The rise and fall of Britain’s flawed NASCAR imitation

It’s a little over 20 years since ASCAR hit its peak, filling Rockingham's grandstands while luring top international and BTCC talent. But the domestic stock car series' boom couldn't last. Here's how the curio exploded, then imploded

The rise and fall of Britain’s flawed NASCAR imitation

Stamp, stamp, clap. Stamp, stamp, clap.

When the public address system at Rockingham Motor Speedway near Corby blared out We Will Rock You by Queen in the early 2000s, it spelled doubly good news. Firstly, spectators sitting in the chilly grandstands could start to get circulation back into their feet. Second, it signalled that an ASCAR race was about to begin.

The largely unimaginative acronym stood for Anglo-American Stock Car Racing. As implied, this was about importing the NASCAR model. Big names, rivalries, plenty of noise, shunts and lots of turning left. Short-oval racers would graduate to a larger platform, while the audience would be so great and sponsorship money so lucrative that no driver this side of Formula 1 was unobtainable.

The opening line of Brian May’s anthem goes: “Buddy, you’re a boy, make a big noise.” That’s exactly what the fledging series intended to do. The Northamptonshire quiet would be shattered by small-block Chevrolet V8s reverberating off, and crashing into, the concrete walls of a £70million, 1.5-mile oval plonked on an ironstone quarry.

This wasn’t conceived to be a pure form of motorsport. Instead, shock and awe tactics would have the turnstiles spinning off their hinges.

“ASCAR is about delivering motorsport as entertainment,” said series CEO Mike Schmidt. “Teams should be prepared not to take themselves too seriously – that will endear them to the fans.”

It was all coming along swimmingly at the dawn of the new millennium. The machinery was sorted: Chas Howe Racing Enterprises of Michigan would construct a steel-tube chassis based on the design of the American Speed Association Series on the NASCAR ladder. This would be draped in one of three body styles – Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford Taurus and Pontiac Grand Prix – that resembled the contemporary Winston Cup cars.

ASCAR began at Rockingham in 2001, but the first race was a farce

ASCAR began at Rockingham in 2001, but the first race was a farce

Photo by: Sutton Images

Chunky tyre sidewalls would give the impression of brawn, but the skinny Goodyears would allow for exciting sliding. And, thanks to 565bhp, the test car was only 2.5 seconds slower than a Super Tourer around Donington Park.

An inaugural 2001 season was billed as a learning year, so teething problems were numerous. Rockingham founder Peter Davies pulled his private funding of ASCAR due to discontent with how it was being run. Although his circuit had capacity for 44 cars and 32 were targeted for the maiden venture, as race day approached, talk was of only 19 entries. Eventually, the series made its bow on Saturday 26 May with the Goodyear 100. This formed part of the Coys Historic Festival, the venue’s public debut after a behind-closed-doors national meeting to troubleshoot the infrastructure.

This crucial first impression would dabble with farce. Punters could buy radio scanners to listen to each team. What they heard was total frustration over engine oil surge, as the UK-specification motors couldn’t cope with the lateral forces exerted by the banking. Drivers were advised to avoid the 6800rpm limit for what became a glorified demonstration.

ASCAR had come too close to death in its first year. The only way was up. And with no-nonsense Berridge in charge, it rapidly climbed higher than anyone might have imagined

After a few V8s detonated in practice, just 12 cars took the rolling start. The AC Cobra safety car even had to be deployed to give the engines a breather. At least a high-profile winner was selected, with two-time British Touring Car champion John Cleland leading at the flag. Embarrassment aside, the Scot reckoned: “It’s going to be the biggest thing since Ben-Hur; we’ve just got to make the series work.”

After that rockiest of starts, an alternative engine was required. But with Davies gone, which hurt the fundraising, Schmidt quickly vacated his role as the ASCAR company ceased trading and the calendar was suspended for three months. Fortunately, team owner Bob Berridge came to the rescue at the helm of Oval Racing Management. The new promoter was financed almost entirely by the deep pockets of Rockingham to obtain a lease supply of less powerful 5.7-litre General Motors LS1 engines direct from the USA.

Then came take two. The revitalised ASCAR emerged on Bank Holiday Monday 27 August for two 70-lap sprints and was backed by a stronger entry list, with teams now having faith 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 chalked the first proper win and later sealed the inaugural title (his third of 2001 to go 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 up. And with no-nonsense Berridge in charge, it rapidly climbed higher than anyone might have imagined. For 2002, Channel 4 picked up the TV deal, support categories were organised, and a £100,000 prize fund was on offer for the first female to win a race. Then, in the biggest coup of all, reigning BTCC champion Jason Plato was signed ahead of a showy season launch party at the Sports Cafe in Piccadilly, London.

