With the upcoming Chicago Region June Sprints Hoosier Super Tour, we thought it appropriate to revisit the legendary Road America.
This article first appeared in the October, 2020 edition of SportsCar Magazine. Everyone can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.
Road America is unequivocally breathtakingly. Boasting a 4.048-mile, 14-corner racetrack meandering uphill and down through some 640 acres of farmland nestled into southeastern Wisconsin's magnificent state forest that’s also within shouting distance of the quaint vacation community of Elkhart Lake (pop. 1,018), SCCA members were energized when it was announced that the National Championship Runoffs would take to this historic circuit once more. And now, with Oct. 3-11 soon upon us – and following a seven-year Runoffs absence from this particular track – the Runoffs’ return to the Kettle Moraine is nearly upon us.
Carved out of the middle of property once owned by the Elkhart Lake Sand and Gravel Co., its development was pushed for in the early 1950s by that company’s president, the late Clif Tufte, a WWI veteran, civil engineer, and sports car racing enthusiast who foresaw the end of the popular Elkhart Lake Road Races in the wake of a 1952 tragedy in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Tufte’s company was struggling in the early 1950s, but it owned more than 500 acres of farmland and forest bordering an abandoned gravel pit, and the trained civil engineer developed a plan. The course was laid out and land was already being cleared even before the necessary $75,000 upfront money was fully raised. Of course, Tufte’s initial stake has been repaid many times over.
Road America held its first race in 1955 on a course largely unchanged to this day and will celebrate its 65th anniversary in September before being descended on by hundreds of the SCCA’s finest club racers.
But Road America isn’t a simplistic circuit. Many of its unique features are keenly disguised on a track map, all except its length, and even the best simulators can fail to capture its true challenges.
To help you find your way, SportsCar called on a trio of road racing veterans to take us on a lap, sharing their thoughts on lines and braking and what it takes not only to lap quickly but to win at Road America: Peter Cunningham, Mike Miserendino, and Matt Reynolds.
Cunningham, from Milwaukee, won the June Sprints in 1984 and went on to a storied professional racing career, his RealTime Racing notching its 100th World Challenge victory here at Road America last summer. His is the voice of more than 35 years of racing and winning at this very track.
Californian Mike Miserendino is one of the most successful Spec Racer Ford drivers of all time with five National Championships. His Road America insights were gleaned over more than a decade of winning here, including his 2009 Runoffs victory and regular June Sprints success.
Texan Matt Reynolds notes that Road America is different in just about all ways from what he calls his home track, Hallett – but the perennial Runoffs and U.S. Majors Tour winner in E Production (and front runner in Spec Miata) has hundreds of laps at Road America and has a clear idea of what it takes to get to the front of the field.
So, let’s dive in...
Peter Cunningham: “Turn 1 is a very fast corner with a very large radius. There's an access road on the left that you can use as a reference point – a landmark that doesn't move and helps you to avoid braking too early. Start on the outside, come down to a clipping point, and then track out, all with very slow hands. Late apex, making sure that you don't over-slow or over-charge the corner, and just make a nice, pretty radius. You can use a little bit of the curbing at the exit, but it does pound on the car, so you don't really want to use those areas — and there are a number of them around the circuit.”
Matt Reynolds: “Here you want to use your braking marker correctly. You don't want to turn in too late or you'll go way out wide and get on the outside rumbles. Heading into Turn 1, I'm really just thinking about keeping the momentum, not being overly aggressive and pitching it off on the outside at track-out. I'm getting my braking done a little early, getting back to maintenance throttle at the apex, trying to be as smooth as possible.
“Like a lot of the corners here, it doesn't pay to be overly aggressive. You really do have to be smooth, more calculated with your steering inputs; you don't want tons of corrections because you're just scrubbing speed before the long straightaways.”
Mike Miserendino: “Turn 2 is sort of a non-corner, going downhill, but Turn 3, which is a little tighter than 90, there's a lot going on: You're braking downhill and trying to nail the corner. It's difficult and it's very important because it leads on to the long straightaway down toward Turn 5. The curbing here is a love/hate thing. You want to use some of it, but not too much because they are pretty rough. But, at the same time, it's road that you’ve got to take advantage of. You want to use it, but you don't want to be overly aggressive.”
