Road America’s state of the union: Good NASCAR, IMSA crowds; IndyCar still waits

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I had a brief opportunity to catch up with Road America track president George Bruggenthies this weekend regarding the year to date for its two major events (plenty more, including motorcycle and vintage weekends, also take place during the year).

The NASCAR/Pirelli World Challenge weekend in June went off well in terms of ticket sales and TV appearance, despite the intermittent rain that delayed the start of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

Meanwhile this weekend’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race, a single race weekend compared to the double, one-off GRAND-AM Rolex Series/American Le Mans Series weekend that occurred in 2013, saw ticket sales close to what was achieved last year.

“We’re close on sales,” Bruggenthies told MotorSportsTalk ahead of Sunday’s TUDOR Championship race. “Last year as a one-off event with both, it was always going to draw more. But we’ve had perfect weather this weekend.”

Additional sponsors came to the NASCAR weekend in June, with two new sponsors including new race title sponsor Gardner Denver. Bruggenthies confirmed the Pirelli World Challenge will return to the track next season, as well.

But the elephant in the room continues to be whether the Verizon IndyCar Series will ever return, for what would be the first time since the former Champ Car series’ last race there in 2007.

IndyCar rookie Jack Hawksworth competed at the track this weekend for the first time; he praised it and wondered why IndyCar wasn’t at the track. Additionally James Hinchcliffe was in action as well, racing at Road America for the first time since Formula Atlantic in 2008. Sadly he wasn’t able to drive as local driver and teammate Scott Mayer wrecked out of the race on Lap 3; Hawksworth’s entry finished fourth in the PC class.

Bruggenthies, who’s told me previously that the sanctioning fee IndyCar requires has been too high, now said it’s more the schedule that’s an issue.

“With Mark Miles ending the year on Labor Day, it compacts everything,” Bruggenthies explained. “The schedule is more the issue than the business side. Of course we’d need sponsors to make it happen.

“I could do Labor Day. But there’s another event already there. Derrick Walker was here this weekend; we’ve talked.”

Perhaps the greater sticking point from an IndyCar at Road America standpoint now compared to a year or two ago is the fact the TUDOR Championship would rather position itself as a lead series, not play as a second feature on an IndyCar weekend.

IMSA President/COO Scott Atherton expanded on that in an interview with MotorSportsTalk Sunday morning from Road America, where the 2015 IMSA schedules were announced.

“We race with IndyCar in Long Beach and Detroit. We play together nicely and there is positive synergy between the two organizations,” Atherton said.

“But we’re careful to position the TUDOR Championship as a featured lead act, so to speak. When we race with IndyCar, there’s two of them in those historical venues.  Long Beach has been an open-wheel venue for 40 years, so it’s tough to be considered an equal there, but that market is so important to us and our stakeholders. If you’re a road racing product, you have to be in Southern California, and that’s the only option.”

Atherton said he would not be opposed to any additional content with IndyCar, but in terms of a joint IndyCar/TUDOR Championship weekend at Road America, Atherton said he has not had any dialogue with Bruggenthies on the topic.

Interestingly there was an IndyCar vendor presence this weekend in Elkhart Lake anyway, but not at Road America.

Andretti Sports Marketing, which promotes this upcoming weekend’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers at the Milwaukee Mile, had a presence at the iconic Siebkens Resort both Friday and Saturday night.

Bobby Rahal, Katherine Legge and Derrick Walker were in attendance Friday night – all had a vested interest in the TUDOR Championship weekend. Rahal runs the two-car BMW Team RLL entry in GT Le Mans, Legge races the radical DeltaWing coupe and Walker’s Walker Racing team operates the Team Falken Tire Porsche in GTLM. Saturday night, GT Daytona polesitter James Davison of TRG-AMR and Dodge/SRT marketing director Beth Paretta were on site.

The promotion was spearheaded by Laura Cooper, Andretti Sports Marketing Director of Marketing Services, who has local ties to the region.

“She’s been involved with a variety of events here in Elkhart Lake, Skip Barber, charity events and the like,” Bruggenthies said. “With Walker, Bobby being here it was a natural. It’s no problem for us; it’s not detrimental.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)