Class of ‘55
Car industry sage Peter M. De Lorenzo (autoextremist.com – you won’t be sorry) calls Road America “America’s National Park of Speed.” Bulls-eye.
Road America’s creation kicked off an age of great road-racing circuit building in North America. Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, Laguna Seca, Riverside, VIR Bridgehampton and, finally Mosport. Only Riverside was sacrificed to the Mall Gods when LA’s population bloomed and Riverside’s desert dirt became just too valuable for road racing. The “hampton” in Bridgehampton doomed the fast and willowy Long Island road course near fashionable Sag Harbor from the start. Laguna Seca is on federal land and safe from the Mallers. Mosport, Lime Rock and VIR (a gorgeous and sylvan road racing county club to RA’s “national park of road racing”) are well off the population grid and likely safe, at least for our lifetimes.
Road America exists in one of the prettiest parts of America’s best vacation country. The Wisconsin course enjoys not only lovely scenery but solid management, a fantasy-grade annual calendar and a place at (or very near) the top of everyone’s MY FAVORITE RACE COURSE list.
No surprise. Road America is not only beautiful but graceful in a way that none of the current generation of big-expense road circuits can be. It has what my pal, TV director Billy McCoy, calls “flow”: races here have rhythm and grace. Big cars with lots of horsepower can spend it in stirring full-throttle bursts at Road America. Ground effects have only made the pace and cadence of Road America’s races better, more exciting and even more graceful.
Blame RA’s creator Clif Tufte. He built roads for a living. Before finalizing RA’s design he drove around the roads of the Kettle Morraine countryside choosing corners and curves that suited his vision of what a true road course should be. He measured and mapped the good ones and draped them over his 523 acre plot’s voluptuous – elevation change of 175 feet – topography.
Because Tufte’s design began at ground level, behind a steering wheel, rather than over a flat map on a drafting table, Road America has all the elements of a real road. After 57 years the place has never been infected with chicanes or suffered ugly amputations in the name of safety. A bridge was built and some runoff areas enhanced, the Pagoda was destroyed but the character remained and the new press building is still my favorite and the hardest working example of the genre.
Like the late Pagoda, watching a fat field of IMSA GTP cars work Road America is a cherished racing memory. RA’s annual Can-Am reunion makes some hard-core car guys search for words to describe the unlimited field’s seismic ascent to the green flag.
Road America was born into a world where race cars were still mostly about engines: on the day Clif opened the gates, Mercedes-Benz was the force in Formula 1 and World Championship sports car racing. Jaguar was just beginning a three-year sweep of Le Mans, roadsters ruled Indy, Fangio was in the process of winning his third world title, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Ford was still outselling Chevy in America’s new car showrooms. Clif’s first big race was a duel straight out of the headlines of international championship sports car racing: Ferrari vs. Jaguar D-Type. That was the upside.
There was much more to that painful summer: the year that Road America was built was the sport’s ugliest. In May, double World Champion Alberto Ascari died testing a Ferrari at Monza after crashing into the sea during the Monaco GP. Two weeks later the Le Mans disaster summoned the cancellation several GPs and Germany, home of Mercedes-Benz, was one of them. Then James Dean was killed on his way to a race in Salinas, Calif. The good people of Elkhart Lake carried on and finished Road America despite waves of bad motorsport news. A year later the Nürburgring was back on the F1 World Championship calendar and Road America hosted its second successful season.
Some compare Road America to the Nordschleife. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of lapping both. From my seat the only thing the two places seem to have in common is natural beauty and lots of green. As a spectator I prefer Road America. Lap times allow a genuine sense of what’s happening where the ‘Ring is better appreciated from either a) one or two locations or, b) the driver’s – or in my case, the passenger’s – seat. The current course to wear the name Nürburgring – the one that hosted the 2000 ELMS round – is a spectator-friendly place where you can still glimpse the ruins of the castle during a DTM race. The thought of trooping around the Nordschleife during the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring is daunting. Walking around and enjoying Road America’s vistas is as pleasant now as it’s been for the last half century. There are so many broad panoramas – and brat stands! – at RA that extended Nürburgring-class hiking is unnecessary. Find a good spot (like the bottom of Turn 5) and plop yourself down for a fine day of race spectating. Then, perhaps, walk back to the paddock between practice and qualifying sessions.
Jackie Stewart calls the ‘Ring “the green hell”. With his résumé, such words are not hyperbole and should be taken seriously. The place is steeped in legend, lore and, unfortunately, blood. The ‘Ring has become the touchstone for every car builder aching to carve a reputation out of its 147 corners.
But up in the middle of Wisconsin’s vacation country is Tufte’s “green heaven”: the 4-mile natural beauty where Team McLaren fired the first shot of the 1967 Can-Am wars with its elegant M6A, changing the grammar of pro road racing forever. If you listen carefully you can still hear a distant V-8 echo from early September 1967, especially when the Corvettes are hammering around the Kink headed for Kettle Bottoms and Canada Corner; or in that long rising crescendo on the first lap when the entire field is boiling down the Morraine Sweep, descending to Turn 5 like some demented mechanical avalanche.
De Lorenzo is right; RA is indeed “America’s national park of road racing”. It wallows in its glorious history easily accommodating everything from NASCAR’s undercard-series stockers to real Indy Cars, motorcycles, vintage Can-Am and Formula Vees. Regardless of what’s racing on its 4.04 mile road, RA makes them all look good. The place is a visual knockout, even on smaller TV screens. Big expensive TV cameras and wide open spaces that can slow a 200-mph prototype to a visual crawl don’t dilute the TV experience of a Road America lap simply because the place is fast and panoramic and the guardrails are kept well back.
The cameras have to make long pans to see Road America as it is. That’s the real bonus of Clif’s 4-mile lap. Packing TV cameras around Road America with the same density used at places like Lime Rock or Mid-Ohio is a fiscal impossibility, even for the richer racing series. Consequently, the TV viewer sees RA much the way a fan on site would; lots of long approaches and what TV folks call “tails-away” shots as the cars head for the next camera.
Road America’s Pagoda may be gone, but Road America has not lost a shred of its charm. If there’s a better place to be than the “National Park of Road Racing”, the “green heaven”, on an August afternoon – with a brat in your hand – I haven’t found it. All because Clif Tufte decided that the best way to conceptualize and create a world class road racing course was to drive around a few roads in a beautiful part of the world that people still yearn to visit.