PC: “Because the road turns back and forth, you can pretty much make a beeline from the track-out point of Turn 1 to the turn-in point of Turn 3. You really don't end up back on the left for your turning-in point until you're done with your braking.
“Turn 3 is not the slowest corner, but it is obviously a very important one because it precedes a very long straightaway. Another late apex. Make sure you nail the exit here to get a good run on the way out, and as you track out, ease back over to the right so that by the time you get to the Sargento bridge, you're on the right side of the road.”
TURNS 4-5: MORAINE SWEEP
MM: “Turn 5 is the slowest turn on the track SRF3. Another downhill braking zone so you have to be careful how you get in there. You want to use the curbing on the inside of Turn 5, but the curbing on the exit is really rough, and if you get out too far, it takes your car farther to the right; you lose grip.”
PC: “Out of Turn 3, after the bridge, you'll end up in the middle of the road for a while, then you're all the way to the left for awhile. Find a reference point, like the house off on the horizon, and aim straight for that rather than following the road.
“You won’t get to your turn-in point until you're done with your braking, so you're braking on a diagonal. You do want to brake late and in a straight line, and you don't want to linger on the brake pedal too much as you’re turning in. Turn 5 is the slowest corner on the track, so as a general rule, people go too fast. You really have to just get it slowed down, let the tires focus on turning for a second, then get back to power to get up that hill.”
MR: Going down that straightaway, you’re setting up for a good passing opportunity into Turn 5. It's easy to protect the inside for this one, but if you're not in traffic, you obviously want to get all the way back over to the right to set up for braking.
“This is a heavy, heavy braking zone, but there’s lots of runoff. This is one where you can use some of the curb on the inside and definitely hit this one aggressively – there's clear runoff if you blow the braking, but it does have rumbles on it and it does upset the car a little bit.”
PC: “Exiting Turn 5, stay on the right side of the road up the hill to the Corvette Bridge. The braking zone is tricky because you're braking and cresting the hill at the same time, so you need to ease onto the brake before your car gets light. But the turn-in is blind: You need to start turning earlier than you think, and you need to use very slow hands to make the radius pretty. Start your turn-in early, but with very slow hands so that you can take a late apex. Most people wait to turn in and then never hit the apex or turn-in correctly, but with fast hands so they apex too early.”
MR: “This little short stint up the hill is a huge deal if you have drivers trying to get inside. Right at the bridge, or maybe slightly before it, tap the brakes a little bit to set up for Turn 6, which is one of my favorite corners: It's blind, and you’re lifting and braking and turning in and trying to get your marks right, all at once.
“It's really key here to pick out some markers so you know when to brake and turn in; then get all the way down to the apex. I see people turning in too late all the time; it's easy to do.”
MM: “When you come out of Turn 6, you want to get back to the left. Spec Racer Fords can go flat – you have to pay attention, but you can make it flat. Turn 7 is critical because it leads you into a solid passing opportunity down into Turn 8.”
PC: “Out of Turn 6, you need to get back over to the left, but you don't need to rush. Let it track out, and then, in a separate transaction, ease over to the left to prepare for Turn 7. Try to let it flow back over there; you’ve got time.
“Turn 7 is not flat out – at least in the cars I’ve driven. It's a real corner, so you have to pay attention. Just a little bit of a breath or a short shift before you get there, all the way to the left, early turning with slow hands to hit a late apex – pretty much late apexes everywhere. And don't use too much of the road on the way out because that can bite you.
“Work up to speed on Turn 7. Even if it ends up being flat out in your car, you're not going to go flat out on your first lap.”
TURN 8: HURRY DOWNS
MM: Turn 8 is another downhill braking zone – kind of a sleepy passing opportunity. Guys are not expecting it. It's not like Turn 5 where you’re coming off a long straightaway. You can catch folks off guard if you have a good run through Turn 7.”
MR: “It's easy to over-slow the car for Turn 8. You can really carry more speed than it may look like – it’s probably one of the more deceiving corners but it’s important, setting you up for the Carousel and all the way to the Kink. You can really make up a lot of time here.
“It’s deceiving how fast you can go, and you’ll notice a lot of drivers have issues with that – they think they really have to park it, but that's just not the case.
