a rocking good time
The Rockingham Motor Speedway offers more than just the occasionally used banked circuit, as Andy Enright finds out
Although it's probably known as the venue for the UK's only banked oval track, Rockingham offers a lot more than just one circuit. Over the years, it has developed into a very complete motorsports and corporate hospitality venue.
Today, we've got the place to ourselves and get the grand tour of the facilities before contenting ourselves with the Handling circuit on which we can put a couple of Mitsubishi Evos and a Mazda3 MPS through their paces. With a feeling akin to a school kid being given the keys to the confectioner's, we're soon dreaming about how it would feel to drive in front of the full grandstands. It's the closest thing to a temple of motorsport we have in the UK. Like all modern circuits, Rockingham can be configured in a number of different ways, from this Handling track up through Lake, National, International and International Long which uses parts of the bowl and is fully 2.56 miles in length.
Recent developments have seen Rockingham expand its infrastructure and it now attracts manufacturers looking for a motorsports-related venue that can cater for training, new product launches, corporate events and dealer programmes. There's even a Welcome and Conference Centre with capacity for 350 guests. Although Corby is never going to be a glamorous draw, Rockingham offers more sophisticated facilities than other longer established names. The guts were torn from this unprepossessing town when the British Steel works closed in 1979. Much of the Rockingham facility is built on the site of this complex and although it can't hope to provide as many jobs as the steel plant, its ongoing viability is nevertheless crucial to the local economy.
It's hard to believe that Rockingham had been so overlooked by the industry since its opening in 1999. Apart from a few ASCAR (latterly Days of Thunder) events that had proved popular, the venue seemed to be developing into an expensive white elephant. There's a new air of excitement there these days and new facilities re constantly being developed, the latest being a £1.5 million Wet Grip facility with the installation of a high tech kick-plate.
The kick-plate - the only one in the UK - means Rockingham's Wet Grip facility is able to offer car manufacturers and component suppliers the ultimate automotive demonstration venue capable of meeting their varied and exacting needs. As a vehicle crosses the kick-plate at speeds of between 15 and 40 mph, sensors in the ground are triggered and a hydraulic piston below the surface of the plate creates a 'kick' movement. The rear of the vehicle then swerves, causing it to start skidding on the adjacent wet performance surfaces.
The kick-plate also makes it possible to simulate at low speeds what happens to a vehicle during violent manoeuvres at higher speeds. The plate's ability to produce varying levels of kick - and therefore skid - means organisations can carry out precise testing of ABS braking, traction control and ESP systems in a safe and controlled environment. "The kick-plate makes Rockingham's Wet Grip facility unique in the UK," commented Rockingham Chairman, Len O' Hagan."The kick-plate is the only one in the UK and one of only three in Europe."
"This is a fantastic feature that makes our facility first choice for driving training programmes and testing new technologies such as ESP. We have already received excellent feedback from clients using Wet Grip and the kick-plate can only lead to greater customer satisfaction."
The existing wet performance surfaces, together with the kick-plate, now give manufacturers the opportunity to evaluate a combination of driving ability, electronic systems and the effects of physics on their vehicles in the same place, at the same time. Developed in co-operation with MIRA, the Rockingham Wet Grip facility offers unrivalled extreme weather automotive demonstration facilities. The performance surfaces have been developed in line with the latest manufacturer standards and simulate ice, rain, and even the effects of wet leaves. Also unique in the UK are the water walls, which can be randomly programmed with 19 different settings and create the closest possible simulation of a real-life emergency avoidance situation.
Rockingham has been forced to move with the times. With the growing popularity of track days, those who like to put the pedal to the metal will be able to satiate their needs here. Bikers are also catered for, with the facility running track events exclusively for motorcyclists. It's impossible not to have fun whichever event you choose. The high-speed banked oval is a real blast but the twists and turns of the infield circuit really give you the opportunity to put a car through its paces.
As well as the infield circuits and banked oval there's also a testing off-road facility where you can attack seemingly impossible looking obstacles. Negotiating a 56 degree side slope is an experience that seems to defy conventional physics and it takes a great deal of faith in technology to rely on the electronics and remove your feet from the pedal box as you nose over some of the more vertiginous descents.
There are even skid control cars to play with. Mounted on a wheeled cradle, these cars feature a series of computer controlled rams that can remove traction from any given wheel of the car at any moment your instructor deems fit. Thus equipped, the cars can replicate oversteer, understeer and tricky situations such as driving downhill on sheet ice as you struggle for control. Expect to get your money's worth in battered road cones by the end of the day. Although you'll rarely exceed 30mph during this activity, it's enormous fun, occasionally humbling and very informative. What's more it teaches all the fundamentals of car control without having the fear factor of ridiculous speeds or the cost implication of sizzling your own tyres.
While other tracks rest on their laurels, Rockingham has been busy building for the future. If there are better track facilities anywhere in the UK, I've yet to see them.
For more information and video of the kick plate in action visit www.rockingham.co.uk