appeal did not stretch across the pond
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport pictures