Random Thoughts on Road America

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Greetings from beautiful Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin! This will have some racing coverage to it, but as you know – it’s hard to know what went on during a race if you attended it. It’s best to see a replay when you get home. Instead, this will intermingle our weekend along with thoughts on the excellent races we saw. There may be one or two (or more) gratuitous selfies mixed in as well.

Everyone has heard why Road America is such a special place. There’s the racing, the food, the size of the property, the hospitality and many other intangibles. If you’ve been here, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you need to come and see for yourself someday. You’ll then know what I’m talking about. The fans here are special too. Yes they like to come and have fun, but these are knowledgeable racing fans that come here. They don’t come for the party. They come to enjoy the racing on a track that is designed for racing.

Since there were hardly any media members (only six people) allowed inside the Road America Media Center, I am typing this on Sunday afternoon from the scenic balcony of our Elkhart Lake hotel – The Shore Club. It sits high up on a hill that would be overlooking picturesque Elkhart Lake. This row of trees prevents from seeing the lake, but trust me – it’s there.

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I think the excitement of the weekend finally caught up with Susan on Sunday. Even though I slowed things down, she was eager to do all we could. But Sunday morning, she realized she had overdone it. She stayed on the golf cart resting, while I watched most of Race Two from the Turn Five stands. As I sit out here typing, she is asleep inside – so I figured I would come out here and write. A friend of ours at the track, who lost his wife to cancer several years ago, told me that it will be hard for her to realize her new limits, especially as active as she is. It will be a difficult adjustment for her, but we are new at this.

Given the circumstances of her recent diagnosis, I thought that this Road America weekend could not have come at a worse time. Now I think it came at the perfect time. We had an absolute blast, and it was good to get away and escape from reality for a few days. We did practically everything we always do when we come here. What we didn’t do was not due to her situation, but instead due to the restrictions of COVID-19.

After our travel problems flying into Milwaukee delayed us for several hours, we slept in on Friday morning. After all, the only track activity was with the Road to Indy US F2000 and Indy Pro 2000 series. We had planned to go and pick up our golf cart and leave to go take in the lake.

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But after picking it up around noon, we decided to go to the Road America gift shop, which is impressive and the most affordable gift shop you’ll see anywhere.

Coming out, we ran into a friend of ours, Mike Silver of The Pit Window, and chatted for a while. We then decided it was time for a snack, so we went to one of the many separately operated stands here – St. John the Baptist, operated by a local Catholic church. I had a brat and Susan had ice cream. If the perfect weather and the setting was enough to entertain us while we ate, the parade of IndyCar transports into the track started just as we sat on one of the picnic tables.

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After that, we decided to take our gift shop purchases to the car and ride around a bit.  We did buy Road America masks they had available in the gift shop. I modeled it for the camera as Susan did a photobomb.

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We ended up riding around to all of the different vantage points and cart paths, just to make sure nothing was blocked off for COVID. Except for the paddock and the pits, fans could still go all over the track. Our ten minute trip to the track to get our golf cart turned into about a five hour stay. But I want to make it clear, it was Susan that decided to eschew the visit to the lake for the track – not me.

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With no writing to do and few fans around, it was a very relaxing and fun day to spend at the track. We left the track around 5:00 in the afternoon and drove to Sheboygan, to eat at one of our favorite spots up here – Majerle’s Black River Grill that sits right on Lake Michigan. Just before we got to the restaurant, we saw the lake and pulled over to take the obligatory (and very windy) selfie.

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Friday Night Fish Fry’s are big in Wisconsin, and we always like to do as the locals do – and this is definitely a local spot. Their fried fish specials were Blue Gill, Walleye and Sauger. Since I had never had Sauger before, that’s what I got. It was decent, but I think I should have gotten the Walleye. We’ve had it there and it’s phenomenal!

Susan now stays away from fried food, so she got the broasted chicken, which she said was very good. Being the thoughtless husband that I am, without thinking I ordered cheese curds as an appetizer (another Wisconsin treat), forgetting she couldn’t eat fried food. She had one and loved it, but thought she’d better pass, even though the serving was big enough for two. Not wanting them to go to waste, I polished them off myself.

