From The Vault (1999): The Joy of Road America

Crowd outside Turn 5, 1993 (John Oreovicz)

If you polled Indy car drivers about their favorite race track, a large majority would pick the majestic Road America near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone in any form of racing who has a bad word to say about the 4.014-mile road course that winds up, down, and through the Kettle-Morain forests and hills.

“I don’t know anybody who dislikes this place,” says 3-time PPG Cup Champion Bobby Rahal. “If there’s one word to describe Road America, it’s fabulous. It’s four miles of the greatest track in North America – certainly one of the greatest in the world.”

Rahal grew up in suburban Chicago, around three hours south of Elkhart Lake. His father Mike was a successful road racer in his own right, and Bobby often journeyed to races with his dad as a youth.

“I’ve been going to Road America since I was four,” Rahal recalls. “I started going up there with my dad when he was racing. We’d walk around the entire track watching the 500-mile race. When I think about myself as a little boy watching racing, I think of Road America. I saw the greatest drivers in the world there – Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren, Jim Hall, Peter Revson, Mark Donohue – every name you can think of.”

A few years later, Rahal ran some of his first SCCA races at Road America. “It seems like every college kid within 500 miles would show up in Elkhart Lake,” he says. “It was like Woodstock.”

Mauricio Gugelmin at Road America, 1997 (Dan R. Boyd)

PacWest Racing’s Mauricio Gugelmin is another fan. “I love the place,” he enthuses. “Every time you go back it’s a challenge. You’ve got all the corners you can imagine. It’s very demanding, but it’s nice and smooth. You’re not breaking your elbows in three places like you do in Cleveland. And it’s a true circuit. I mean, it’s four miles as a start!”

Gugelmin took the pole at Road America in 1997 and finished second to eventual PPG Cup Champion Alex Zanardi. He rates the pole as one of his best.

“There is great satisfaction because if you do a good lap there, you really feel it,” he comments. “It goes in stages – you do 1/3 of it, then 2/3. By the last third, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, if I get this right it’s gonna be a tremendous one.’ Then if you  blow it, it’s hard to get another good one going because it’s a long lap.”

Nigel Mansell heads up the hill toward the start/finish line in 1993 (John Oreovicz)

Gugelmin has raced at most of the finest road courses around the world, and he rates Road America with the best of them. “It reminds me of Spa despite the fact that we don’t go up and down so much,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where when you go fast, you say, ‘Wow, this feels good.’ I’d rate it as the best one in America. I don’t mind Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, but they’re not at the same level as Elkhart Lake.”

Kmart-Texaco/Havoline driver Michael Andretti enjoys the variety that the long lap at Road America provides. “There’s a little bit of everything,” Andretti states. “There are fast corners, slow corners, fast straights – everything a driver could want. Because of the length, you have to drive a perfect lap to improve your lap time.”

Andretti also relishes the fact that Road America has some seriously white-knuckle fast turns. “The most challenging part of the track for me is the Carousel,” Andretti says. “Then there’s the kink. It’s flat-out, tremendously quick. You have to really hold your breath going in there, and it’s a real challenge to do it perfect. It’s very challenging to drive. It has everything you want in a track, and it compares to any course in the world.”

 Dario Franchitti rounds Turn 6 in 2000 (Mike Levitt – LAT)

Dario Franchitti is the Road America lap record holder at 1:39.866, for an average speed of nearly 146 mph. “I love driving the Elkhart Lake track,” he raves. “Whatever the outcome of the race, it’s guaranteed to be an enjoyable weekend just for the sheer pleasure of driving at Road America. You have to get everything right to win at Elkhart Lake: a fast, reliable car; good fuel mileage; good pit strategy; and of course you must drive a mistake-free race. As a driver, you have to be on the very top of your game. You have to get the most out of your car on every turn and be prepared to go for it.”

Marlboro Team Penske’s Al Unser Jr. has had a love/hate relationship with Road America. “I love Road America as a track,” states Unser, who saw a sure win go up in smoke in 1996 when he lost an engine on the final lap. “I love driving it. It demands a lot of respect. But Road America has broken my leg (in 1985) and it’s broken my heart – all the way back to my Can-Am days.”

Al Unser Jr. leads a train of cars in 1993 (John Oreovicz)

“Of all the tracks we race on, I would say Elkhart Lake is the purest of all road courses,” says Greg Moore of Player’s/Forsythe Racing. “Man – four miles long…the Carousel…the kink…extremely demanding. But it’s not only challenging because of those two turns. The slow turns, like Turn 3 or the last turn coming onto the main straight, are critical as well.

“The track is so long that it will change in the middle of a race,” Moore continues. “Turns 1 and 2 might be slippery early on, but might pick up grip as the race goes on. Then down in the valley, some dew comes in or some mist comes in and it changes the track down there. You’ve gotta be on your toes no matter where you’re at on that circuit.”

Moore also says that the 4-mile lap length makes for some strategic challenges. “Fuel strategy is a concern anywhere you go, but at Road America you’re using 2-3 gallons a lap,” he comments. “You’ve got to be just right on your fuel strategy, because you have to decide what lap you’re going to aim for and pit on that lap, or else you’re not going to make it around again.”

But the allure of Road America is not restricted to the drivers. Team members love the relaxed atmosphere of the Wisconsin countryside and the active party scene in the village of Elkhart Lake, just five miles from the track. Siebkin’s, an Elkhart Lake bar/restaurant/hotel, is the center of the party scene which has over the years become a legendary watering hole for the racing community.

Dave and Christy Everhart with Oreo, 1993 (John Oreovicz collection)

Road America is a real treat for racing fans as well. Though reserved seats are available, the best place to watch the action is from the lush green hillsides, which often give a panoramic view of several turns.  The track is an ideal venue for family outings or dates. You can bring bicycles to ride all around the circuit, or you may choose to take a walk through the paddock or hike to your favorite spot and pitch a blanket. Bring a cooler, but the food available at the vending stands is the best track food available anywhere: fire-roasted corn on the cob, fresh grilled bratwursts (the Johnsonville factory is just 5 minutes away), burgers, soft-serve cones – it’s all there and it’s all good. And the prices are more than reasonable.

There is no better way to enjoy Indy car racing than to spend a weekend at Road America. More than any other venue on the calendar, you have to be there to appreciate the magic. Television and the printed page don’t even come close to doing it justice.