Road America, at 50, still a car racer’s dream

Ask me about Road America, and all kinds of memories are quick to return.

As a kid, the constant buzz of the racing car engines was easy to hear at our farm, about five miles from the competition.

While in college, several friends found future husbands during race weekends – if not at the track, then at Sportsman’s Bar in Elkhart Lake.

As a waitress, some summer tips would be pit passes that bought access to the rolling racetrack’s inner sanctuary.

Restless resort staff would be motivated, year after year, by rumors that Paul Newman was booked for a stay. That never happened, as far as I know (he apparently prefers The American Club in Kohler).

Much in my life has changed since those easy-going years. The family farm has become a haven for wildlife, pheasants in particular. A couple of summer loves ended in death and divorce. Sportsman’s Bar is gone, too, replaced by a restaurant with white linens and a menu that the locals call “West Coast food.”

What stays the same? Road America, in a way. The facility turns 50 years old this year, and its 640 acres continue to be a car racer’s dream.

“One of the dynamic things is that the big track has stayed the same,” says George Bruggenthies, Road America president and general manager. “That says a lot about the foresight and design of the track. It remains one of the drivers’ favorites.”

Called the fastest road course in the world, the average lap speed is 148 miles per hour. One lap is four miles, and there are 14 turns.

The toughest? That might be Canada Corner, where the drivers take a hard right after a fast track straightaway. Or Corner 5 – it’s a 90-degree left hand turn, which also comes off of a long straightaway.

The thought freshens another memory: the smell of grilled brats, the heat of the sun, the flow of cold beer, the squeal of car tires and the crowd. None of that has changed either.

Although the actual track is the same, Bruggenthies says crowd access has improved because of the addition of bridges and viewing areas.

“It’s more like a park than anything,” he says. “It’s not a dusty oval.”

This track is used about one-half of the year. Newer and smaller tracks (a motorplex, especially for racing karts and hybrid motorcycles, and adventure tracks for ATVs) make it possible for the facility to operate in all seasons.

These are sites for corporate escapes and team-building outings, as well as the training grounds for would-be professional racers.

Prices for The Karting Experience, for groups of at least six, start at $350 per person. That buys a half-day of training and racing at the motorplex.

The seven adventure trails are in Road America’s wooded areas. “They go over rock walls, trees and ground holes,” Bruggenthies explains. “It is a low-speed adventure that involves a lot of balance. You’re almost proceeding at a crawl, during some parts.”

What is Road America’s biggest challenge? “It’s a small business,” the general manager says, “and that means it’s hard to keep pace” with the industry.

NASCAR, he notes, does two road races per year, but the waiting list to host such an event is long. “Maybe it’ll come back someday,” he says. NASCAR last raced at Road America in 1957.

Auto racing began in Elkhart Lake when the village and the Sports Car Club of America organized street races in 1950. The routes went through town and around it.

The area had been a haven for Chicago vacationers – including gangsters – since the mid 1800s. Trains used to stop there; the terrain of the Kettle Moraine glacial area was both an attraction and ideal for racing.

The final track design, wrote Everett Nametz, in Road America’s first official program, embodied “practically all the normal driving hazards that one might encounter in any section of the country.”

Elevation changes several hundred feet from one part of the course to another.

The intent, Nametz noted, was to establish a racetrack “with terrain so different from all other racing circuits that after the course was built it would continue to hold the esteem of racing fans and respect of competition drivers down through the years.”

Some of the nation’s most legendary racers, including Mario Andretti and Brian Redman, will return to Road America this summer and help celebrate the 50th anniversary. For more about the facility or race events, go to www.roadamerica.com or call (920) 892-4576.

Road America sponsors a family-friendly Community Tailgate Party during vintage sportscar racing at the track from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 14.

There will be a Big Wheel Race for children, pony and carnival rides, a car show, country music concert, food and wine samplings, tours of the track facilities and helicopter rides.

Admission is free, as are many (but not all) activities. Enter at Gate 2, off of Highway 67. Vintage races will be within view of Turn 14, but tailgaters will not have access to other parts of the track.

A new exhibit at the Sheboygan County Museum, Sheboygan, studies the history and impact of Road America. The show is in place until Oct. 31; admission is $3 ($1 for ages 7-12). For more, go to www.sheboygan.org or call (920) 458-1103.