All Things Business spoke with Peter Hardman, Chief Executive of Rockingham Motor Speedway
Tell us about the history of Rockingham Motor Speedway?
After the closure of the former British Steel Ironstone quarry and mining site in 1980, a number of schemes were floated to use the site. Someone had a great idea to use the land for a vehicle inspired purpose, and at one point a theme park concept around motorcars was in discussion, which evolved into the idea for a motor industry test track. With financial investors on board the plans soon became even more ambitious and keen to bring Indy Car to the UK, Rockingham was built to host American-style racing. It took 10 years of planning, 23 months of construction and cost £70 million before Rockingham came to life in January 2001, however it wasn’t until the May of that year, it opened its doors to the public for the COYS Historic Festival, a race in which I participated!
After a number of Indycar races, a home grown NASCAR style series and many other race events, Rockingham shifted the core business focus somewhat in 2006, and as a result began a journey that transformed it from being a motor racing circuit, to also being one of the UK’s leading automotive and testing venues. Alongside a busy race calendar, we now operate over 50 days a year for automotive manufacturers from every sector, including motorbikes, cars and commercial vehicles.
What has been the biggest event the venue has hosted?
Rockingham has hosted its fair share of great events. The biggest race event, and probably biggest challenge, would have to be the first Indy Car race – the CART Champ Car Series event in September 2001. This was the style of racing the circuit was designed to accommodate and although it came in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and just days after Alex Zanardi lost both legs in a horrific Champ Car crash in Germany, over 40,000 people attended.
Spectators enjoyed a thrilling race, which was repeated the following year and still drew huge crowds. Whilst it was the initial star attraction, it wasn’t financially successful so didn’t continue after that.
Rockingham has hosted other huge events and many will remember a series of pop concerts across 2003 to 2005 which also attracted big crowds, many of whom had never visited the venue before. A different but no less impressive project saw the UK’s largest construction equipment show take place on the 80 acres showground area for three consecutive years starting in 2006.
These days the biggest race event is The British Touring Car Championship – which never fails to draw a great crowd and provide some of the best racing action around. We are always working on new ideas and concepts for events and have a number of important discussions in progress that could see more huge racing events in the future.
What event are you most looking forward to this year?
It goes without saying, we always look forward to the visit of the British GT Championship (28/29 April) and the British Touring Car Championship (11/12 August). However this season we have not one, but two, 24hr race events courtesy of the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC) and Citroen C1 Race Club. This is the first time in our 17-year history that we have hosted a 24hr event, and we are delighted to be racing our own car in the event, driven by the Rockingham team, including myself. We are also really looking forward to our first evening races when the Pickup Truck Championship will contest a new Oval Championship – this is the closest thing to genuine American NASCAR racing that can be seen in the UK, so it’s always an incredibly exciting spectacle.
What would you say to someone in the county who's never been to Rockingham?
Why? No seriously, Rockingham provides some of the best spectating facilities in the UK. The Rockingham Building provides panoramic views of the track, which means spectators can catch all the drama as it unfolds. Rockingham is more than a motorsport venue though, and there are plenty of opportunities for people to participate on track either in their own car, at one of our track days, or as part of a driving experience. Our Coffee shop/Diner is always open to the public weekdays between 8am and 3pm with extended hours during public events, and I would encourage visitors to call in anytime to see what is going on at the venue – there’s a lot more than many might realise.
You have been CEO at Rockingham now for 5 years from April 2013, what was it about the role that excited you?
I was initially invited into Rockingham as a consultant by the new owners 5 years ago to review the whole business and look for new opportunities. Shortly after my visit the incumbent CEO resigned and the owners contacted me as their logical choice. With 30 years in Motorsport as a professional racing driver, race team owner, driver manager and over 20 years full-time membership of the BRDC (the owners of Silverstone), and my historical relationship working with many sponsors and partners, I had an inside line on how a race circuit operates and the operational difficulties.
With all this knowledge I was inspired having found something that was going to need every bit of my experience in some aspect to get Rockingham busy again. Rockingham had been in decline for a few years and making losses when I took over. It needed a complete rethink and strategy to turn the business around. We re-invigorated the existing business areas of racing, testing, track days and automotive manufacturer use, and developed a number of new revenue streams by using previously under-utilised areas of Rockingham. Being creative and increasing footfall to Rockingham has had a knock-on effect creating more interest and many new uses.
Five years on, Rockingham is a very different place. We’re doing well and have great people across the whole business who are all working together to achieve what we have. With Sales delivering a very diverse offering, Events making sure all clients have an amazing experience at Rockingham and Operations ensuring everything looks superb and works properly all the time, it’s a genuine team effort. That’s what I consider my greatest achievement, getting everyone to pull together. It is this team whom I credit with the success that Rockingham is today.
Tell us about the hospitality offering at Rockingham?
Our hospitality suites offer unrivalled views of the racing action, but these alone would be irrelevant if the catering services were not absolutely first class. Our team provide a full gourmet experience, with top quality beverages at events, and we are always very popular. When compared with other sporting events hospitality at a race meeting is very competitively priced, and most important from a business perspective, offers a full day’s entertaining opportunity, far more than a few hours as provide by football, rugby etc, so can really help businesses to forge great relationships with their guests.
Rockingham has obviously broadened its appeal beyond just motor racing, what are some of the other key business areas now?
We have developed a number of alternative revenue streams away from traditional motor sport, and now operate as a genuine multi-purpose venue. In addition to our rapidly growing meeting and conference business, we operate a very successful storage programme, particularly for cars and commercial vehicles. Most exciting in many respects, is the growth of our Rockingham Building Business Centre – which provides the opportunity for small and mid-size businesses to come and share the same view and excitement about coming to work every day that we all do! We now have 18 businesses based here, in sectors as diverse as software, finance, logistics and media. All benefit from a great working environment, virtually unlimited free parking and of course, free entry to our events!