Why Not Road America?
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?