It was sixty-five 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 that 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 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 motorcycles came to the track in 1980 and have been the 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.
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 drawback 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 have made them a crowd favorite.
For more Road America history, read the full “Road America: Celebrating 50 Years of Road Racing” by Tom Schultz.