The name Road America has special meaning for midwestern sports car enthusiasts. The track is located near the picturesque town of Elkhart Lake in the rolling Kettle Moraine region, 60 miles north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It's within a day's drive of major cities like Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis, and its full schedule of amateur and professional racing events is always well attended by spectators from all over the Midwest. Since 1995, the Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association (VSCDA) has held its Vintage Festival in late September at the historic circuit. In 2001, the MG Vintage Racers (MGVR) designated the event as its annual feature events, and MG racers from as far away as California, Texas and the United Kingdom came to race their cars.
One of the FirstThe first Elkhart Lake sports car races took place in July 1950 on a 3.35-mile-long course laid out over public roads to the northwest of the town. Jim Kimberly, who'd conceived the race, won the feature event in his Ferrari 166. In 1951 and 1952, the race grew to national prominence and as many as 100,000 spectators were on hand in 1952 to see the Cunningham team sweep the first three positions in the feature race won by John Fitch. But the dangers of racing on the road had been clearly demonstrated by accidents involving spectators at Watkins Glen, and a decision was made to build a permanent racetrack near the town.
Road America officially opened in September 1955. The 4.0-mile-long circuit was draped over the rolling green hills of former farm and forestland. Although there are ten major turns, there are 14 worker stations, and the turns are numbered to correspond to these stations. Each section of the track has a descriptive and somewhat colloquial name. The back straight, for example, is known as the Moraine Sweep, the section between turn six and eight as the Hurry Downs, turn eleven is the Kink, and turn 12 is Canada Corner. In that first feature race, Phil Hill in a Ferrari Monza won over Sherwood Johnston in a D-Type Jaguar by a few inches after 148 miles of furious competition. In the years that followed, sports cars, Can-Am, Formula cars and even NASCAR stockers competed at the challenging and very fast circuit.
A Vintage WeekendOne of the first things you notice when you arrive at Road America is the smoky aroma of bratwurst cooking on open flames. The track has long had a reputation for having the best track food in the country, and the local church and civic groups that man the concession stands work to keep that reputation intact. There is other food, of course-hot dogs, hamburgers, and corn-on-the-cob-but it's the tasty German sausage on a bun slathered with spicy mustard that's helped make Road America a racetrack gourmand's delight.
If you can pull yourself away from the concession stands, there's a lot to do during the VSCDA Vintage Festival. Friday's schedule is primarily just practice for each of the race groups, although the pre-war group also has an on-track driving school during the day. This school, conducted by Duck Waddle, includes classroom sessions and driving critiques by Duck, who teaches at the Skip Barber Racing School and has been racing for more than 40 years. Saturday's schedule includes practice and qualifying by race groups and a tour for racing cars of the original Elkhart Lake street circuit from the early fifties. On Sunday, feature races and a one-hour endurance race round out the schedule.
MG Vintage RacersEach year the loosely bound group of MG Vintage Racers designates a vintage race as their feature event. The group has been around for 20 years and formed when MG TD racer Greg Prehodka started a newsletter to keep in touch with other vintage racers who had MGs. Thanks to the work of racer Bill Hollingsworth and event chair Shirley Murray, the Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival was the MG feature event in 2001. Right from the start, Hollingsworth wanted to get as many pre-war MGs to the gathering as possible. The VSCDA has its own strong group of pre-war cars that include many historic MGs. In addition, the club allows T-series MGs to run as prewar cars and several members regularly drive their TCs from Chicago up to the track to go racing.
Twenty-eight T-series MGs were at the track, ready to race, about the number of the spindly and charismatic roadsters that would have shown up for a race in the early fifties. A special area in the paddock was set aside to accommodate the T-series and pre-war racers, while other areas were set aside for racers with MGAs. MGBs and MG Midgets. In all, 61 MGs were registered, making it one of the most successful MG feature events ever. This was commemorated with a panoramic photograph taken with all of the MGs on the track's pit lane.
Prewar FunThe group of prewar cars at the Road America event was stellar. It included a '32 Studebaker two-man Indy car driven by Augie Grasis, a '35 Aston Martin driven by Matt Primack, a pair of '37 Morgans driven by Bob and Michael Wilson, a '39 Jaguar SS-100 brought by Syd Silverman and more than a half dozen rare racing MGs from the pre-war era. Dean Butler, an American who lives in England, sent over a '34 MG K3, a '31 Bugatti Type 51 (winner of the '31 Monaco GP), a '34 MG KN Special and a '34 ERA R1A to race. He had intended to come himself but was unable to at the last minute, and so he sent his English hotshoe vintage racer Martin Walford to drive the cars and a team of British mechanics to keep them running. Walford, on his first visit to Road America, was heard comparing the place to the daunting Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium.