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Of course, I had a couple of Spotted Cows to wash it all down (yet another Wisconsin Treat). Spotted Cow is a beer brewed by New Glarus Brewing Company. It is made in Wisconsin and is not sold anywhere outside of the state. If you find yourself up here at any time, order one. You’ll thank me later.

We arrived at the track on Saturday morning, just in time to see IndyCar practice. Will Power, Jack Harvey and Josef Newgarden led the one and only practice, with Scott Dixon only the fifteenth quickest in a twenty-three car field. I was thinking that my prediction of Dixon cooling off this weekend  after such a hot start would come true. Silly me.

Susan stayed on the golf cart during practice. Since we weren’t doing any Oilpressure stuff, she finally got to wear the T-Shirt she bought here last year and wanted a picture of it. In case you can’t read it , it says “Best Race Day Ever” and then “Road America” underneath.

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After practice, we went to the garage area just inside Turn Fourteen where the Vintage Indy cars were on display. They ended up running on four occasions throughout the weekend. But when they weren’t on track, fans could get up close and personal with them.

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Things didn’t seem that much different that afternoon in qualifying. Josef Newgarden won the pole for Race One, while Jack Harvey started alongside on the front row. Scott Dixon improved a little bit, but still started ninth. I was convinced that we would have a new winner besides the undefeated Scott Dixon by the time the sun went down. However, Dixon did what Dixon always does and played a slightly different pit strategy in Saturday afternoon’s race. Before you knew it, he was sitting in second behind Newgarden, waiting to pounce if Josef Newgarden made a mistake. When Newgarden stalled his car trying to leave his pit, that was all Dixon needed. He never looked back.

Dixon won by 2.5386 seconds over Will Power, with Dale Coyne’s Alex Palou posting an impressive third, as the rookie from Spain continues to impress. Newgarden finished a forgettable fourteenth. Alexander Rossi appeared to put a stake in his season when he had to pit early, when some track signage got stuck in his radiator. Rossi finished nineteenth, continuing his disastrous start to the season.

After the race, we went to the other favorite spot – a place we have been to every year, since our first year up here. We’re not sure how we found out about this place, but we think one of the staff members in the Road America Media Center suggested it to us our first time here – PJ Campbell’s at the Depot. It is located in the small town of Plymouth, which is just a couple of miles south of the track. It is inside of an old historic train station, and the food and service is outstanding. A lot of the fare is German, but I always get the prime rib. Since she missed out on the fish Friday night, Susan got the grilled Walleye. I had a bite and it was very good (although I preferred the traditional fried). Of course, I took advantage of the Spotted Cow being available and had a couple of more Saturday night.

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We retired early, because we knew it was going to be an early day at the track on Sunday. Since she wasn’t feeling as well on Sunday, we got to the track just as Qualifying for Race Two was wrapping up. The grid for Sunday’s race was quite a surprise, as Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward won the pole and his Indy Lights teammate, Colton Herta, started alongside on the front-row. Scott Dixon would start sixth, making one think he was in prime position to win his fourth in a row and career IndyCar win No. 50.

Alex Palou qualified well again, and would roll off third. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the only veteran in the first two rows, but his day wouldn’t get past the first turn. Graham Rahal continued his excellent start to the season by qualifying fifth, but he didn’t even get as far as Hunter-Reay in Sunday’s race.

As mentioned, there was a melee in Turn One on the opening lap. We happened to be inside Turn One at the start and saw Hunter-Reay slide hard into the tire barrier along the gravel trap. His car suffered a lot of damage. We were not in a position to see the video board, so I really have no idea what happened to Hunter-Reay or Rahal. But I know Will Power and Santino Ferrucci were penalized for avoidable contact, so I’m assuming they were the culprits. In short, you know what happened but I don’t.

Once the race got going, Pato O’Ward checked out. Felix Rosenqvist ran second for most of the latter part of the race. Again, I was sitting on the outside of Turn Five for most of the race and I was witness to several key passes by Alexander Rossi, who finally showed everyone what he is capable of when he isn’t suffering horrible luck. After starting tenth, he ended up in third place. Dixon suffered the same fate as Newgarden the day before, and stalled his car coming out of the pits. He re-enetred the track in fourteenth place and finished in twelfth as he finally cooled off. Rosenqvist and O’Ward were on different tire strategies. O’Ward finished the race on the softer red alternates, while Rosenqvist was on the primary blacks.