Reigning BTCC champion Jason Plato and future Le Mans class-winner Darren Turner were signed up for 2002

Reigning BTCC champion Jason Plato and future Le Mans class-winner Darren Turner were signed up for 2002

Photo by: Jeff Carter

Never one to mince his words, Plato was clear that ASCAR would serve as a means to an end: “The main reason I am doing ASCAR is because I am desperate to get to America. I want to live there and race there but the longer I focused on touring cars, the harder it was going to be to get into US oval racing.”

To the series, that ulterior motive didn’t matter in the slightest. Plato’s defection was a huge shot in the arm. And they kept coming. Crack tin-top squad RML was to form a team, ex-Formula 3000 racer Darren Manning signed up, so too did 1993 British Formula 3 champion Kelvin Burt, McLaren F1 tester Darren Turner, Toby Scheckter (son of 1979 F1 world champion Jody) and so on. The star names had people interested. A £15 ticket for adults and under 16s going free converted that intrigue into bums on seats.

Ousted Chip Ganassi Racing CART pilot Nic Minassian explains his involvement: “I arrived by reading Autosport. It was just beginning and when I saw that Bob was recruiting so many high-profile drivers, I called him. He offered me a drive. I could see with the push they had that it was going to be fun. To bring oval racing to Europe, I thought, was a very good idea.”

But in what was already becoming a tradition, things couldn’t go off without a hitch. The opening race was put under threat due an eleventh-hour need to resurface Rockingham. This was to resolve ‘weepers’ on the brownfield site. Water oozing through the asphalt wasn’t new. It did, though, become a major problem when the cracks were filled with a sealant, which had all the grip properties of glass, for a bodged fix.

During a test in a couple of two-seater ASCARs, Mickel and Paul Sheard followed one another into the wall. Plato, a nervous passenger anyway, was riding shotgun and cracked two ribs and a vertebra in the smash. That probably wasn’t what the glossy pre-race advertising campaign meant when it proclaimed: “Jason Plato, watch it. These cars BITE!”

Short-oval king Colin White won the first bout before Minassian triumphed. Plato managed sixth and eighth in the double-header. He declared: “ASCAR is definitely the way forward for motorsport. It’s hard work, but it’s going to be a cracking year. I’m glad I got out of touring cars – this is the best.”

The series then docked in Europe for the first of three meetings scheduled at the Lausitzring in Germany. But in another long-running flaw, inclement conditions scuppered plans. Sunday action was lost to a downpour as drivers instead played football in the pitlane. For the next round in Corby, the second race was canned for similarly slippery reasons. The equipment was too basic and tracks too dangerous to risk it on slicks. Goodyear did develop a wet-weather tyre that might have been used on the infield layout at Rockingham, but it wasn’t much cop and never progressed beyond testing.

McRae was one of many stars who turned up for a round in 2002, although the series continued to have problems

McRae was one of many stars who turned up for a round in 2002, although the series continued to have problems

Photo by: Sutton Images

A second visit to the EuroSpeedway ran well enough, but a third in late September was cancelled when ASCAR couldn’t put together a cross-Channel support package, with CART having already pulled out of its event due to the circuit filing for bankruptcy. At least Berridge and co had sensed that the championship was too reliant on one venue, so recces were completed of the planned tri-oval in Abbeville, northern France and of Venray in the Netherlands. If the calendar could grow, ASCAR might keep kicking its domestic rival when it was down.

“We just happened to launch when BTCC was in one of its natural troughs [following the post-Super Touring manufacturer exodus and the sale of TOCA by Alan Gow],” says Berridge. “ASCAR was accidentally launched at the perfect time.”

Helping matters, the entry list was increasingly star studded. Matt Neal and Kevin McGarrity made cameo appearances, as did 1995 World Rally champion Colin McRae, who recruited compatriot Dario Franchitti to be his spotter. Grids were still far from chocka, but there was no shortage of compelling plotlines. For one, Turner had been unable to contest the early rounds while budget was sourced, and his car shaken down. He then turned up, won a remarkable six races and should have been the 2002 champion only for the points system to heavily favour consistency, so his early absences couldn’t be overcome.

