IndyCar Needs Road America
To tell the truth, I don’t watch a ton of NASCAR. I don’t really hold a grudge against them, even though they claim to invent everything. Nor do I blame them for getting the vast amount of ratings, so far as racing goes. It’s not their fault they do a better job of marketing, even though I don’t care for their product as much as the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s more about so much time in a weekend.
This past Saturday, I had a full day of yard work planned. Unfortunately, the weatherman didn’t care. I got possibly about twenty percent of my scheduled chores done before the skies opened up. This was no summer shower – this was an early afternoon monsoon that ended any possibility of working outside. Without guilt, I turned on the Nationwide race at Road America – just as they were getting started, or so it seemed. As it turns out, the weatherman was wreaking havoc with their day as well.
They eventually got going and before it was over, Alex Tagliani put on a clinic on how to drive a road course in the rain. In the final two laps, he passed something like twenty-two cars after running out of fuel under the yellow. He eventually finished second in the one-off effort for Roger Penske.
Watching that race made me realize just how much I miss watching open-wheel racing at Road America. I’ve been saying for years that I hoped the Verizon IndyCar Series could somehow work Road America onto their schedule. But after seeing that venue for the first time in years, I think it is now a must.
I speak longingly of this track as if I’ve been there. I haven’t. In fact, I’ve not set foot in the great state of Wisconsin since a family vacation took us there back in 1972. But I’ve been watching CART/Champ Car race there for years. It has always seemed to be a magical place and it’s been on my to-do list for some time.
For whatever reason, the 1991 CART race stands out in my mind. I had watched races there many times before, but it was the 1991 race when I vowed to go there sometime. It took place in late September. That summer had been brutal here in Tennessee. It was refreshing to watch that race. While it was still sweltering here, the race at Road America was being held in cool temperatures, with just a hint of fog. Everyone was wearing something that had been foreign to me for several months – jackets.
The setting was gorgeous. The trees had already started turning to their fall colors. Seeing Indy cars charging through the colorful forests that are ever-present at Road America, was almost surreal. I remember the race being a spirited battle between Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. Andretti won that day with Unser, Jr. finishing second. Little Al was the defending series champion, and Michael went on to win the 1991 championship. As the aerial cameras kept showing their duel nestled between the foliage – the phrase that kept running through my mind was “Poetry in Motion”.
To me, Road America is as good as road racing gets in North America. Others may argue for other venues, but Road America gets my vote. It is unique in so many ways. It’s about as close to Spa-Francorchamps as you can get on this side off the pond. The Belgium Grand Prix at Spa was always one of my favorite Formula One races, for the same reasons that I like the circuit at Road America. They are both long tracks with undulating terrain in a setting with a dramatic and scenic backdrop.
Road America is located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. From what I understand, Elkhart Lake is one of many quaint small villages dotting the central Wisconsin countryside. The track is 4.0 miles with fourteen turns, so a 200-mile race is only fifty laps. Teams had better plan their fuel strategy carefully. It’s a long way back to the pits if you run out on the far side of the track.
The track first opened in 1955. CART first raced there in 1982 and ran races there every year through 2007, with the exception of 2005. By that time, I had quit following Champ Car and cannot tell you why there was no race then, but they did return in 2006. They were also scheduled to race there in 2008, but unification of the two series cancelled that race. The track record was set in 2000, by Dario Franchitti, who navigated the 4-mile course in 1:39.866.
The start/finish line is on the long main straightaway, just beyond the crest of a large hill. As cars come off the last turn, they must get a full head of steam to either climb the hill for the next lap, or be able to climb the steep pit lane that runs alongside.
Turn One is where AJ Foyt suffered severe injuries to his legs and ankles in 1990. He had been having problems with his brakes all weekend. As his car raced downhill towards Turn One, Foyt’s brakes failed as he approached. His car went airborne before settling near a grove of trees. His ankles were shattered, but he somehow made it back to put his car on the front-row at Indianapolis the following May.
Not to name-drop (but I guess I am), when I interviewed Randy Bernard back in 2011 – I asked him about the possibility of adding Road America to the schedule. First, he said that everyone loves Road America. He said that if everyone who has told him about Road America would buy a ticket, it would be a no-brainer. He then said that making Milwaukee successful was the top priority in that area. Once successful, they might look at alternating between The Milwaukee Mile and Road America.
My question is…why not both? Yes they are both in the same state, but they offer two totally different types of racing. Wisconsin supported them both for more than a couple of decades. Have one in early summer and the other in late summer to early fall. I really liked that early fall date in 1991; when the trees were turning, with teams and spectators donning jackets.
In all honesty, it saddened me to see the lumbering stock cars of the Nationwide Series run their fifth straight race at Road America, while Indy cars have not run there since 2007. Fans are split on which oval they’d like to see return to the schedule. Michigan and Phoenix probably lead the way, but Chicagoland and Richmond aren’t far behind in popularity among most fans. And there’s always the possibility of Nashville now looming. But ask most fans what road course they’d most like to see return. Chances are, most will say Road America.
Apparently, there is some interest from Road America. Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press had an article Saturday, quoting Road America track president George Bruggenthies as saying he’s open to the idea of bringing IndyCar to the track. He sites IndyCar’s high sanctioning fee as the biggest hurdle, along with the current TV package. He mentions Michael Andretti’s steep discount as track promoter at Milwaukee. But he notes that many of their fans want to see the Verizon IndyCar Series at Road America. He doesn’t sound very encouraging, but he’s not saying no, either.
It’s easy for me to give away someone else’s money, but Mark Miles really needs to take a look at how to get Road America on the schedule. It’s not an oval, but it’s an historic racing venue that all fans want to see the series run. I understand the problems of granting sanctioning fee discounts to one promoter, but not another. Perhaps it’s time for the entire business model regarding sanctioning fees to be looked at.
I don’t pretend to know what goes on in these discussions between a track and a sanctioning body. But I do know that CART brought a huge crowd of people to Road America in the past. Chances are the current IndyCar Series would bring a nice-sized crowd as well. Road America could certainly benefit by having the Verizon IndyCar Series race at their track.
But make no mistake – IndyCar needs Road America more than Road America needs IndyCar. It would show a restless fan-base that the series is listening to them, rather than operating from a bunker mentality and basing the schedule solely on the bottom-line. This would do wonders for the fan base and send a message that the series is seriously seeking out venues known for racing.
Ironically, we are talking about a return to an historic and scenic venue that offers tremendous racing during a week that the Verizon IndyCar Series will run a double-header around the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium in Houston during the heat of the day in late June. Sorry, but after what I saw on Saturday - Road America sounds just a little more appealing.