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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ IndyCar's successful Road America return

by Gordon Kirby
There's no question that Road America is the finest road course in the United States. The majestic 4.0-mile track in central Wisconsin is a driver and fan favorite with plenty of fast, flowing corners and many equally great places to watch. So it was a pleasure for all to see IndyCar return to Road America last weekend and put on a good show in front of a great crowd.

It's truly remarkable that Road America's layout is identical to when it first opened for business sixty-one years ago. One of the key reasons it stands out as a truly classic track is that Road America is unstained by the blight of chicanes or other Mickey mouse sections which have proliferated at too many tracks over the past thirty years.

The track is slightly wider and has been repaved two times over the years, the first time in 1976 and again eighteen years later. Some of the corners were repaved this year and a steady progression of run-off areas, walls and debris fences have been added but the rest of the place is entirely unchanged.

Road America was the brainchild of Clif Tufte, boss of the local Elkhart Sand and Gravel Company. A series of SCCA road races had been run in 1950, '51 and '52 through the streets of Elkhart Lake and on the roads surrounding the town and its eponymous lake. The races attracted a lot of interest, bringing publicity, money and, in 1952, no fewer than 130,000 spectators to the small resort town.

Subsequently, Tufte, other town luminaries and key Chicago SCCA racers like Jim Kimberly and Fred Wacker decided to build a permanent road course somewhere on the outskirts of town. Tufte eventually bought 523 acres of farm and woodland a couple of miles south of town. He sold 1,750 shares for $100 apiece to finance the project and spent six months building the new track, completing the job in September, 1955.

Incredible to report, there were no formal plans or drawings for the track. Tufte tramped through the fields and woods and laid-out the design in his mind. He then instructed his work crews where and how to clear the land and lay the pavement. His resulting 4.0-mile circuit remains exactly the same today, save for some widening.

The first race at Road America was won by Phil Hill in a Ferrari sports car. Hill had also won Elkhart's last through-the-streets road race in 1952, driving a C-Type Jaguar, and later, in 1961, he won the F1 World Championship for Ferrari. Road America immediately established itself as one of America's best tracks. Most road racing in the United States at the time took place on airport circuits but the birth of Road America spurred the building of other permanent road courses at Watkins Glen in upstate New York, Bridgehampton on Long Island, Mid-Ohio in central Ohio, and Riverside and Laguna Seca in California.

Of these classic tracks, only Road America and Mid-Ohio remain in their original forms. Places like Bridgehampton and Riverside are no longer with us, both replaced by the steady creep of urbanization. Bridgehampton has been out of action for more than thirty years and Riverside went out of business a few years later. These were sad losses for the sport because it's impossible to imagine new road courses of similar stature ever again being built near New York City or Los Angeles.

Still surviving from the fifties are the more rural road courses--Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca and Watkins Glen. Mid-Ohio continues to run an IndyCar race and the Glen returns to IndyCar's schedule later this summer. The Glen has been owned for many years by the NASCAR-affiliated International Speedway Corporation and its biggest race of each year is a mid-summer NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Three new, international-spec road courses were built in Canada during the sixties--Mosport in Ontario, St. Jovite in Quebec, and Edmonton in Alberta. Mosport was opened in 1961, hosted the first Canadian GP in 1967 and ran its last F1 race in 1977. St. Jovite opened a few years later and like Mosport was a stalwart of the Can-Am series in its early days.

St. Jovite also was the site of the Canadian GP in 1968 and 70 but these two fine tracks fell into disrepute in the late seventies and eighties. Both have been given a new lease of life in recent years, freshly paved and running a full calendar of lesser events. Edmonton was the scene of some Can-Am and Formula Atlantic races in the sixties and early seventies but also went the way of the urban developers axe.

Road America opened in 1955 with a full schedule of SCCA National and Regional races. A 500-mile race called the Road America 500 was run from 1957-'62 with Phil Hill winning in 1957 aboard a Ferrari and Jim Hall and Hap Sharp winning the 500 in 1962 driving one of Hall's Chaparrals. From the sixties through the eighties Road America hosted many USRRC, Can-Am, Formula 5000, Trans-Am and IMSA races before running its first CART race in 1982.

The track was one of the first road racing circuits to switch from the failing Can-Am series to CART. The influx of road and street races into CART from the SCCA's dying Can-Am series was a key element in CART's growth as the PPG Indy Car World Series, as it was then known, attracted not only tracks, but also drivers and teams from the Can-Am.

For many years Road America was one of the healthiest road races on CART's schedule, regularly drawing 50,000 and more people on raceday. But crowds began to dwindle as the CART/IRL war unfolded and the race didn't take place in 2005. Two more races took place under Champ Car sanction in 2006 and '07, but that was the end of big-time open-wheel racing at Road America until last weekend.

The current cars are more than two seconds slower than the track record set sixteen years ago in 2000 by Dario Franchitti aboard a Reynard-Honda in 1 min 39.866 secs. The existing Dallaras were able to lap Road America this year within a second of Sebastien Bourdais's pole driving a Panoz DP01-Cosworth in 2007, the last time Champ Car raced at the track. Bourdais took the pole in 2007 in 1 min 41.535 secs. Twenty years ago, in 1996, Alex Zanardi was on the pole at Road America aboard a Reynard-Honda, lapping in 1 min 41.998 secs.

Today's cars don't enjoy the big horsepower churned out by CART's engines at the turn of the century, but the current Dallara's giant wings generate a huge amount of downforce. At a track like Road America this year's car makes as much as 6,000 pounds of downforce resulting in fearsomely short braking distances and extremely high cornering loads, particularly for a car without power steering.

Nevertheless, IndyCar put on a good show at Road America last Sunday and everyone hopes a longterm partnership will be established to build on the success of IndyCar's return to Wisconsin. As many of us have written many times, stability and date equity are the key components in establishing successful race dates so we hope Road America will once again become a regular mid-summer stop for IndyCar as it was for CART for many years.

Road America's successful IndyCar rebirth should also serve as a lesson that some other great venues from the past should be revived. Great west coast road courses such as Laguna Seca and Portland are among those that should be targeted to rejoin the likes of Road America, Phoenix and Watkins Glen on IndyCar's schedule. If IndyCar hopes to create a proper business plan for the future re-establishing and rebuilding these races is essential.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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