GRR

When Britain had its own NASCAR | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

08th April 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

Memory is a funny thing and here’s an example: I’m writing this column about the ‘ASCAR’ race series that ran for eight seasons from 2001-2008 because today as I write Jason Plato announced he was retiring from the BTCC at the end of the year after 23 seasons and 97 wins.

ascar-2022-rockingham-mike-westonlat-photographic-2600.jpg

What does that have to do with ASCAR? Only that it was on the same day 20 years ago that we turned up at the Rockingham Motor Speedway to test one of these strange contraptions for the first time. And as I was going into the briefing room – with Darren Turner as it happens who rather brilliantly went on to win six rounds in a single season – Jason was coming the other way. In his hand he held a piece of paper which he proceeded to wave at me. ‘Mate, have you seen the setup sheet for one of these? It looks like it’s been in an accident…’

And every time I think of Jason, that, for some reason, is the image that pops into my head. Besides, he was right. I’d never driven a racing car remotely like an ASCAR before, I haven’t since and now doubt that I ever will.

For those in need of reminding and as the name suggests, an ASCAR was a junior relative of a NASCAR machine, but still capable of 170mph thanks to its 517PS (380kW), 5.7-litre small block Chevy motor. Like NASCAR it was a silhouette racer, meaning the shape of the body had nothing whatever to do the car underneath so in this case you could choose to be seen in a Ford Taurus, Chevy Lumina or Pontiac Grand Prix with precisely zero difference to the car you were actually driving.

ascar-rockingham-2002-jacob-ebreylap-photography-2600.jpg

Most importantly, and also just as is done in NASCAR, these contraptions were set up with a ‘stagger’, so they were ballasted on one side, ran Goodyear slicks with different profiles side to side and, from memory, different spring rates too. All of which made them exceptionally good at turning left. If for any reason and at any point in the lap you found the car turning right, then you were either having or were just about to have an enormous accident.

How big? Well consider that around Rockingham the lowest speed the cars ever did was around 120mph, so the best crash you could hope to have involved glancing off a wall at two miles a minute. Which sounds bad, but not as bad as nearly three miles a minute which was also eminently possible.

As a thing to drive, it was a unique experience which basically involved forgetting everything you’d ever learned about driving fast on track. For example, you didn’t lift off the throttle suddenly because the reaction through the diff would stick you in the wall. If you steered straight along the straight, you’d crash into the infield instead. You had to steer right to counter the stagger and make the car go ahead. You never braked until you were actually turned into the corner, and then you’d just brush the pedal with your left foot while your right stayed gently on the throttle just to keep the diff happy. And it didn’t matter that it only had four gears because you used the first three for accelerating out of the pit lane and then never again until it was time to come in.

ascar-rockingham-2002-lyndon-mcneil-2600.jpg

It was a fascinating and new experience, and while it left me with absolutely no desire to drive anything like it again, it did leave me with an admiration for those who drove in NASCAR professionally which I certainly lacked before and which has never really left me. There was some suggestion I might get to race one at some stage and if I’d chased the opportunity maybe something would have come of it. But somewhere up there on the Rockingham banking, inches from the wall at 170mph and turning right to stop it turning left, I decided that was about as exciting as I wanted ASCAR to be. The thought of doing that in the company of a couple of dozen other lunatics – perhaps including Plato – all thundering around me sounded like just a little too much of a not particularly good thing.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • ASCAR

  • NASCAR

  • willow-springs-bugatti-chiron-pur-sport-andrew-frankel-main-goodwood-26112021.jpg

    Modern

    Willow Springs is a wild old-school ride | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

  • lister-knobbly-continuation-andrew-frankel-main-goodwood-05042019.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it’s Friday: The Lister Knobbly Continuation is simply brilliant

  • frankel_ice_driving_goodwood_02021802_list.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it's Friday: Crashing Porsches on ice is the most fun