With about eight laps to go, it was obvious that O’Ward’s tires were going away and Rosenqvist was catching him. As they raced toward where I was in Turn Five on the next to the last lap, Rosenqvist tried to pass on the outside. Then he did the crossover in the turn and they were wheel to wheel going up the hill toward the Corvette Bridge and Turn Six. Just as they went out of sight, I could see that Rosenqvist completed the pass on O’Ward. By the time, he crossed the finish line, Rosenqvist had won his first career IndyCar race by 2.8699 seconds over Pato O’Ward, with Rossi earning a distant third over the impressive Marcus Ericsson and Colton Herta.

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It was a day when youth was served. Fifth-year driver Alexander Rossi was the only driver in the driver in the Top-Seven that had more than a season and a half of experience. Although Dixon finally faltered after four tries, Chip Ganassi Racing is still the only team to win this season and Honda has won all four races.

When the race was over, we went back to our favorite stand to get more ice cream. We then made a final lap to all of our favorite spots before turning our cart in. We took one last selfie just before leaving, saying our annual farewell to Road America for another year. We’ll be back next year for our sixth trip in a row to this magical facility.

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Social Distancing:  On Saturday, I saw where NBC showed a misleading photograph of the stands outside of Canada Corner. Screen shots immediately appeared on Twitter. I say misleading because it was shot at a steep angle making the stands seem much smaller and more crowded than they really were. People immediately jumped on Twitter claiming that Road America had created a very unsafe environment due to the lack of social distancing.

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I know that stand and it is much wider than that. We drove by it on our golf cart Saturday just before the race started and it looked nothing like that. There was plenty of space to social distance. If you wanted to social distance at Road America, that wasn’t a problem. I took several shots on Saturday and Sunday in the Turn Five area (probably the most popular spot to congregate on the whole track) showing how much room everyone had to spread out.

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Road America did an excellent job and worked really hard to pull this thing off. I felt safe all weekend. The only time this entire trip, when I felt my space was being violated was when we were on the plane and people in the aisles were standing over us. Other than that, I never felt like I was not able to social distance. They took our temperature every day, gave out masks and hand sanitizer and also had sanitizer readily available at any public area. Yet, all everyone had to say on Twitter was how glad they were that they stayed home. I feel bad for the track that such a rampage was set off on Twitter by those that have to always complain that not enough is being done in this COVID era.

Thank You, IndyCar Radio:  I don’t say this to bolster or brag, but to simply say thank you. Just as Race One was about to start on Saturday, my phone started blowing up with people telling me that Mark Jaynes had given Susan a shout-out (along with former Versus pit-reporter Lindy Thackston) for their battle with cancer just before the invocation.

When I showed the texts and tweets to Susan, she teared up. The response from everyone has been overwhelming since we announced her diagnosis here on Wednesday. But to learn of such a spontaneous mention across such a broad platform, was quite an honor. We were both genuinely touched by such an act of kindness. Thanks to IndyCar Radio for such an act of kindness and thanks to everyone who has sent their messages of love and support to Susan. It helps more than you know.

All in All:  It was a great weekend for racing. The weather could not have been better and we finally got two good races after a couple of duds to begin this shortened season. Scott Dixon won his third in a row, but finally cooled off on Sunday. We got to see a young driver in Felix Rosenqvist, earn his first career IndyCar win. We also got to see some excellent drives from many of the young drivers n the series.

I’m not sure I’d like to continue the double-header format at Road America, but for this strange year – it worked. Now we venture into new territory with a double-header weekend at Iowa this Friday and Saturday night. Things could really get interesting there.

If you made it this far, thanks for plodding along as we mixed a lot of personal experiences from the weekend with the racing action. We fly back to Nashville tomorrow afternoon, then we have our first consult with Susan’s oncologist on Tuesday. I may or may not have anything here on Wednesday. As we deal with her health, things will be up in the air for a while.

But this weekend did Susan (and me) a world of good. Thanks to you all for your continued prayers and support. Susan is now awake and says she wants to go eat, so we shall.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Road America”

  1. Thanks again for your post race report . The photos and Trip Advisor recommendations are most appreciated. Planning to go next year after being away for 39 years and your hotel and dining suggestions will come in handy.