The ERA was especially fabulous. R1A was the first racing car built by English Racing Automobiles in Bourne, England, and was driven by founder Raymond Mays, Dick Seaman and others. Its 1.5-liter supercharged engine runs on methanol and produces around 235 bhp. With skinny tires, cable brakes and the talented Walford driving, the 70-year-old ERA wailed around the circuit turning lap times close to those of a mid-'60s Formula B car. To be at a racetrack as a prewar Bugatti or ERA blows past in a wall of noise is a sublime moment.
Other ClassesPre-war cars weren't the only attraction for classic car fans at the Elkhart Lake event. The usual VSCDA classes included such delectables as Austin Healeys, Triumphs, Morgans, Lotuses and Porsches. Sports racers like Brian MacEachern's tiny silver '56 Lotus XI Le Mans chased the green '56 Cooper Bobtail of Donald Butler. Listers and Devins and Elvas and Chevrons from the '50s and '60s all had their own furious battles. The formula car classes were well subscribed with a nice collection of Formula Juniors and a few Formula Vees to chase the always quick and large field of Formula Fords. Several significant exhibition cars included Brian French's '93 Ferrari Formula One car, whose distinctive wail could be heard from every part of the circuit. Several Trans-am cars from the late '80s and early '90s were also allowed to run in an exhibition class.
To TownOne high point of the weekend was a drive along the old 1950s street circuit of the Elkhart Lake course. Sixty or more racing cars were given a police escort and allowed to drive on public roads to tour the circuit. It was fun to look at old farm houses and stands of elderly trees and realize that they had been present during the races some 50 years earlier. At the end of the tour, the cars were parked on one of the town's main streets at the site of the original start-finish line. There was roasted corn and a craft fair under the sunny skies. A live band played music and a crowd wandered among the cars, asking questions and enjoying the unique ambiance only a small town can bring.
Rainy days and SundayAfter the warm, sunny skies of Friday and Saturday, most hoped for the same on Sunday. Too bad, as a steady rain started early on Sunday morning and continued throughout the day. At times the wind would pick up, blowing the rain nearly horizontally, and several times the cold rain became quite heavy. Some racetracks are fun to drive in the rain. Road America is not one of them. Although the drainage is quite good, the combination of high-speed straights, downhill off-camber corners and a worn-smooth track surface make wet weather driving treacherous at the old circuit. Many packed up their cars early and headed for home.
The MG feature race, an event that promised as many as 60 vintage MGs on the grid, ended up with 27 cars. These brave souls ran lap after lap in a deluge of nearly biblical proportions. At one point the wind whipping across the track was blowing stronger than many of the cars were moving forward. Conditions at turn five were so desperate that racers came to nearly a stop to make it around the corner. Most runners were relieved when eventual winner Steve Plater in his '69 MGC roadster lapped them, because for them it meant one less lap of driving in the dreadful conditions. Amazingly, all of the MG drivers finished the race as a fine demonstration of "Safety Fast," once the motto of the British company. It is said that duck-hunters have the coldest hands, but after that race the drivers racing in open MG sports cars could vie for the title. By early afternoon, it was clear that conditions wouldn't be improving, and most of the rest of the racers decided to head home rather than slog around the now flooded track.
Better Luck Next TimeEven with the disappointment of Sunday's weather, the VSCDA Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival provided an opportunity to see one of the best pre-war sports car grids ever assembled in North America. For an MG fan, the paddock was nearly heaven as so many rare and unusual pre-war cars were brought out to be driven on a racing circuit. With more than 300 entries, the weekend was once again a huge success for the unique kind of vintage racing the Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association promotes. It's an event worth marking on your calendar for the third weekend in September in 2002, when the smoky aroma of bratwurst and the sound of vintage racing engines will again fill the charming Kettle Moraine.
September 20-22--Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival (presented by VSDCA), Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.; info: VSCDA, (616) 949-8281; e-mail: email@example.com; www.vscda.org