FOR more than 20 years, Knockhill Racing Circuit has enjoyed its billing as Scotland’s national centre for motorsports - but the Fife track hit something of a crossroads last month after losing its flagship event, the British Touring Car Championship.
Despite hosting an event that has attracted thousands of racegoers for the past 12 years, circuit manager Stuart Gray says British Motor-sport Promoters, which organises the popular series, had demanded too much of the track to justify the massive outlay required to hold such a race meeting.
"We went into talks last month with the expectation of winning a contract, but the organisers said they weren’t coming back unless we spent up to 2 million building pit facilities and improving our infrastructure.
"We were gutted as it’s a high-profile event, but financially it’s very risky.
"We outlay well in excess of 170,000 to host the touring cars, and we just broke even on the event last year. In terms of turnover it contributed considerably but had a negligible benefit to the bottom line."
Mr Gray says the loss of the touring cars was regrettable in terms of prestige for the track, but insists the financial impact on Knockhill will be limited.
However, the local economy looks set to lose out on more than 1m this year as around 3000 people stay in Fife for up to four nights during each of the touring car events.
"It’s more of a blow to Fife than to Knockhill," says Mr Gray.
Turnover at the circuit came to 2.75m last year, which was largely unchanged from the previous year, while profits rose marginally.
Around 18 per cent of visits to the track were booked over the internet, up from just 0.5 per cent four years ago, when the website underwent a 30,000 revamp.
The original site, which simply provided information on race meetings, was upgraded with help from Edinburgh development firm Oculus, which added an online sales service.
Sales over the internet fall into three broad categories, with the bulk made up of women buying race day vouchers to give loved ones the chance to drive a racing car or be driven round the circuit by a professional. Sales to men for single race days, and one-off corporate events make up the remainder. Mr Gray says one of the main tasks facing the track, which opened with a motorbike race in 1974, is ensuring it stays on top of the fast-changing world of the internet and keeping up with competitors.
He says he is "delighted" with last year’s financial performance, given the general downturn in the motorsport world, which has seen the demise of such high-profile teams as the Arrows, owned by Scotland’s Tom Walkinshaw, who was forced to call in the receivers this month after financial difficulties overtook the troubled Formula One outfit.
"The secret from our point of view is diversification, because if we relied solely on the motorsports, or corporate entertainment or gift vouchers, then we wouldn’t survive," Mr Gray says.
"But the fact we have three or four revenue streams means if any one area takes a dip there are others to fall back on." He says Knockhill is moving towards alternative uses of the venue, and the site is being considered as a venue for a pop concert, possibly this summer.
"Knockhill would be a wonderful venue, and with on-site parking for 3000 cars, toilets, power and cafes, it’s perfect for major shows or concerts," Mr Gray insists.
"It may not come off this year, but certainly in the next 18 to 24 months we’ll be speaking to promoters."
But he insists the circuit will remain focused on entertainment of the petrol-driven variety, and is keen to develop more public participation and track days, "whether it’s on two wheels or four".
Seven years ago, Knockhill introduced "hot hatch" days, where members of the public could take their souped-up road cars for a spin, and the track also offers motorbike owners the chance to test their limits in relative safety.
November saw the completion of a new 30,000 off-road rally track on the site, a few miles north of Dunfermline.
Mr Gray says: "We’ve already run a few days for Supermoto bikes and rally hatch cars on it, and we should get a return on the investment within a couple of years."
By filling the void left by the touring cars with several smaller, but more profitable, events, he says Knockhill should see turnover remain stable this year, while profits might even rise because of the lower costs.
"It’s better to have 20 events, each making 5000, than one major event that only makes us 20,000."
Despite losing the touring cars, at least for this year, Knockhill looks set to secure Superbikes for another year, having hosted the prestigious motorcycle series for more than a decade.
"It’s 99 per cent certain, but we haven’t signed the contracts yet," Mr Gray says.
"The expectation is they will be here this year because they don’t have the same demands as touring cars."
He says the circuit will need external help to raise the cash needed to bring the track up to the standards demanded by the British Motorsport Promoters.
"We need help from the local council to develop the infrastructure, and the next step will see us talking to anyone from Jack McConnell downwards, including VisitScotland and the Lottery. If we want these events back we have to get this funding." He adds: "The development of Knockhill as a national motorsports circuit has to be seen from a national perspective."
The circuit is the only one of its kind in the UK without garages in the pits, and Mr Gray says he can understand the reason behind the Touring Cars organisers’ reluctance to use the track, despite its popularity with drivers.
"It’s one of the most exciting, both for racers and spectators, in the UK, but the powers that be down south have decided that our off-track facilities aren’t as good as they could be."
However, the track’s transport links with Scotland and the rest of the UK are excellent, with easy road access from Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the new Superfast ferry terminal at Rosyth provides good access from the continent.
Mr Gray adds: "The ferry could be a real aid to our development because teams could drive to Zeebrugge in Belgium, sail overnight and then take a ten-minute drive to the racetrack. It could be argued that Knockhill is more local for some European teams than some tracks in their own countries."
With touring car championships in France, Holland and Belgium, Mr Gray believes Knockhill will be able to secure a place in at least one European racing calendar within a year or so. The track will also host a British round of the rally cross racing series in May, which could see European competitors taking part.
Mr Gray says: "We’re not resting on our laurels because any business doing that will go backwards, and we see the Superfast ferry as being a real opportunity for us."