DiZinno: Road America’s IndyCar return goes down smooth

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It was hard to sum up the emotions, the feeling and the weekend just completed at Road America other than to make it succinct.

It simply felt right.

Granted, perhaps it was too busy at times, given the fact there were 13 races spread across the Verizon IndyCar Series, Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge over four days.

The track first-timers were easily identifiable and frequently awestruck, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the joint.

There was a lot of newness to get used to, as the track updated several of its facilities and amenities from years past. The new LED board in Victory Lane made for an interesting topic of discussion.

The media center felt more crowded (a good thing, given the media interest), and the grounds were consistently packed which occasionally made getting where you needed to go difficult.

Yet none of the nitpicky type things were a bother and the overall feeling from the weekend was one of relief, satisfaction and glory that after this nine-year hiatus, IndyCar was back at a place it properly belonged.

“I think it’s really happened wonderfully considering the weather this morning,” track president George Bruggenthies told reporters after the KOHLER Grand Prix race. “The crowds really came out. I have to congratulate the Road America staff and the whole team that does all the operations here. They worked very hard preparing. I think we delivered. The crowd came out and they had a great time. Beautiful race. I think they’ll be back.

“I know they probably exaggerated numbers in the early days, but I talked to a couple of my board of directors, and this is likely the largest event ever hosted by Road America, so that’s really something.

“It was very exciting. The fans obviously wanted it, and Mark Miles, as I stated before, has been working the last several years. Really the stumbling block was the date, and we put that together last July, the June date, and here it is. It just happened, and it was a great event.”

For proof it wasn’t just the track president pimping his facility, you then only needed to look at the round of driver quotes post-race to see the emotion from them was back.

Montoya. Photo: IndyCar
Montoya. Photo: IndyCar

Look first at three drivers who raced in the so-called “heyday” of the sport at Road America, in Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. Their races came here from 1998 to 2002 before returning.

“It was so exciting to come back to Road America. This place is incredible. It’s just amazing,” said JPM.

“If anyone complains about the racing today, then they should go watch horse racing or something.”

Added teammate Castroneves, “The event here this weekend was spectacular. The fans were just great. I hope we can keep coming back here.”

Kanaan and a pack. Photo: IndyCar
Kanaan and a pack. Photo: IndyCar

“Down the straightaways I was able to look at the fans on the last two laps and people were standing and spinning hats and shirts and that’s what I love to see. I hope (the fans) enjoyed it as much as I did and they come back because we’ll make even better next year,” Kanaan noted.

Then look at a couple other drivers who raced in the intervening years of 2003 to 2007, in a pair of past series champions Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“It is huge! I walked around the camping grounds earlier in the weekend. It just amazed me how many people are here, and how much fun they are having,” said Power, who waltzed to his 27th career victory on Sunday. “Just walking in here on Thursday, you could see the place was really popping. I am just so stoked to be back here. We should have been back here a long time ago. All the fans are great.”

Hunter-Reay added: “Just really great to see the fan turn out today here at Road America – any time you see a bunch of fans starting right away on Friday, you know it’s going to be a good weekend.”

Finally look at two drivers who made their first IndyCar starts here but had been here in Skip Barber in the past, young Americans Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly.

“I think we put on a great show for the fans, we had an amazing crowd. We should have been coming here all along!” said Newgarden. “I hope we come back here for many, many years to run. It’s one of the best tracks and has the best racing. That’s one of the reasons I wanted make sure I was able to race here.”

“Finally, I also want to say how awesome it is to be racing here at Road America, and seeing all that fans that came out. What a great event,” added Daly.

So why is Road America so great, you ask?

It’s the general feel of the place that stirs the soul and reminds you why you care about or fell in love with racing in the first place.

It’s the fact that you can bring your family and camp – the campgrounds were full throughout all 4.014 miles of the track – and walk or drive a golf cart around to explore the various nooks and crannies.

It’s the track food. Whether it’s pancakes or an “egger” from The Gearbox, the iconic Johnsonville double brat from St. John the Baptist, or even the new Win Tunnel stand that served up newer items like an Asian fusion salad, there’s no shortage of options at the track that simply serves up the best track food in the country.

It’s the peacefulness. The dichotomy at Road America is that the noise is loud as the cars whistle through the trees, yet there’s a calm and serenity that comes through because the cars going past is such a natural feeling. At no point do you feel like you’re going to be overwhelmed with anger or frustration at this place. Simply go to Turn 5, or Canada Corner, or into the paddock, and you realize what camaraderie can be like at a race track.

It’s the track itself. The combination of long straights, both sweeping and slow corners, and the curbs and rumble strips on exit – while the track is just the right amount of narrow for its length – is simply perfect. Getting to savor a hot lap from Mario Andretti on the Wednesday before the race was as if I’d died and gone to heaven. For good measure, three more laps followed in a PWC Ford Mustang Boss 302 (Nate Stacy driving), a Chevrolet Camaro pace car and a series PR golf cart.

And, simply, it’s the racing. I didn’t realize how good the IndyCar race was in the moment because I was trying to follow strategies, social media and timing & scoring all at once. The two Indy Lights races (one of which I got drafted in as a last-minute analyst thanks to IndyCar Radio) were fantastic and full of action. There were plenty of passes throughout the order in the USF2000 races. Pro Mazda and Pirelli World Challenge also had its moments; in PWC’s case, particularly in the GTS ranks. Both series had popular hometown sweeps with Aaron Telitz (Pro Mazda) and RealTime Racing (PWC GT) each winning their home events.

Confirm the date for next year, get another year of promotion and start the countdown clock for 2017.

Because Road America is back, after this year’s IndyCar return went down as smoothly as a Spotted Cow at Siebkens.