IndyCar Series makes 'fabulous' return to Road America

Mario Andretti, who is at the open wheel track this week, started racing at Road America in the 1960s when he participated in the SCCA Can-Am series AP Photo/Genaro C. Armas

Famous oval tracks like Indianapolis, Daytona and Darlington have built their own brand of mystique over the years.

But road racing venues can be every bit as legendary. Ask any member of three generations of the Rahal or Andretti families about their favorite road course and the answer is unanimous: Road America.

Tucked into the forests and hills of Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine region near the village of Elkhart Lake, Road America winds 14 corners over 4.047 miles. It's fast for the drivers and it's fantastic for spectators.

"I've been going to Road America since I was four, going up there with my dad from our home in Chicago when he was racing," recalled three-time Indy car champion Bobby Rahal. "We'd walk around the entire track watching the 500-mile [sports car] race. When I think about myself as a little boy watching racing, I think of Road America."

A few years later, in the early 1970s, Rahal ran some of his first SCCA races at Road America. "It seems like every college kid within 500 miles would show up in Elkhart Lake," he said. "It was like Woodstock.

"I don't know anybody who dislikes this place. If there's one word to describe Road America, it's fabulous. It's four miles of the greatest track in North America -- certainly one of the greatest in the world."

That's why it's a big deal for Rahal -- and just about everybody else in the paddock -- that the Verizon IndyCar Series is racing at Road America this weekend. There hasn't been an IndyCar race at the glorious venue since the defunct Champ Car series last ran there in 2007.

Indy car Series fans and participants rejoiced when Road America was announced on the 2016 schedule, part of a return to historic Indy car racing tracks that dropped out of the rotation during the open-wheel "split" years. Phoenix International Raceway was also brought back this year to popular acclaim after an 11-year absence, and news that a race at the Watkins Glen road course would replace the non-starting Grand Prix of Boston was also well-received.

Attendance at Road America is unlikely to come close to the record levels of the early 1990s, when almost every year the CART-sanctioned race at the track topped 70,000 and was announced as a new sporting event record for the state of Wisconsin. But track owners are predicting more than 100,000 over this year's four-day race meeting, making it Road America's biggest event in more than a decade.

Graham Rahal, son of Bobby and grandson of Mike, is another driver who is excited about returning. Rahal finished third as a rookie in the 2007 Champ Car race at Road America behind teammate Sebastien Bourdais; just nine of the 21 current full-time drivers have raced an Indy car at the track.

"Road America is my favorite track, and the favorite of many drivers," said Graham Rahal. "I spent a lot of time there as a kid when my dad was racing, and I still love going there. The length and the elevation changes give it many interesting and challenging parts."

Mario Andretti started racing at Road America in the 1960s when he participated in the SCCA Can-Am series. He pushed hard to get the track added to the CART schedule in the early 1980s (the first Indy car race at Road America was in 1982) and was instrumental in keeping the event alive under Champ Car sanction after 2000.

On Wednesday, Andretti happily drove media members and VIPs around the track in the IndyCar two-seat demonstrator.

"We belong here, and I'm so happy to be back," Andretti said. "Elkhart is too important a racetrack for us to allow it to fall by the wayside. It's a great race track that has tremendous fan support.

"That's always been obvious and it's been made even more obvious by the outpouring of support from the fans now that the IndyCar race is back."

Like his father, Michael Andretti won three times in an Indy car at Road America. Marco Andretti has tested but never raced there.

More than anything else, Michael Andretti enjoys the variety that the long lap at Road America provides. "There's a little bit of everything," he said. "There are fast corners, slow corners, fast straights -- everything a driver could want. Because of the length, you have to drive a perfect lap to improve your lap time.

"The most challenging part of the track for me is the Carousel," he continued. "Then there's the kink. It's flat-out, tremendously quick. You have to really hold your breath going in there, and it's a real challenge to do it perfect. It's very challenging to drive. It has everything you want in a track, and it compares to any course in the world."

But the allure of Road America is not restricted to the drivers. Team members love the relaxed atmosphere of the Wisconsin countryside and the active party scene in the village of Elkhart Lake, just five miles from the track. Siebkin's, an Elkhart Lake bar/restaurant/hotel, is the center of the entertainment which has over the years become a legendary watering hole for the racing community.

Road America is a real treat for racing fans as well. Though reserved seats are available, the best place to watch the action is from the lush green hillsides, which often give a panoramic view of several turns. Bring a cooler, but the food available at the vending stands is the best track food available anywhere: fire-roasted corn on the cob and fresh grilled bratwursts are the specialties.

Dario Franchitti is another former Road America winner, and the retired four-time IndyCar Series champion says that when he visits, it's one of the only tracks that makes him wish he was still competing.

"I loved driving the Elkhart Lake track, Franchitti said. "Whatever the outcome of the race, it was guaranteed to be an enjoyable weekend just for the sheer pleasure of driving at Road America.

"As a driver, you have to be on the very top of your game. You have to get the most out of your car on every turn and be prepared to go for it."