The History of Road America

THE HISTORY OF ROAD AMERICA (In Summary)

In the early 1950's, sports car races were being run on the streets in and around Elkhart Lake. When the state legislature banned racing on public roads, a man named Clif Tufte organized a group of influential local citizens and leaders of the of the Chicago Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). This group developed plans and sold stock to build a permanent racecourse. The overall vision of Road America grew out of the dreams of Tufte, a highway engineer, who chose 525 acres of Wisconsin farmland outside the Village of Elkhart Lake for the track.

Tufte's dream became a reality in April 1955, the natural topography of the glacial Kettle Moraine area was utilized for the track, sweeping around rolling hills and plunging through ravines. By September 10, 1955, the track's first SCCA national race weekend was held. At 4.048 miles in length, with 14 turns, the track is virtually the same today as it was when it was first laid out and is revered the world over as one of the world's finest and most challenging road courses.

Millions of dollars in improvements have been made throughout the years, but the original 4.048-mile, 14-turn configuration has never been altered. In 2005, Elkhart Lake's Road America, Inc. celebrated its 50th anniversary. Its history was documented in a book, "Road America: Celebrating 50 Years of Road Racing" by Tom Schultz. Celebrities such as David Letterman, Tom Cruise, Patrick Dempsey, Tim Allen, Ashley Judd and the late Paul Newman have visited this venue, not only for the great racing but also the scenic surroundings of this resort community. (Additional Historical Information is below)

TODAY – Road America is big business, attracting 800,000 visitors a year from every corner of the world. Economic impact studies show that Road America, its events and visitors generate more than $100 million dollars annually each year. Over 425 events are held annually at Road America, often running multiple activities on the same day incorporating the four-mile track, the interior Motorplex and the beautiful grounds surrounding the facility.

THE FIRST RACE – In 1955 the SCCA granted a sanction for an SCCA National, the highest form of road racing in the country at the time, held September 10 and 11. The feature, a 148-mile race for the era’s large sports racing cars, became a duel between two men and their cars. Sherwood Johnson of Rye, N.Y., was one of the country’s best drivers. He was driving semi-works D Jaguar for the Briggs Cunningham team. Phil Hill of Santa Monica, Calif., a rising racing star on the west coast, took to the track in a Ferrari Monza. For 37 laps Johnston and Hill were inseparable but then began to fight for the lead during the last six laps. As they approached the finish line on the last lap, Hill inched ahead and barely won the race. Phil Hill’s average speed was 80.2 mph.

THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL RACE WEEKEND – The first professional race weekend was the August 1956 NASCAR Grand National race. At the time NASCAR was just a regional southern series and not widely popular. Well under 10,000 spectators attended the two-day event. On Saturday Paul Goldsmith won in a Jaguar Mk., VII sedan with a winning speed of 59.2 mph. The Sunday race was run in the rain and was a display of spinouts and hay bale bashing. The day’s winner was Tim Flock in a Mercury at a speed of 71.4 mph.

ROAD AMERICA'S HISTORY - By Tom Schultz

It was sixty years ago that Clif Tufte, a highway engineer, put together the land and laid out the track which is Road  America. When racing on the public roads around Elkhart Lake became impractical for a number of reasons, Tufte realized that the economic benefit to the area was such that a permanent road course could be viable. He acted, and Road America was born, with the first races held on September 10-11, 1955. That event, won by Phil Hill in a Ferrari Monza by an eyelash over Sherwood Johnston in a D Jaguar, began a tradition that lasts to this day.

The next June saw the first June Sprints, which is SCCA’s longest running amateur road racing event. Carroll Shelby triumphed in a Ferrari 121LM. The event lives on, now as an SCCA Major event, the only one that carries enough tradition, history, and clout to be run as a free-standing event and not as part of a double National weekend. Many great names have won the June Sprints feature, including Walt Hansgen, Augie Pabst, Roger Penske, Jim Hall, and more. Jerry Hansen, SCCA’s winningest driver, has the most June Sprints feature wins, an impressive total of twelve. In addition, Hansen notched several more class wins.

