Road America Preview

By the time you read this, Susan and I should be headed to Road America from our accommodations in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. We drove up yesterday and will stay through Sunday night and leave for an extended vacation on the shore of Lake Michigan (on the Michigan side).

Originally, this was planned to be strictly a racing trip. We would come up Thursday, spend the weekend at the track and then go home Monday. Susan has been pretty vocal about a beach trip that did not involve racing, so I had been planning on a trip to Florida later this summer. A couple of weeks ago, she decided that we should extend this trip and go to the beach…at Lake Michigan.

We may have a blast, but when I heard her say she wanted to go to the beach – I thought she meant one involving an ocean. When I think of the beach I think of heat, salt water and shrimp. I remember last year after Road America, we went over to Michigan afterwards for a couple of days. We went to some lighthouse Susan wanted to visit in order to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan. While it was beautiful, it was also freezing – especially for late June. It was fifty-five degrees with a thirty knot wind. I’m hoping for a warmer stay at “the beach” next week.

Regarding this week’s race, the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to one of my favorite all-time venues. CART began racing at the giant four-mile natural terrain road course located just to the southeast of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in 1982. I can remember watching races on television decades ago, thinking that if I ever went to another Indy car race other than the Indianapolis 500, it would be at Road America. Of course, finances and the distance from Tennessee to Wisconsin prevented that from happening.

When Champ Car merged with IndyCar prior to the 2008 season, Road America was not included in the newly combined schedule. Edmonton and Long Beach both carried over to the new IndyCar schedule for 2008 and Toronto went back on the schedule for 2009. For years fans and drivers clamored for IndyCar to return to Road America, but it never happened.

I swore to myself that if IndyCar ever returned to Road America, I was going. I kept that promise to myself when the Verizon IndyCar Series visited Elkhart Lake for the first time last year, and American open-wheel racing was there for the first time since 2007.

Sometimes you build things up in your mind so much that there is no way reality can match the build-up. That was my fear as Susan and I made our way north last June. This was one of those rare times that my expectations were not only met, but surpassed. From the moment we arrived at Gate Three just south of Turn One, Road America had a special feel to it. All of the structures there are simple white clapboard buildings with no-frills. The frills are in the grounds themselves.

Longtime reader and commenter, Ron Ford, caused a stir on this site a couple of weeks ago when he referred to Road America as the National Park of Speed. That was not his term – that’s how Road America bills themselves, and for good reason. You actually feel like you are in a national park that happens to have a race track in the middle of it. Where else do have Indy cars running through deep thick forests? I liken it to what I think Hockenheim might be like.

But the portions of track running through the forest known as Kettle Bottoms is very accessible to spectators. There are no stands along there, but paved trails with areas to stand and watch. That section leads to Canada Corner, where (I think) a few stands are located on the outside of the turn, but there are plenty of trails and steps leading down to it where fans can sit and watch.

Attending a race at Road America is not about going to watch a two-hour race on Sunday. It is about exploring all of the unique nooks and crannies hidden away over a four-mile stretch of road. That takes an entire weekend to do. There are so many different vantage points to watch the racing action, I don’t feel like we came close to seeing them all over the course of the weekend last year.

But be aware, renting a golf cart is practically a necessity at Road America and they aren’t exactly cheap for the weekend. Susan insisted we rent one last year and paid for it out of her own pocket. I didn’t see the need for it. We get around Barber just fine without one and didn’t think we needed one at Road America. I was wrong. The space is just too big and there are too many desirable parts of the track where you want to watch a race from. A lot of times, we’d find a nice spot and just park and watch racing without ever getting out of the cart.

And did I mention the food? There are several different charitable organizations that run some of the various concession stands at Road America. That means each offers a different selection. But I’ll promise you – they are all good.

As for the race itself, last year’s Kohler Grand Prix was not a barn-burner. Will Power won the pole and the race, leading forty-six of the fifty laps. A fifty-lap race seems odd, but when you consider the four-mile distance to go around once – that was the standard two-hundred mile distance for a road course. There was only one caution last year, that being on Lap 40 when Conor Daly went off course and into the Turn Three wall. On the restart, Tony Kanaan was able to move into second and close the gap to Power. But Power held him off to claim victory.

