Last weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series returned to one of the greatest road courses around: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. It's been nine years since the then-ChampCar Series visited the four-mile road circuit for a race. Really, it's been too, too long.
Open-wheel racing has been at RA since 1982, missing just one year during its run through 2007. For anyone that followed the Indy Racing League (why, I'm not sure), they haven't seen RA on the schedule since the early 1990s before the split.
It's been, 9 years
In 2008, the two open-wheel series merged back together as IndyCar. For some reason, I'm sure money related, Road America was left off the schedule. As the years went on, I gathered that part of the reason was because the schedule already held the Milwaukee mile oval track, and RA was just too close to run both. This made absolutely no sense though, since for years both tracks were on the schedule.
|Team Penske paddock.|
If it sounds like I'm gushing over this place, that's because I probably am. Road America has a special place in my heart. Our family isn't the typical go-to-the-cabin type during the summer. We don't camp. Instead, our annual summer trip was a journey to Road America. We'd typically go for the Friday-Saturday-Sunday weekend, watching as much racing as we could.
This place has history, sentimental value
Our first visit was in 1990. We've also gone back for American LeMans races in the 2000s. The rain-filled race weekend in 1997 taught us to always be prepared race fans, bringing ponchos and extra tennis shoes with us on future trips. We ended up buying Andretti ponchos in '97 because the rain was just non-stop. We've seen plenty of crashes, spins, walked through the paddock and seen plenty of drivers during our RA tenure.
Anyway, when the series announced it would make a return to RA in 2016, the racing community went crazy with excitement. Me, too.
|Juan Pablo Montoya after Canada Corner.|
Back home again, at Road America
Friday, we could already tell that the attendance was up and rivaling the "good ol' days." We took in a couple practice sessions and walked the paddock. It's really the best day to take in the action from different spots around the 14-turn track and take photos. I just had my point-and-shoot camera but was able to get some nice shots in (cropping will help). We watched from Canada Corner and then later as they came up the hill in turn six.
One of the cool things was to see all the improvements at the track, including a few new vantage points to watch. There's a new path surrounding the before-and-after of Canada Corner (turn 12), plus the spot around turn six and then you can walk down and see the cars come through turn seven, too.
Saturday, it was more practice, paddock time and then qualifying. We watched from inside turn 14, which I don't think was open in previous years. That's when we saw the legendary Rick Mears, who works for Team Penske, watching the field. For qualifying, we saw team owner Bobby Rahal pull up before turn 12 along the new path to watch his son Graham Rahal. We didn't think we'd see an owner just hanging out around the track like that, but there he was.
Oh yeah, and the weather was perfect if you like sunny, summer days.
It's always fun to see the paddock where teams are working their magic on the race cars, always trying to make them better for qualifying and race day. Always be on the lookout for driver sightings, too. We spotted: Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Jack Hawksworth, Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and also team owner (and former driver) Jimmy Vasser, who we stopped and talked with briefly. My dad had him autograph one of his racing photos, then got Bobby's signature later, too.
Sunday Funday Race Day
Race day, we set up our chairs in the inside of turn 14, so we could see the cars come through into the turn, then head up the huge hill to the main straightaway and the start-finish line. It's also sometimes nice to see which cars head into the pits. There was also a large videoboard in the corner, which really helps when it's a four-mile track. For reference, the cars take about a minute and 45 seconds to get around for one lap, give or take.
|Will Power got off in the grass after turn six in practice.|
The race only had one yellow flag, with 11 laps to go that made for a fun final stint. Something broke on Conor Daly's car, sending him into the sand in turn one. It bunched everyone up for the restart and was an exciting finish. Pagenaud was running up front all day, until an engine problem had him fighting to keep the car going; he fell to 13th. Graham Rahal rounded out the podium in third.
The racing was even better as I re-watched it on the broadcast. Newgarden - who raced with an injured wrist and broken clavicle after his Texas crash - battled with Montoya. Good, clean racing. Scott Dixon was done just a few laps into the race with a mechanical problem. Castroneves got penalized for blocking and then didn't give up the position right away, because of course he did. He still finished 5th.
It was just a great race weekend all around. Power may have been stoked about his win, but the rest of the drivers, teams and fans were certainly stoked for the great show that was the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America.
See you in 2017, RA.