The June Sprints had many highlights. The 1960 race was a 140 mile long battle between the Scarab of Augie Pabst and the Sting Ray of Dick Thompson. Augie, who scored four major wins at the track, prevailed in a race remembered fondly to this day. Perhaps the tightest June Sprints was the very next year, when Roger Penske and Jim Hall swapped the lead in their Maserati T-61 “Birdcages” for the entire 100-mile length. The lead changed with almost every lap. Indeed, the last lap saw the lead switch twice, with Penske prevailing by the slimmest of margins.

Road America is unique among North America’s permanent road circuits in that it is the only one which retains its original layout. No short courses, no added loops, revised corners, or chicanes. What the heroes of 1955 raced on is the same track that is in use today. The track is a bit wider, and safety barriers and catch fencing have been erected for the sake of safety, but the track itself has not changed.

In 1956 Tufte added a six-hour endurance race in September, which covered 484 miles. He alertly saw that just four more laps would make a race with the magic number of 500 miles. Thus, the Road America 500 was born, an event which continued through three incarnations for decades, with the 500-mile distance only ending a few years ago due to the demands of live television.  The event lives on, but at a timed distance of two hours and 45 minutes.  As such, the distance traveled is in the neighborhood of 300 miles, which equates to almost 500 kilometers. So, the spirit lives on.

As might be anticipated in an endurance race, the margins of victory in the 500 have varied. In 1962 Jim Hall and Hap Sharp took a Chaparral 1 to the checker six laps ahead of the second place car. On the other hand, there have been thrillers. Chuck Parsons won the 1966 500 in a McLaren M1B, passing the identical car of Charlie Hayes, not only on the last lap, but as they came up the hill under the bridge just before the start/finish line, nipping Hayes by a car length. As astonishing as that was, it may well have been topped by the 2010 finish. Englishman Johnny Cocker, in Lord Drayson’s Lola B-09/60 coupe powered by a Judd V-10, was fourth just three laps from the finish, over half a minute behind the leader. On the third last lap he passed the Lola B-09/86 AER of Guy Smith, taking third. On the second last lap he took the Acura ARX-1C of David Brabham to move into second, still some ten seconds behind the leading Porsche RS Spyder of Klaus Graf. Somehow or other, Cocker drove as a man possessed, catching and passing Graf for the lead—and the win—entering the race’s final turn.

The years 1967-1974 featured the Canadian-American Challenge Cup. This is perhaps the most fondly remembered racing series ever, as it had minimal rules. Two seats, fendered bodywork, and that was about it. Unlimited engines, fat tires, unimaginable speed. The early years were ruled by the McLaren team. They won five years in a row at RA, twice with Bruce McLaren and once each with Denis Hulme, Peter Gethin, and Peter Revson. In each instance the race was no contest, as the orange McLarens simply were the best. Their stranglehold on the Can Am was broken in 1972 when Porsche practiced extreme overkill. Porsche built a twin turbocharged five liter flat 12 engine that put out well over 1000 horsepower. They hired Roger Penske¹s team to run the car, and as expected, they won as they pleased. George Follmer took RA in 1972 and Mark Donohue in 1973, each winning the season championship. The Can Am was last held in 1974, its demise essentially due to its success. That is, with virtually no rules, only one or two teams could reasonably win, so the rest went home. But while it lasted it was most memorable. The fans reacted accordingly with the biggest crowds ever at RA until the top CART years of the mid 1990s.

The years 1967-1974 featured the Canadian-American Challenge Cup. This is perhaps the most fondly remembered racing series ever, as it had minimal rules. Two seats, fendered bodywork, and that was about it. Unlimited engines, fat tires, unimaginable speed. The early years were ruled by the McLaren team. They won five years in a row at RA, twice with Bruce McLaren and once each with Denis Hulme, Peter Gethin, and Peter Revson. In each instance the race was no contest, as the orange McLarens simply were the best. Their stranglehold on the Can Am was broken in 1972 when Porsche practiced extreme overkill. Porsche built a twin turbocharged five liter flat 12 engine that put out well over 1000 horsepower. They hired Roger Penske’s team to run the car, and as expected, they won as they pleased. George Follmer took RA in 1972 and Mark Donohue in 1973, each winning the season championship. The Can Am was last held in 1974, its demise essentially due to its success. That is, with virtually no rules, only one or two teams could reasonably win, so the rest went home. But while it lasted it was most memorable. The fans reacted accordingly with the biggest crowds ever at RA until the top CART years of the mid 1990s.