ASCAR was also enjoying the fruits of a bitter rivalry. Independent underdog White represented those running on humble budgets; French foe Minassian was in a pukka RML machine. Their dissatisfaction with one another spilled over frequently

It’s also said that tweaks to the rules governing the rear wing, whether directly aimed at his ultra-efficient Pontiac aerokit or not, hurt Turner the most. To bunch up the pack, it was also not unheard of for a yellow-flag caution period to be spuriously thrown for a piece of non-existent debris just out of view on the far side of the circuit…

For good measure, ASCAR was also enjoying the fruits of a bitter rivalry. Independent underdog White represented those running on humble budgets; French foe Minassian was in a pukka RML machine. Their dissatisfaction with one another spilled over frequently. Both were threatened with being stripped of their licences for repeat on and off-track clashes before it boiled over in mid-September. During the second race of the penultimate round at Rockingham, with the title at stake, the pair collided as Minassian tried to pass on the outside with a handful of laps to go. White was knocked into a spin.

This played out in front of a bumper crowd during the second and final year that ASCAR would share an event with CART. Accounts are a little patchy due to the consumption of alcohol, but those at the end-of-season awards shindig recall White not taking kindly to eventual champion Minassian grabbing his tie…

White, who contested every ASCAR season, says of his former nemesis: “Minassian knew all about the book and the regulations – what you’re allowed to do and what you can’t get away with in terms of giving people a nudge. I had some pretty rough treatment!” he laughs. “We had some meetings with the promoters, and they wanted to put more of a show on. 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 we wanted to smash the cars up.”

Minassian and White enjoyed a thrilling rivalry in 2002, with the Frenchman coming out on top

Minassian and White enjoyed a thrilling rivalry in 2002, with the Frenchman coming out on top

Photo by: Sutton Images

Minassian, who won just once on the way to the crown, adds: “It was really real! He was a tough competitor, a hard guy! Quite a few times we were shouting. But now it makes me laugh. He was a hard cookie to play with. It was a massive rivalry together. That’s what made it fun.”

A crowd of 20,000 attended the 2002 season finale to witness the closing chapter of their grudge match. White says of the popularity: “I tried going to hotels and then going back into the track, but it would just take so long [due to queues] that we always ended up staying in the team bus. There’d be so many people that wanted to talk to me that you felt like a full-blown popstar.”

Despite the popularity, teams concluded more had to be done to promote the series – grids only ever approached 20 cars in 2002 – and still there was no recognition of ASCAR across the pond. Its potential to be a route to Winston Cup success was nil. That led Rockingham to appoint a new chief executive in the form of Ashley Pover.

The circuit couldn’t bankroll ASCAR forever, so those grandstands needed to be sold out. Pover devised that motorsport couldn’t lead the package. Instead, each round needed to be headlined by chart-topping music acts. Busted, Girls Aloud, The Darkness and Liberty X were just some of the bands to perform on the Smash Hits stage.

This was too much for Berridge, who departed soon after Pover’s appointment. He recalls: “Rockingham spent a huge amount of money [getting the circuit up and running] but there was a mistake made by the management. They didn’t have any content apart from a CART race. I was brought in by the chief exec to set up ASCAR. The idea was for it to be a franchise system, and the teams would make money off sponsorship and we would make money off the entry fees and tickets.

“We eventually got the product spot-on. The whole spectacle was terrific. We were onto a winner. Rockingham had a fantastic opportunity, which they wasted. They brought in Ashley Pover, who was a financial derivatives trader. As a motor racing promoter, he didn’t have a clue. I could see that he had a totally different idea.

“He went off in completely the wrong direction, and it died more or less within two seasons. He wanted to dumb it down, and he did. He got what he deserved. We were right on the cusp, at the end of 2002, for four or five years of sustainable growth.”

Trying to cut costs for 2003 resulted in a less decorated grid. Plato was extricated from his three-year deal and returned to the BTCC. The venue also exited its CART-hosting contract. When Jean-Paul Driot opted against relaunching his DAMS concern with an oval assault, Minassian wasn’t tempted to defend his crown. The knock-on effects of the Iraq War also left sponsors to tighten their purse strings. Then, when NASCAR did take notice, it spelled bad news.

Scrapes were never far away as the action thrilled on track, but off-track decision-making threatened the series' survival

Scrapes were never far away as the action thrilled on track, but off-track decision-making threatened the series' survival

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Former ASCAR press officer Neil Randon explains: “It didn’t help that they had to change the name because NASCAR was causing a real stink. They thought it was almost a breach of copyright.” Therefore, for 2003, the series would be known as Days of Thunder in deference to the questionable Tom Cruise flick.

