Everybody Loves Elkhart For drivers, fans, and for food, Road America is world-class by John Oreovicz There is little debate about the favorite stop on the FedEx Championship Series tour among drivers, participants, and fans: It's Elkhart ...
Everybody Loves Elkhart For drivers, fans, and for food, Road America is world-class by John Oreovicz
There is little debate about the favorite stop on the FedEx Championship Series tour among drivers, participants, and fans: It's Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, home of the outstanding four-mile Road America circuit. For the Champ Car pilots, Road America is the ultimate driver's test. Featuring long straights connected by fast and slow turns, the track winds up, down, and through the scenic Wisconsin countryside. That variety also makes the Texaco/Havoline 200 special for spectators -- there are literally dozens of superb vantage points for viewing, all within a short hike of the best track food available anywhere.
PacWest Racing's Mauricio Gugelmin is a big 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 pole position at Road America in 1997 and finished second in the race to eventual PPG Cup Champion Alex Zanardi. He rates that pole lap as one of his best.
"There is great satisfaction because if you do a good lap there, you really feel it," Gugelmin comments. "It goes in stages -- you do one-third of it, then two-thirds. By the last third, you're thinking, '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 such a long lap."
Gugelmin has raced at many of the finest road courses around the world, and he rates Road America with the best of them.
"It reminds me of Spa [site of the Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix] despite the fact that we don't go up and down so much," Gugelmin 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."
Team Rahal owner Bobby Rahal probably has more first-hand Road America experience than anyone, as both participant and spectator. "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." Rahal grew up in suburban Chicago, about three hours south of Elkhart Lake. His father Mike was a successful road racer in his own right, and Bobby often traveled to races as a youth to help his dad's racing effort. 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," says Rahal, a three-time PPG Cup Champion. "It was like Woodstock. I don't know anybody who dislikes the place. 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."
My personal recommendation: take a date, or bring the family. If you own mountain bikes, bring them too, or be prepared to get a solid workout hiking from turn to turn. Head toward the top of the hill that overlooks Turn 5, and get yourself some fresh-grilled Johnsonville bratwurst and a couple of ears of fire-roasted corn-on-the-cob.
Wash it all down with an ice-cold Budweiser or Coca-Cola Classic, then throw a blanket on the hillside to settle in and see for yourself how much fun watching road racing -- particularly at Road America -- can be.