The SCCA’s Formula 5000 series was relatively short-lived, but is remembered fondly for its great fields and fierce competition. It only ran from 1968 through 1976, but the single seater open wheel racers, powered by five-liter pushrod V-8s, always pleased. Jerry Hansen won the 1968 event in a Lola, with Tony Adamowicz, John Cannon, David Hobbs, and Graham McRae winning in subsequent years. The series peaked the next few years as Brian Redman, in the Lola of Carl Haas, and Mario Andretti, in the Lola of Parnelli Jones, each won twice. Two additional races in 1976 were won by Jackie Oliver in a Shadow, and Vern Schuppan in Dan Gurney’s Lola.

The Trans Am series has been a fixture at the track since 1970. That year Mark Donohue was victorious in an AMC Javelin entered by Roger Penske. Factory teams abounded in that year, the peak of the Trans Am. Donohue beat the works Dodge Challenger of Sam Posey, the works Plymouth Barracuda of Swede Savage, two Bud Moore works assisted Mustangs of Parnelli Jones and George Follmer, and the two Chaparral entered Camaros of Jim Hall and Ed Leslie. The Trans Am continued uninterrupted through 2005, when it took a hiatus, being reborn in 2009. Tom Kendall tops the charts with four wins, while Peter Gregg, David Hobbs, Bob Tullius, Greg Pickett, Scott Pruett, Paul Gentilozzi, Tony Ave, and Cliff Ebben have also sparkled.

AMA motorcyles came to the track in 1980 and have been a start of June fixture since. They invariably put on a good weekend of racing and consistently draw a decent crowd.  For whatever reason, though, it seems that rain picks that weekend and many such events have been held in the wet.

The biggest events in the track’s history have been the Indy Car races. The first such race, a CART event, was held in 1982, and saw the improbable triumph of Hector Rebaque, who led only the last two miles. Amazingly enough, Rebaque never drove another Indy Car race in his career! The Andretti family has topped the records, with Mario winning three times and son Michael scoring an additional three wins. Emerson Fittipaldi also has three wins, with his nephew Christian taking one.

Two events stand out as being very special indeed. In 1994 Jacques Villeneuve, nephew and namesake of the 1985 winner, was in his first year of CART competition. That year the Penske team was steamrolling the opposition, winning 12 of the season’s 16 races and taking the top three spots in the championship. However, Villeneuve won at Road America, his first, and did it in an astounding manner. On a late race restart following a full course caution, young Villeneuve crossed the S/F line in fourth, immediately passing Emerson Fittipaldi. He then shot down the inside of second placed Paul Tracy going into turn one. He pulled inside of leader Al Unser Jr. going through the turn and emerged with a lead he held to the finish, although he was under intense pressure from the Penske drivers every foot of the way. Showing that it was no fluke, Villeneuve won at RA again the next season, also taking the Indianapolis 500 and the CART title. Two years later he was the F-1 World Champion.

Paul Tracy exacted revenge of a sort in 2000. He was driving a Reynard-Honda for Team Green that year and qualified seventh. However, on the first lap his car lost all its electrics. Tracy pulled off course and went through the drill of rebooting the systems. After almost a lap his car refired, and Tracy set off in pursuit. For the next 199 of 200 miles Tracy drove perhaps the best race of his career, passing the entire field to take the win. It was an amazing display of driving virtuosity.