    Orange is a hard cover to pull off but that is a great photo of Susan in the orange T.

    On a more crass note may I ask what is the cost of the golf cart rental? It appears essential to have one for my trip next year as I was much younger with better knees.

    Glad you and Susan had a great weekend

  2. Sounds like a great weekend, I also must boast, I picked SPAM in the poll to win a race this weekend and they almost did! Great racing there. I am glad you and Susan enjoyed your time. A cancer diagnosis often makes people enjoy their lives a bit more, as I have seen in my work in healthcare, but you and Susan, you already enjoy life and that is a rare thing to see in many people these days. So I am glad you enjoyed this weekend and many other weekends at the track together and share that with us. I know reality and Dr appts won’t be fun for awhile for either of you but you both have that rare trait of enjoying life, keep your heads up and keep doing that! Don’t lose your smile, it will all work out in the end….

  3. Leslie Bissell Says:

    So glad you and Susan had a great time at Road America. Thank you for making your report and for the good photos. It makes me want to go to this race!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Glad you both enjoyed the racing and the weekend. And what good racing it was, those were some of the best shows Indycar has put on in a while. Every time you two come back from Road America with your pictures and stories, it moves right back up to the top of the list of races I want to go to.

    My prayers continue for you both.

  5. Thanks for the shoutout, George. Spot on about the social distancing. the track was not at fault or responsible for how people chose to behave.

  6. Great post, George. I arrived early Saturday morning when the gates opened and had no issues getting in. Traffic was essentially non-existent and I was free to park wherever I wanted. I did have to ask about the mask and sanitizer, but they were handing it out to everyone. I spent the first hour or so at the track just walking around, getting an idea of the shooting angles and best spots for taking my photos. As the day continued on, I thought people were doing a very good job of distancing and using their masks when needed.

    I thought you guys were set up near the carousel, so I went down there a couple of times, only to see you posting on Twitter from another spot! Sorry that I missed you, but I am glad to see/hear that you guys had fun. I have always adored Road America, but finally decided to make my first visit this year, and I’m glad that I did.

    The racing is always great, but the track (which I already loved before) was even better than I could have imagined. The whole area near Elkhart Lake was so open and laid back. The double-header event along with the Vintage IndyCars was absolutely fantastic.

    I haven’t been able to sit down and watch the races on TV yet, but I am very much looking forward to it. It was an awesome weekend, and I will definitely be going back again next year.

  7. Lynn Weinberg Says:

    As usual, George, great post. While I enjoy your commentary on the races, I also love your restaurant and hotel recommendations. I hope to attend Road America in the near future, and thanks to you, I know all the “good spots!” I could tell from your photos over the weekend that you both were enjoying yourselves immensely. From what I heard from Susan, and pictures I saw, it seemed that Road America was doing a fantastic job managing the social distancing. Attendees have to take some personal responsibility upon themselves too, and avoid crowded areas. Road America is a big enough place that fans would have to actively work at NOT social distancing. Some of that “Twitter blame” needs to be placed on attendees.

    I am thinking of you both this week as Susan starts her treatment. I’m not the least bit surprised about the outpouring of messages, texts, social media posts and radio shoutouts you’ve received. You and Susan are both great people and have a lot of racing friends and acquaintances on social media. You have a lot of people who care about you. I hope that gives you some comfort in the coming months, which, without a doubt, will be filled with a lot of unknowns.
    Much love

  8. Thanks George and Susan for sharing your weekend with us. I only spent race day at RA in 2017, but am so hoping to go back sometime soon for the entire weekend experience. I love the track and the environs. (the berry pie is also excellent). I appreciate your suggestions for eateries in the area and will add them to my files.

    All the best to Susan on the start of her treatment. We are all pulling for her and you.

  9. I’m so glad that both of you enjoyed your weekend as much as you did. Once again, I’m filled with remorse for the fact that I haven’t made it up there for IndyCar since its return (I haven’t been to Road America since ALMS and CART were there back in the late-’00s), and I hope that maybe next year will be the year. I spent the weekend thinking about the two of you, and wishing that I were around and about on the grounds as well…at a respectful distance, of course.

    Take care, and I hope to see you at the track, sooner or later.

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