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Track Back - Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin - From a road circuit to a top of the range racing circuit

Published by Adam Burn

Head north from Chicago, across the state line from Illinois to Wisconsin, through Milwaukee, all the while following Lake Michigan. You'll eventually find yourself in Sheboygan County, one of those wonderfully named places America has no trouble coming up with. The city of Sheboygan calls itself amongst other things "Bratwurst Capital of the World" and "City of Cheese, Chairs & Children". Add that one to the "only in America" file...

But our point of focus is the nearby village of Elkhart Lake, which since 1950 has hosted motorsport events.

2010 American Lemans Series at Road America, Elkhart Lake
2010 American Lemans Series at Road America, Elkhart LakeCredit: Nicholas Putz / CC

In the early days, it was a road circuit in the truest sense of the word - like many circuits of the time, it wouldn't have been much more than haybales on selected public roads (some of which ran through the town itself). They hadn't yet realised the danger.

America's awakening to safety took place in 1952, when a car left the road at the original Watkins Glen road circuit, killing one spectator and injuring several others. As governments tend to do in such tragic circumstances, the action was swift and devastating. All motorised contests of speed on public highways were banned.

A shift began to privately built, modern racing circuits - often built near to where the road races took place. A perfect example of this was the new Road America circuit, constructed just south of Elkhart Lake.

Trained civil engineer Clif Tufte spent almost a year planning the track and his dream finally became reality in 1955.

Interestingly, while there have been millions of dollars in improvements made in the decades since, the original four mile, 14 turn circuit has never been altered. Into that four miles, Tufte designed challenging turns, curves and high-speed straights on the glacially-formed terrain, taking advantage of the natural dramatic elevation changes.

As you hurtle up the the start/finish straight, just before you cross the finish line to start a new lap, one of the previously discussed elevation changes confronts you. A short but quite steep climb akin to Spa's Eau Rouge unsights competitors.

Probably one of my favourite, challenging sections of track anywhere in the world starts from The Carousel, a looping right hander. You just want to get on the power quickly but can't, feed it in gently and be careful not to run wide. A "pointy" car will help you here.

A clean run out of The Carousel puts you in good position for The Kink, a very tricky right hander that catches out many. Err on the side of caution here, because the walls aren't too far away at the speed you're doing. For those feeling brave, you'll need precision to match your aggression.

Now we start the tree-lined, sweeping blast down into the 90 degree right hander of Canada Corner (named presumably for being the closest corner to Canada). It's a test to pick your braking marker in the dappled light you now find yourself in. Also a great overtaking spot if you've got a run on somebody, but down the inside you'll need to judge your braking to absolute perfection to avoid a trip into the kitty litter.

It can be a frustrating section to master with three complex elements, but get it right and you know you've done well.

I often thought of Road America as being quite similar to Mount Panorama. Both circuits are over 6 kilometres, both are over 50 years old, both feature large elevation changes, both are quite fast yet they do test all attributes of a car and both reward aggression but can punish heavily those who overstep the limits.

I guess in some ways, it is a circuit from another era with bucketloads of character and decades of great racing behind it. Hopefully, we'll see many more years of its history ahead of us.

If I could have my wish, I'd send the F1 circus there instead of Tilke's latest creation in Texas - it would make a natural double header with the race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. But then again, I'm Adam Burn and not Bernie!