Nationwide Series rocks Road America

Nationwide Series rocks Road America

While NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off in Wine Country in Sonoma, Calif., the Nationwide Series is in hallowed "Cheese Country" of Elkhart Lake, Wis. this weekend. On August 12, 1956, The green flag waves for the first NASCAR race run at...

While NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off in Wine Country in Sonoma, Calif., the Nationwide Series is in hallowed "Cheese Country" of Elkhart Lake, Wis. this weekend.

On August 12, 1956, The green flag waves for the first NASCAR race run at Road America: Tim Flock won the race.
Photo by Road America Archives.

It's a dichotomy of drastic proportions, and culture shock as the road racing circuit welcomes a series whose roots are firmly from the South.

The June 18-19 weekend originally scheduled at The Milwaukee Mile for the NASCAR's Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series was canceled due to tenuous financial and promotional circumstances. So in December 2009, keen to still hold a date in Wisconsin, NASCAR announced the Nationwide division would race at Elkhart Lake's Road America on the same weekend. That decision marked NASCAR's return to Road America.

A far cry from the bullrings, intermediate ovals, superspeedways, and other road courses, Road America is easily the most abnormal track on the schedule, but in a good way. The twisting, undulating, and most importantly, long 4.048-mile permanent road circuit offers challenges only a handful of drivers in the 43-car field have ever experienced.

"It's pretty technical, and offers everything you can ask for minus a chicane," said Joe Gibbs Racing's young driver Brad Coleman. "It's pretty skinny and tight, so hopefully we get a couple green flag laps in-between yellows."

Michael McDowell has won at Road America in Star Mazda competition, but noted the stark contrast between a 1,000-pound single-seater formula car and a 3,500-pound lumbering stock car.

"This is a completely new experience, and you have to forget everything with the markers," he said. "We brake well before the 5 (500-yard) mark in the long braking zones. I'll just go out with a Sharpie in the morning to paint on 6, 7, 8, 9."

Drivers acknowledge the long straights provide both great passing opportunities and relief for the brakes, so they can cool down before going into slower, tighter corners. Much like a superspeedway, McDowell said the long straights here can lend themselves to drafting.

Brake life, grip levels and caution periods (there were plenty in Friday's two official practice sessions) are among the talking points going into Saturday's 50-lap, 200-mile race.

And then there is the food. While Martinsville has its trademark hot dogs, we noted Ron Fellows and family are here not only to win, but for the trademark brats. Penske Racing's Justin Allgaier discovered the joy of fried cheese curds.

On-track, there were two unofficial practice sessions on Thursday with Carl Edwards pacing the field. On Friday, Coleman led the first session with a time of 2:17.048 and average speed of 106.334 mph.

The view the NASCAR drivers will have heading into Canada Corner.
Photo by Richard Sloop.

Jacques Villeneuve had the day's fastest lap, at 106.773 mph in the afternoon session. The 1997 Formula One World Champion and 1995 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion won both his starts at the circuit and makes his return visit. With his trademark baggy overalls not weighing him down, Villeneuve paced the late Friday afternoon session before heavy storms rolled in from the south.

For comparison's sake, the overall pole in the American Le Mans Series' race last year was a 1:48.216 and the GT2 pole a 2:06.950 by a BMW M3. The overall track record at the circuit is 1:39.866, set by Dario Franchitti in 2000 in a Champ Car.

Three drivers are racing at both NASCAR road course events this weekend: Edwards, Paul Menard, and Brad Keselowski. Erik Darnell, Michel Jourdain Jr. and Parker Kligerman, respectively, took the reins of their cars in practice today while the three were at Sonoma qualifying, with Jourdain registering the fourth quickest lap in the first session.

There's also two drivers doing the double of events at Road America this weekend -- both Tony Ave and Kyle Kelley will race in the Nationwide and Trans-Am events.

One of the eight drivers making their Nationwide Series debut is Patrick Long, who has shifted from the all-French Porsche GT2 team at Le Mans last week and his usual Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche team to the world of NASCAR where a country concert caps off the first official day of on-track activity.

Long diversified into NASCAR's Camping World East Series in 2009, with fifth and sixth-place finishes on the ovals at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway and the Tri-County Motor Speedway. So he has some stock car experience but this is his first time in a NASCAR Nationwide car.

The other seven are: Kelley, Owen Kelly (no relation), Robb Brent, Tim George Jr., Alex Kennedy, and Joey Scarallo, who is a late addition to the field.

JR Motorsports has two drivers in the headlines, a pair of Canadians with varying levels of experience and success. Fellows remains one of the favorites, a winner in a World Challenge race at Mosport earlier this year and a veteran of the Corvette Racing program in ALMS at the track. Young teammate J.R. Fitzpatrick has enjoyed some success in Canada and gave the fans their money's worth at Canada Corner with a spin into the gravel.

Both qualifying and the race occur tomorrow. Cars are impounded after the group qualifying session, with batches of seven or eight cars going out at a time.

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Drivers Jacques Villeneuve , Ron Fellows , Tony Ave , Michael McDowell , Paul Menard , Carl Edwards , Kyle Kelley , Brad Coleman , Owen Kelly , Brad Keselowski , Justin Allgaier , Erik Darnell , Robb Brent , J.R. Fitzpatrick , Alex Kennedy , Parker Kligerman , Tim Flock , Michel Jourdain
Teams Team Penske , Joe Gibbs Racing , Corvette Racing , JR Motorsports , Flying Lizard Motorsports