As the state of Wisconsin gets set for Round 9 of the TUSCC, John Hindhaugh profiles the growing legacy of Road America, a track which always seems to attract excitement.
Had it not been for a leap of faith in 1950, the holiday resort of Elkhart Lake (WI.) might very well have become just another sleepy town in dairy country.
A period of economic difficulty endured at the time had left the town in great need of a boost, and it was left to Governor Walter Kohler – who had a summer home on the lake – and the likes of Jim Johnson – then President of the Elkhart Lake Bank – to rally the community.
Step forward businessman Ollie Siebken Moeller, owner of the now legendary Siebken’s holiday resort.
Backed by a group of local enthusiasts, Moeller – alongside the town’s Fire Chief Ray Kremer – wanted desperately to give the town a lift. And so, the pair set about organising a road race which would eventually transform the legacy of the area. Road America was born.
Sat upon the banks of the body of water that gives the town its name, a makeshift 3.33 mile circuit was erected and the race was eventually flagged off on Sunday 23rd July, 1950.
The event was an unprecedented success. 15,000 fans turned out to watch as thirty-three cars were entered into four races. The following year, the ‘circuit’ was expanded to over six miles, such was its popularity. It would now run through the town and around the lake itself.
By the time the 1953 event came around, the size of the race had grown tenfold. 232 cars entered into three races. Attendance was now up to an estimated 150,000.
Although the ’52 race was the last on the county roads around the town, the momentum built up was enough to get a permanent track approved and financed. Road America officially opened for racing in 1955.
I’m writing this from the comfort of Siebken’s Resort, overlooking Lake Street where – in 1951/52 – European exotica from all of Jaguar, MG, Ferrari and Allard battled it out with USA marques such as the mighty Cunninghams. I’m envious of those who saw that spectacle, although there are photos aplenty in the hotel bar… so I am told (ahem!)
This is the very epitome of a ‘racing town’. The people are proud of its racing heritage, and rightly so.
Of course, the story continues. I’m here as part of IMSA Radio, for live coverage of this weekend’s IMSA United Sportscar Championship (as well as the support races) at the 4.01mile ‘natural terrain road circuit’ which nestles amongst verdant countryside and other such woodland just three or so miles from town.
I’ve been covering Sportscar races here for over a decade. It’s not difficult to see why it’s so beloved for drivers and fans alike. The setting is spectacular, the atmosphere is still inextricably linked with the community – local charities run all the food concessions, for example – but there’s another reason I always look forward to my trip here with such great anticipation.
It sounds obvious to say it but here at Road America, it’s simply all about the racing. This track has produced some of the best racing I’ve seen anywhere in the world, the regularity of which is such that I honestly can’t think of a bad one here. Even when a freak cloudburst halted an ALMS race, the resumption and subsequent run to the chequered flag in drying conditions was a barnstormer.
The all-conquering Audi LMP1 cars battled for overall supremacy with the lighter LMP2 cars. The GT competition has also been outstanding, although there are a couple of races which stand out amongst the general high level of racing.
In 2011, the prototype field in the ALMS had dwindled. The’ factory’ cars were gone and, so, the entertainment at the front of the race was left to privateers Dyson – with their LOLA coupe, powered by a 2.0 Turbo Mazda Engine – and Muscle Milk Racing – the team of multiple Trans-Am winner Greg Pickett, who had an awesome-sounding, six-litre Aston Martin V12-engined LOLA coupe to match.
The classic Sportscar duel – Dunlop against Michelin: Small, peaky turbo, fast down the straights; coming up against big power and torque.
The four hour event culminated in a race to the flag that had everything: dicing through traffic, close calls, Guy Smith in the Dyson, passing GT cars at 180 mph with his left-side tyres on the grass. At the flag, a mere 0.112 seconds separated the 2 cars. The Muscle Milk victory was the closest ever for overall honours in an ALMS race. Phew!
Incredibly, the following year delivered again. Oh, did it ever…
Once again the protagonists were Dyson Racing – still with their LOLA Mazda – and Muscle Milk Racing, who were now running Honda power in an open top HPD chassis.
The race did not start brightly for Dyson. A gearbox problem meant a starting position right at the back of the 33-car field. Yet, great pace and good strategy got the LOLA to the lead. As the race neared its end, superior fuel consumption was looking like it would be the deciding factor against the slightly smaller-engined car.
However, despite being low on fuel, Muscle Milk decided to unleash German driver Lucas Luhr, who obliged by inexorably eating into the lead. With 2 laps to go, the cars were almost as one in the late afternoon sunshine. Traffic played a part, but Luhr was not to be denied. He took the lead at the final corner on the last lap, but slipped slightly wide in the process. Spying his chance, Smith dived back to the right-hand side of the track.
One of Road America’s key features is the long run to the finish line towards which reveals a very steep incline. Surely an incline such as this would mean the end of the road for the 4-cylinder Mazda? Surely its strength would simply not be enough to drag past the HPD?
Not so. As you probably know, Guy Smith DID get by and went on to claim his and Dyson Racing’s very first win at Road America. The gap at the line was a mere 0.083 seconds – another record!
I’ve no idea why Road America keeps throwing up great races and extraordinary finishes, but I’m delighted it does. Given the variety of machinery entered for this weekend in the Tudor United Sportscar and Continental Tyres Challenge, there’s every chance we’ll get another massive dose of entertainment. The thing is, even if we don’t break any records, everyone will have come to this beautiful venue with a heart full of hope for what MIGHT happen. Which, let’s be honest, is the perfect way to continue the legacy started by those few dozen local enthusiasts back in 1950.
Live coverage from Road America on IMSA Radio can be accessed from Friday via the audio player on www.radiolemans.com, where you will also find a full schedule. The Series’ website – www.IMSA.com – has more details on the competitors, live timing and scoring and video streaming.