The Label First Attached to Road America by Auto Industry Analyst Peter DeLorenzo Still Holds True
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Road America is often called “America’s National Park of Speed,” and it’s easy to see why.
Located on 640 acres of pastoral woodland in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region near the town of Elkhart Lake, Road America is acknowledged by racers and spectators as one of the finest road racing venues in the world.
There are few better ways to experience the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship than to spend a weekend at Road America. More than any other venue on the calendar, it needs to be seen to be appreciated. Television and the printed page don’t come close to doing it justice. The WeatherTech Championship, along with three more IMSA-sanctioned series, head to the track this week for the IMSA Fastlane SportsCar Weekend.
“If there’s one word to describe Road America, it’s ‘fabulous,’” legendary racer Bobby Rahal said. “It’s four miles of the greatest track in North America – certainly one of the greatest in the world. I don’t know anybody who dislikes the place.”
A Legendary Track Even for Legends
Rahal grew up in suburban Chicago, about two hours south of Elkhart Lake; his father, Mike, was a successful sports car racer in the 1960s, and young Bob often accompanied his dad to events around the country.
A few years later, Rahal ran some of his first SCCA races at Road America before venturing to Europe to race Formula 3 and Formula 2 in the late 1970s. Returning to the U.S., Rahal focused on sports cars, claiming marquee IMSA victories at the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts at the time he was becoming one of the most successful American open-wheel drivers of his era.
Now a team owner in Indy cars and sports cars (BMW M Team RLL is the German marque’s factory effort in the WeatherTech Championship), some of Rahal’s fondest memories are generated by what remains his favorite racetrack.
“When I think about myself as a little boy watching racing, I think of Road America. I’ve been going there since I was 4,” Rahal said. “We’d walk around the entire track watching the 500-mile sports car race. 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.
“Then when I was a little older, it seems like every college kid within 500 miles would show up in Elkhart Lake,” Rahal added. “It was like Woodstock.”
Credit for ‘National Park of Speed’ Tagline
Auto industry analyst Peter DeLorenzo is credited with creating the tagline “America’s National Park of Speed” for the track. DeLorenzo began attending events at Road America at roughly the same time as Rahal, assisting with his brother Tony’s racing team. While Tony’s sports car racing exploits earned him a 2009 nomination to the Corvette Hall of Fame, Peter worked for more than two decades in automotive marketing and advertising before founding Autoextremist.com in 1999.
“Early on, I saw Road America as a jewel that’s just not recognized enough,” said DeLorenzo. “It’s the finest racetrack in America, and I just always had a good feeling going there – the park setting and the way the town of Elkhart Lake embraces the track, unlike a lot of other towns next to racetracks.
“It just felt like going to a national park, with the atmosphere and the connection to the town,” he continued. “Remarkably, it hasn’t changed all that much. You look at the vintage photos, and everything is still there. The people running the track understand its place in the scheme of things. Everyone who works there understands its presence in the world of racing, and that’s nice to see.”
The story of Road America is legend itself. Wisconsin, like many other states, moved to ban organized racing on public roads in the early 1950s. Clif Tufte, a local civil engineer, proposed utilizing a 523-acre tract of virgin land owned by Elkhart Sand and Gravel to create a permanent racetrack. Tufte walked the land and laid out a four-mile course, and five months after securing financing through a public stock offering, Road America hosted its first event in September 1955. Phil Hill, who went on to win the 1961 Formula 1 World Championship, was the winner.
The track Tufte envisioned in 1955 is the same track you see today. One of the most remarkable aspects about Road America is while the property itself has been expanded, frequently upgraded and modernized with spectator amenities and safety refinements, the track layout remains exactly as it was in 1955.
Unspoiled Thrills for Drivers and Fans Alike
The challenge of driving that track is a powerful lure for drivers from all over the world, who relish the opportunity to push a machine to the limit in the most pure, unspoiled road racing environment you can find in the 21st century. No other road course in America offers the same combination of ultra-fast corners (Turn 1, the Kink and the Carousel, to name but three) linked by long straights, all while traversing 171 feet of elevation change.
During a 24 Hours of Lemons race at Road America in 2012, a trio of drivers in a tired-looking Porsche 944 stood out thanks to their professional-looking Audi Team Joest firesuits. Turned out it was two-time IMSA champion Emmanuele Pirro, then just a couple years into retirement, and his two sons. They were on holiday, competing purely for enjoyment.
“My sons don’t race, but we wanted to have a nice adventure together,” said Pirro, who notched 19 victories in American sports car racing, including two wins apiece in the Twelve Hours of Sebring and Motul Petit Le Mans, and three sprint race wins at Road America. “This is their very first car race, and we came from Italy just for this.
“Road America is a track I have always loved,” he added. “It’s my favorite circuit in the U.S. I had so many great moments here, so to come back brings up good memories.”
The experience is just as exhilarating for spectators. There are so many places at Road America where fans can get close views of the cars to really capture the speed and skill involved. It’s an ideal venue for family outings. 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 corners.
You can ride your bicycle on paved paths around the circuit, stroll through the paddock and vendor area, or hike to your favorite viewing spot and pitch a blanket. Bring a cooler, but the treats on offer at the concession stands are the best track food available anywhere: fire-roasted corn on the cob, grilled bratwursts, and soft-serve ice cream, all served with a dash of friendly Wisconsin hospitality by local volunteers and charities. For some fans, Road America weekends are remembered for the number of brats consumed.
Town of Elkhart Lake Adds to the Allure
When the day’s on-track action ends, the party moves to the nearby town of Elkhart Lake – most notably to Siebkens Resort, a local tavern and inn under the same family’s ownership since 1916, where fans are often able to rub elbows with drivers and other notable figures.
“I’ve always had good times and great memories at Road America, usually involving Siebkens and some of the hangovers I’ve had to endure,” laughed former racer Jimmy Vasser, whose Vasser Sullivan team now fields a pair of Lexus RC F GT3 cars in the WeatherTech Championship. “Thank goodness for the breakfast brat.
“I usually camped at the track in a motorhome, and it was always enjoyable,” he added. “But I remember the first time I was there in 1993. I had my mom with me and we stayed at Siebkens. Paul Newman didn’t come that year, and they gave us his usual room, No. 11. It was a bit cramped and not that fancy, but she was really happy and always tells that story.”
The final word goes to Dario Franchitti, who set the Road America track record that still stands in a Reynard Indy car in 2000 – 1 minute, 39.866 seconds, computing to an average speed of 145.924 mph for a 14-turn road course.
A week before setting that mark, Franchitti endured a miserable race weekend at another popular American road course that ended with a blown engine.
“At least next week is Elkhart Lake,” he said, cheering up. “I may not be allowed to eat bratwursts, but then again, you guys can’t blast out of the woods into Canada Corner at 200 miles per hour. That’s what being a race car driver is all about.”
It’s an allure that is absolutely unique to America’s National Park of Speed.
(Black and white photos courtesy of Roa