The glory years of CART were in the early to mid 1990s. That was reflected at RA, as crowds in excess of 70,000 showed up in 1994-96, taxing the limits of the track, the surrounding roads, and all of Sheboygan County in the process. Until Lambeau Field and Camp Randall stadium had their seating capacities expanded in subsequent years, those crowds represented the largest attendance in Wisconsin sporting history at that time.  Due to the foibles of scheduling, sanction fees, and the lack of a significant sponsoring partner, Indy Cars have been absent since their last appearance in 2007, although there is no question that they will be back, should matters align.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the racing of older cars by gentlemen racers, vintage racing as it is commonly called, came into being. The track has held a major event every July since 1982. Each year has had a theme, with races and displays built around it. Ferraris, a Ford GT celebration, a Scarab reunion, a Cobra festival, a Chaparral celebration, Formula One cars, Can Am reunions, and so on have featured. When possible, a Grand Marshall is brought to the track to headline the many former drivers and champions present. Juan Manuel Fangio, Mario Andretti, Denis Hulme, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, David Hobbs, Brian Redman, Jim Hall, Jack Brabham, and John Surtees have been among the heroes of motorsport who have filled this role. Car displays and autograph sessions have been a huge hit with the fans. This weekend has consistently drawn large crowds, sometimes even the biggest of the year.

It is a footnote in history that in 1956 a NASCAR race was held at Road America. It was a Grand National event, which at the time was NASCAR’s top category. The race was won by Tim Flock in a Mercury, and it is notable in that it was run in the rain, perhaps the only NASCAR race ever to have that occur. However, stock car racing was a minor draw back then, and the race only happened once, being discontinued due to a lack of spectator interest.

However, that was not the case in 2010. NASCAR’s second-tier series, then called the Nationwide series, was a June fixture at the Milwaukee Mile. However, due to promoter difficulties, NASCAR left Milwaukee. Road America leaped into the breach, and the race was moved sixty miles north, where it has been since. It has been a success, with fairly large crowds turning out to see the stock cars lumber around a road course. Although their lap times are a good ten seconds slower than Trans Am cars, their size and noise has made them a crowd favorite.

In the early days the track’s Board of Directors largely consisted of local businessmen and at times had so many members that it was bit unwieldy. Over time it has pared down to a dozen or so men who are all astute in business and versed in racing. Jonathon Laun has been the Chairman of the Board since the late 1980s and he continues to keep a firm hand on the tiller. A number of noted race drivers have served on the board, but not because they were winning drivers, but because they had business skills that could be combined with racing knowledge.  Until his recent passing, Jim Jeffords, champion driver and Milwaukee car dealer, was track Vice President. Augie Pabst not only was the U.S. driving champion twice, but he also was a successful car dealer, Vice President of Pabst Brewery, and a property developer. He currently serves on the board as does Bill Wuesthoff, long time President of Concours Motors. Wuesthoff, a champion driver in 1964, is the track’s Vice President and served as Acting President in the late 1980s. George Bovis, retired owner of White Hen Pantry stores and former Chairman of the Board of SCCA, lends his expertise, as does Duncan Dayton, owner of Highcroft Racing and a noted vintage race driver. Ron Pace, President of Kitchen and Bath of Kohler Corp., also spends time on the track. Louis Gentine, Robert Corning, Charles Hill, Chris Hartwig, Fred Stratton Jr., and Walter Vollrath all lend their considerable experience and skills to the track’s running.  Carl Haas and Bobby Rahal have served as Directors in the past.

Clif Tufte was the track president from the start until he retired following the 1978 season. Former racer E.L. Hall succeeded him, and served until mid 1987. Milwaukee car dealer and retired champion driver Bill Wuesthoff took over on an interim basis until a nationwide search selected Jim Haynes, former president at Lime Rock Park race track, to the permanent post. Haynes retired in 1999, with George Bruggenthies succeeding him. George continues as president to this day, and under his stewardship the track has seen massive infrastructure improvements, with many new buildings, features, and track and safety improvements installed. The track’s profits are consistently reinvested into the plant, and every year fans can see many visible major improvements. As such, the track continues to prosper as America’s National Park of Speed.