Last year’s race was a big success. Track president and general manager George Bruggenthies has estimated that last year’s crowd for the IndyCar weekend was the largest the track has experienced since the track opened in 1955. That’s quite a statement.

The downside to that is that the hotels in the area have also gotten the message. Last year, we stayed at a Sleep Inn in Sheboygan using Susan’s points she gets from her work travels. Had we been paying cash, it would have cost us $80 per night. This year, the same hotel is not allowing points to be used and is charging $200 per night. The gouging is not limited to our old hotel. It’s the same story all through Sheboygan. That’s why we’re staying in Fond du Lac. It’s 50% further from the track, but they aren’t sticking it to race fans like they are in Sheboygan.

Unless you live a few hours away, it’s probably too late to persuade you to attend this weekend’s race. But I would recommend that you make Road America one of your race destinations in the very near future. It’s that good.

This year’s race has been extended to fifty-five laps (220 miles). That means that it will be hard to make it on three stops. The thinking is that most teams will go with four stops, but there will always be someone to try it on three – thereby making it a dreaded fuel-mileage race. They never asked me, but I would have extended the race to sixty laps, making it virtually impossible to complete the race on three stops without some extended yellows. Unfortunately, I was never asked what I would do.

As for my pick for this year’s race, I’m going to go with a driver that has had a run of bad luck lately. He started on the front-row of last year’s Kohler Grand Prix, but fell out on Lap 7 with engine troubles. Not only would he like to atone for last year’s race, he and his team are looking for their first race win of the season. We are heading into July and Chip Ganassi Racing has not won a race all season. That changes Sunday when Scott Dixon wins the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America.

We will be posting at least daily through the weekend. I know last year at this race, it was tough to pull away from the track to go into the Media Center and write. But I’ll try to post at least twice a day and Susan will have one or two posts from the weekend as well. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter at @Oilpressureblog and Susan at @MrsOilpressure for instant photos, videos and comments. Check back later today.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Road America Preview”

  1. Be safe, and have fun.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Good Morning George, Susan, Ms Ballyhoo, and any other of your commenters who came to Road America this year. Welcome to Wisconsin. I also will pick Dixon to win this race. The crowd for last year’s race was the largest I have ever seen at Road America for any event including Nascar. The promoter is one of the best in the business IMHO. Once again he is allowing kids to get in free. While there are many good spots to watch the race, as George has pointed out, my favorite is turn 5. There are stands there that fill up quickly, a very large video board nearby, and also a overlook near my favorite food stand. Turn 5 is a 90 degree sharp left up a steep hill and is at the end of a long, downhill run through the woods. I spotted Robin Miller there last year.

  3. tonelok Says:

    Pretty soon you will have to stay in Milwaukee not to get gouged. I say that because I hope this race continues its popularity as fans show their appreciation for a race and a place that defines IndyCar racing in North America. Wisconsin has a true gem that needs recognition as a destination for any race fan. Next assignment: restore the Milwaukee Mile, that is if they haven’t torn it down yet. My question is; what took people so long to figure this out? And, what took IndyCar so long to get back there?

    Our family drove up from Louisville last year and we all had a blast. For me it brought back memories when my Dad raced in the SCCA. We would drive all the way from Colorado. We were little, so the only thing I remembered was turn #5. At 48, I will remember: perfectly restored vintage dirt bikes people were riding around on, the woods, trails, hills, the food, golf carts, campers and wood smoke. Most memorable of all……the echoes.

  4. motel gouging is what’s hurting NASCAR attendance, too. minimum stays, quintuple rates, etc. $1K (including the tourist taxes on top of the sales taxes and service fees) for three nights within two miles of the track.

  5. George and Susan, if you haven’t yet been to Pentwater, MI, check it out. My family sent there for vacation every other summer in the 60s. I went back for my second honeymoon and many times after that. We always stayed in a rented cottage. Mears State Park is there and has a nice beach and a well know light tower at the end of the canal between lake Michigan and Pentwater Lake. The climb up the big sand dune takes effort but the view makes it worthwhile.

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