Regardless, fans returned in their droves and 2003 was seen as a step forward. Ben Collins, who starred during his cameo the previous year, excelled with six wins from 13 races. The former Indy Lights runner had not long thought his career was over, so enlisted for the Territorial Army. Then he signed for RML and dominated in between suspect pitstops. This included smashing the series lap record at Rockingham as he bolted round in 34.475s at an average speed of 154mph. Despite his command, Collins couldn’t gain a foothold Stateside.

“You might as well be racing on the moon,” he says of ASCAR’s transatlantic recognition. “You could show photos and a nice winning record but really, the only thing that counted was racing in the States. Still, I was offered an ASCAR seat when I had no drive, so I would not have done anything different. I’m proud of what we achieved as a team.”

The series was in terminal decline, barely limping along as the crashed and rewelded cars grew tired. The quality of the grid suffered throughout, and former backmarkers became title challengers

Another 31,000 people attended the season finale, and Pover was intent on trumping that in 2004 with a colossal music booking: American rap sensation 50 Cent. But as Randon says: “He cost an absolute fortune to coax over. 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 bankrolled two full seasons of ASCAR for the price of one 50 Cent gig.

Those kinds of losses at a time when Rockingham was racking up considerable debt with the shaky Royal Bank of Scotland weren’t sustainable. Pover was out and in came Joe Dickson, who talked of launching ASCAR in the Middle East. A rebrand to become the Stock Car Speed Association in an ill-fated attempt to inspire a Ryder Cup-style competition with US drivers failed. Hiking up the ticket prices then killed the crowds.

After that, the series was in terminal decline, barely limping along as the crashed and rewelded cars grew tired. The quality of the grid suffered throughout, and former backmarkers became title challengers. So, with entries dwindling, in September 2007 the championship status was axed by the Motor Sport Association governing body.

The colossal cash injections were short-lived because ASCAR never washed its own face. The more hardcore racing fans were dismissive of this American imitation and it never looked like being the launchpad to US stardom, as Plato and Collins once thought.

While Rockingham needed a flagship series, there was only so much excitement that could be generated from almost always racing on the same oval. So, much like the now-closed circuit that housed it, the UK’s take on top-flight stock car racing is rendered as a once-loved but fleeting white elephant.

Cars couldn't run in showers, one of many flaws that hampered the short-lived series

Cars couldn't run in showers, one of many flaws that hampered the short-lived series

Photo by: Motorsport Images

What ASCAR means to my family

Matt Kew
Once I’d begrudgingly accepted that ‘James Bond’ wasn’t a viable career choice, motorsport hogged my attention. Since 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 occasionally barrel-rolling captivated this eight-year-old.

It wasn’t perfect. I recall an invariably cold Corby climate and seemingly endless rain delays. There was also some sort of family ‘discussion’ on whether it was safe to eat a sausage roll that was due to expire. I’m still here, so it must have been OK! Anyway, I owe a lot to those thumping V8s and their gung-ho drivers.

My dad
Having ASCAR at Rockingham on our doorstep proved an ideal introduction for Matthew and his brother to motorsport. Long intervals when debris was cleared or for the track to dry allowed time for us to relocate to the centre of the circuit and watch the pits. We saw wheels changed, bodywork replaced and drivers including former Top Gear Stig Ben Collins raring to go.

My mum
“Let’s go racing” was the reply when I asked the boys: “What would you like to do this weekend?” They loved it. Matthew would visit the pits after the races and return with various car parts. Once with a large chunk of front wheel arch, which he kept in his bedroom! Perhaps he was hoping to build his own ASCAR one day.

My brother
It seems like a cheesy dream all these years later. A proper bit of abstraction from your subconscious. Remember there was a banked oval teeming with V8s, spectators, live music, and merchandise tents… just outside Corby? Rockingham’s ASCARs holds a place in my heart for being the first time I saw racing cars at speed, smelled the fuel and heard the ‘crump’ as drivers nerfed each other into the wall. It was a momentary firework of a series, but superb entertainment while it lasted.

ASCAR meetings were popular with the Kew family and local motorsport fans, even if its appeal didn't stretch across the Pond

ASCAR meetings were popular with the Kew family and local motorsport fans, even if its appeal didn't stretch across the Pond

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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