Why Not Road America?

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I watched the ALMS race at Road America this weekend, and it further incensed me that the Indy Racing League has never seemed to show much interest at all in running there. Of all the natural terrain road courses that dot the US landscape; Road America is my favorite, and always has been. I know the 2010 IndyCar schedule has been beaten to death, but why is the league so ambivalent about running Road America?

Road America is located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; which is situated about halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, not far from the shores of Lake Michigan. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful setting of any natural terrain road course in this country – and that includes Watkins Glen.

Some will tell you that the IndyCar destination this weekend at Sonoma is one of the most scenic. I disagree. I’ve always thought it was the worst. Sonoma, Sears Point, Infineon or whatever you want to call it; is nothing more than a dust bowl. I always get thirsty watching a race there. Anytime a car goes off course, you have to literally wait for the dust to settle to be able to tell who it was.

Anyway…back to Road America. Watching CART race at Road America is where I finally decided that road courses were not of the devil’s making. Having grown up going to the Indy 500, it was hard for me to embrace road and street courses. After watching a few races at picturesque Elkhart Lake, I whispered to myself where no one could hear me that I kind of enjoyed them. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate other natural terrain circuits but it all started with Road America.

The course at Elkhart Lake opened in 1955 and the circuit is essentially unchanged since then. The circuit is slightly more than four miles in length and features several tight turns with good braking zones, along with long straightaways were speeds can reach 200 mph. There are many elevation changes and sections were the track basically cuts right through the forest on both sides.

A virtual alphabet soup of American racing has raced at Road America over the years including; SCCA, NASCAR, USAC, IMSA, AMA, CanAm, Grand-Am, Trans-Am, ALMS and of course CART/Champ Car. CART began racing at Road America in 1982 when Héctor Rebaque won the inaugural event driving for Gerald Forsythe. Since then, CART/Champ Car raced at Road America every year through 2007 with the exception of 2005. It was originally on the Champ Car schedule for 2008, but was a casualty of unification.

Many famous names from Indy cars have etched their names into the history of Road America by claiming victory at the historic track. Names like Jacques Villeneuve (both uncle & nephew), Mario & Michael Andretti (three wins apiece) and Fittipaldi (three wins for Emerson, one for Christian). Paul Tracy has two wins there, as does Bruno Junqueira. Other famous names to win at Road America are Danny Sullivan, Alex Zanardi, Dario Franchitti and most recently – Sebastian Bourdais in the final race in 2007.

One of my favorite races was the 1991 CART race at Road America. It was an exciting race that was won by Michael Andretti, but what made that race so memorable to me was that it was run in late September. We had experienced a very hot summer in Tennessee that year. On that particular weekend, we were experiencing record heat for late September. There was something refreshing tuning in to watch that race.

It was a cold and overcast day in Elkhart Lake that afternoon. Being that far north in late September, the trees had already started changing to their fall colors. It was very humid and there were vortices coming off of the rear wings as the cars rumbled through the countryside of eastern Wisconsin. It was almost surreal watching these machines cut through Hurry Downs and Canada Corner on a crisp autumn afternoon, while we had the A/C cranked up to full blast. The crewmembers all had coats and jackets on as did most of the spectators.

Road America is also the site of one of the more bizarre incidents in recent open-wheel history. During a Champ Car open test in 2006, Cristiano da Matta was heading through Hurry Downs when a deer appeared from nowhere and they collided. As they often do, the deer went airborne once hit and struck da Matta in the helmet. He was unconscious when the safety crew arrived. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he underwent surgery for a subdural hematoma. Not only his career, but his life was hanging in the balance for several weeks. Finally da Matta showed enough progress that he was able to leave the hospital about seven weeks after the accident. He resumed his driving career with a successful sports car test in March of 2008.

