A Day at Wisconsin’s Classic Raceway

Fans watch a race at Road America in Elkhart Lake.
Fans watch a race at Road America in Elkhart Lake.Jeffrey Phelps / AP

When Indianapolis 500 champion and racing legend Bobby Rahal carefully constructed the massive slot car track in his basement to the exact specifications of Road America, it was a way of paying tribute to the longest raceway in the U.S., the 4-mile, 14-turn masterpiece engineer Cliff Tufte carved from 640 acres of rolling Wisconsin farmland in 1955. Rahal’s not alone in his deep appreciation for Road America. The famous track draws hundreds of thousands of fans to tiny Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (pop. 967) each year for more than 400 events from NASCAR and American Le Mans to the SCCA Speed World Challenge Series.

Like Rahal, Al Unser, Parnelli Jones, and Sam Posey all cut their teeth at Road America. Mario Andretti still stops by regularly and Paul Newman, a long-time regular, is mourned at the Stop-Inn Tavern at Siebkens Resort, a family-owned waystation that has hosted Walter Payton, Bruce Jenner and, more recently, Ashley Judd, who danced on the tables in celebration of her now ex-husband Dario Franchitti’s victory on the track.

When not dancing or sitting on bar stools, most fans sit on lawn chairs that, unlike most big motor sports events with assigned seats, can be moved from the starting gate to the gotcha turn on the backside known as “the Kink.” There’s no pretense. No separation. No credentials required. And no matter where a fan plops his lawn chair, the views are stunning. Road America is often called America’s National Park of Speed, because the track cuts through rolling hillsides and deep woods. Driver’s brag about seeing fox and wild turkeys. Also, about eating vast quantities of the homemade pie offered – along with cheese curds, brats, and beer – by an elite core of concessionaires.

On July 18 through 21, more than 400 vintage car owners (“We expect everything from a 1928 Bugatti to million-dollar Shelby Cobras,” track communications director John Ewert says) will race the classic track.

More information: At dusk every night, an Elkhart Lake resident steps to the shore of the spring-fed lake and blows into a conch shell, a sound that reverberates across the lake, a signal for the culinary games to begin. Try the Paddock Club, Lake Street Café (it recently pulled down a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence) and Back Porch Bistro, a favorite of Marco Andretti, Mario’s grandson.

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