Missing Road America

Road America is nestled in an unassuming part of rural Wisconsin, east of the southern tip of Lake Winnebago and just over an hour each from Madison, Milwaukee, and Green Bay.

I’ve been going there for nearly a decade, but for the first time I wasn’t able to make it there this year. I pined for the track, for the smell of gas in the morning, for Ferraris and Corvettes and Porsches strewn about the grass in makeshift parking lots, and the endearing local sports bar that serves excellent wings. It’s the only sports bar in Wisconsin where instead of Green Bay Packers jerseys they instead have autographed racing suits and Art Deco race advertisements adorning the wall.

The landscape is surprisingly rocky. Fieldstone farmhouses are scattered around the countryside. Road America’s track dips and tumbles through hills and forest, unofficially known as America’s Spa-francorchamps. Deep woods and sandstone escarpments are obstacles for the drivers and spectators alike. I’ve often pitched tents in the heart of Road America’s land, surrounded on three sided by track, but it’s felt like I could be up in Northern Wisconsin away from civilization.

From a hill in the middle of the track between turns 5 and 6, you can prop a chair and watch racers rocket through the woods on a downward slope toward turn 5’s sharp left, then roll up the steep hill under load, braking before the top to prepare for turn 6. Then a minute or two later they roar past you on the left, turning right on turn 14 to climb the hill up the main straight to the start/finish line.

It’s history comes from road racing in nearby Elkhart Lake in the 1950s. The original route is still traceable today, going right through downtown and out to pass through cornfields. Today you can follow it guided by grey historical markers, but the speed is usually limited to 35 mph.

Road America has been home to road racing since 1955, hosting Le Mans prototypes, NASCAR stock cars, Indycars, Spec Miatas, road cars and everything else in between. The annual schedule hosts IMSA, NASCAR, and Indycar races along with several vintage festivals for both cars and bikes.

Its history and origins are even chronicled (with a fictional twist) in a series of books by B.S. Levy. The Last Open Road, his first novel, is honored with small decals decorating the bumpers of several cars at the track.

I started trekking to Road America a decade ago, when my father took me to an IMSA race back during the ALMS era. I remember that first year because it rained. The then-untainted diesel Audi LMP prototypes spat large rooster tails through the woods down to turn 5 while my father and I stood mystified and soaking wet. It’s become a perennial father-son bonding opportunity for us.

About five years ago I started camping at the track for three or four days with a few friends (my dad still made his way over for race day). We would wake up at 7:30 a.m. to thundering V8s charging around the track during morning practice. I stood sipping french press coffee with bleary eyes while 20 feet in front of me an original mini cocked its inside front tire around turn 8 lap after lap. It was a phenomenal way to start the day. Another time my friends and I basked in the afternoon sunlight, dozing on the hill next to turn 5 while chest-thumping Corvettes sang us a lullaby.

This past year I couldn’t go. I live in Minneapolis, a five hour commute from the track. I was planning my wedding, and had other obligations to family and friends as well. All of that crammed up my schedule. I knew I would be too busy this summer to make it over to Elkhart Lake, but I was nonetheless devastated. Luckily my good friends still attended this summer and had the courtesy of sending my photos of all the fun they were having while I was having not nearly as much. I felt like a kid who had all his Christmas presents taken away.

Next year will come. I’ve been spoiled by a decade of Road America events, but I never took it for granted. Next year I will love it all the more. It is a tradition I resolutely plan to continue as long as I can, pushing it onto my children and grandchildren if I can, until they outlaw driving and racing altogether in an autonomous dystopia.