There are several venues still remaining on my sports bucket list. The Rose Bowl Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, Lambeau Field, Fenway Park and Churchill Downs all remain historic places I have yet to attend a sporting event in. Road America is on that list also. In my opinion, it may be the one racing facility in this country that every racing fan should go to, besides the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Yet for whatever reason, the Indy Racing League seems very lukewarm to the idea of racing at Road America. One of the excuses given is that there are too many races in the midwest already. Granted, that would add another race to a crowded midwestern lineup that includes Indianapolis, Chicago, Mid-Ohio, Kansas and possibly Milwaukee. Other than Mid-Ohio, all of those tracks are ovals. You aren’t going to be drawing the same crowd to Chicago, as you will to Elkhart Lake. In fact, I would venture to guess that Road America has as many dedicated fans in their area as Mid-Ohio does in theirs. You could have a unicycle race at Mid-Ohio and the locals would come out to watch. I’ll bet the same would happen at Road America.

Plus, in the nineties CART raced at Indy, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Michigan. I don’t recall attendance ever being an issue at any of those tracks. It certainly didn’t appear that being in relatively close proximity to each other hurt them at the gate.

I would gladly trade this weekend’s track at Sonoma for Road America for any price. Sonoma takes a lot of patience to watch. With all the talk of how little passing people are expecting at Barber next spring, I’ll be willing to bet that there are more passing zones at Barber than Infineon. I would have much preferred to see the IndyCars go to Road America this past weekend to run with the ALMS rather than see them go to Sonoma next weekend. But that’s just me.

With the IRL so seemingly set on adding more and more road courses to the IndyCar schedule, and with the Wisconsin oval apparently gone – why haven’t they been more interested in pursuing a non-SMI or ISC track that everyone seems to want on the schedule?

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Why Not Road America?”

  1. Absolutely spot on George – having said before that I’ve always found the likes of Sonoma a little bland, Road America is truly one of the those wonderful spots and one of the few circuits in the world that rivals Spa-Francorchamps in the beauty and challenge stakes.

  2. I agree with you. My question is, is the IRL not truly interested or is Road America not interested in bringing the series there? Interest has to go both ways.

    I do agree with you about Infinieon, which is basically a glorified club track.

  3. Isn’t the answer always money? I mean, in terms of why here and not there? Why a parking lot in Boston or the streets of Baltimore or a yet-to-be-named place in Brazil instead of Road America? I just always assume it’s because some places guarantee a bunch of money and some don’t.

  4. Indeed, why not? I think you lay out all the reasons why Road America makes sense, especially with Milwaukee dropping off the schedule. I remember right after unification there was considerable talk about adding Road America, but the dates didn’t work.

    I selfishly would like to see RA added back, because it is so close to my Minnesota home. And Leigh is right, it does rival Spa in beauty. (Add Spa to my bucket list).

    I an optimistic that RA will return in the not too distant future. A non ISC or SMI track, with such Open Wheel history, it just makes too much sense, especially with the ALMS heading into some tough times. Eventually the $ will be in alignment. I think the same holds true for Cleveland too.

  5. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    Is the reason Sears Point being on the calender because the sponsors love having hospitality there? The racing is processional and I can’t erase the memory Brian Herta spinning by himself in to a full course caution…

  6. The only problem with going to RA is you don’t know where to sit, way to many good spots. Over the years remember how the former F1 drivers raved about the track. As a side note, the best food I have ever had at a race track was at RA.

    • In that case, one must go to many different events there in order to sit in different spots! :)

      I still have fond memories of going to the ’98 CART race there. I sat in Turn 5 and saw quite a bit of action (including Dario Franchitti’s first CART win).

      Until Iowa Speedway was built, that was the only race I had been to. I always wanted to go back. I hope, like a lot of people seem to, that the Indy Cars can get back there in the near future; I’d certainly consider attending.

  7. It’s true that the IRL can’t “break down the doors” to make a race happen. Maybe the fans can. We just need:

    1) Track owners/promoters to set up “guaranteed attendance” sites
    2) Bloggers provide links for fans to get to these sites
    3) Fans put their $ where their mouth is: If the IRL runs at ___, in 201_, We’ll be there!
    4) Track owners/promoters tell the IRL,”we already have X-thousand prepaid fans for 201_!”

    Money talks! If a promoter can pay part of the sanctioning fee up front, then you can bet there will be a race!

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