“Coming out, you can get into trouble if you go too far out in the grass. It's pretty bumpy out there. But if you can really push it to the edge, you’re rewarded for it.”
TURNS 9-10: THE CAROUSEL
MM: “The Carousel (Turns 9-10) makes such a difference for lap times, especially in qualifying. It takes a lot of throttle and steering management to keep the car settled so you can really nail it headed for the Kink. It's a very, very long corner. I've seen guys hug the bottom, but I like to take a wider entry and then bring the car down to the bottom and maintain as much speed, as much grip, as the car will give you. Keep the car stable and don't dirt track around because that'll kill your speed exiting.”
PC: “People have different lines here. The faster your car is, the farther to the left you want to get on entry. The slower your car is, the less important that is.
“Just after the turn-in, just when you’re happy and in a set, there's a bump in the road that’s pretty tricky in some cars.
“You can take one apex early or just follow the inside; I tend to stay out a lane. You enter with a certain amount of speed, and then level off the throttle and maintain. Near the end of the corner, I let the car run a little wide, then lift off the gas to let it turn; then squeeze the power to try to get that apex and get a better launch.
“You don't want to use too much road on exit because you're really haulin’ the mail, and, yeah, you can use that curbing a little bit, but it can snap your car away from you, too.”
MR: “It's a really long corner, so it's all about being patient. I try to carry the speed and stay on the throttle as long as possible but, at some point, the corner dips and starts going downhill a little bit. From there, I'm just trying to feather it, just feeling the car and trying to figure out what the rear end's doing. I want a little bit of oversteer in this corner to get me pointed to the apex.”
TURN 11: THE KINK
MM: “The approach to the Kink is really unique because as you're headed toward it, you're staring at two walls. You can't see the other side, so visually it's very intimidating. The Kink is an absolute on-your-toes corner – it's really difficult. And it's really important to get right because if you get it wrong, there's the long run down to Canada Corner and a great passing opportunity for somebody who did it right. There’s not much runoff on either side, and I've seen some hard hits there over the years. If you talk to folks who race everywhere and you mention the Kink at Road America, you will get a reaction. It's a tough corner.”
PC: “You really want to respect the Kink. It’s such a high-speed corner and a small radius that it's like you almost don't even have to turn the wheel; you just kind of think about turning the wheel. You definitely want to practice your turn-in point and find a reference point. Make sure you hit the apex and let the car flow to the outside – don't pinch it off too much. It's a corner you have to respect, and I never really go as fast as what the car is capable of unless I have to, like in qualifying. Certainly, as you're getting up to speed, you must err on the side of caution.”
TURN 12: CANADA CORNER
MM: “On the run to Canada Corner, the track meanders back and forth so you don't actually get to see the corner until you’re almost at the end of the straight. It's a long stretch but it goes by quickly because there's a lot going on.
“As in Turn 5, there’s a lot of exit curbing in Canada. You want to use some of it, but you don't want to use a lot of it – it's pretty aggressive on our cars.”
PC: “Not everyone agrees, but when you come out of the Kink and you're on the left side of the road, you follow the left side, and when the road goes to the left, you go to the left, you bend the car to the left, but not so tight that you stay on the left. Let the car track out toward the right, which lets you see Canada Corner sooner.
“You’ll find yourself on the left with your steering wheel straight as you start your braking, rather than fighting like hell to get to the left.
“Canada Corner is one of the slower corners on the track, and it's easy to carry too much speed at the apex. It's uphill all the way from Canada Corner to the start/finish line, so you definitely want to make sure that you have the right amount of speed at the apex so you can open the throttle as early as possible, using all the road.
MR: “I like Canada Corner a lot. It's another one where you think you really have to park it, kind of like Turn 5, but you can carry more speed than you think. That’s something you can build up to. The runoff area at track-out is pretty wide. It's not ideal to be out there driving over those rumbles every lap, but you can use it to your advantage if you have to. And, going into Turn 13, it'll put you on the inside.”
TURN 13: BILL MITCHELL BEND
MM: “On through Thunder Valley into Turn 13, which isn't a real corner. You can take it flat, but even if you are single file, you should be starting to think ahead to Turn 14, so there’s a lot going on.”
PC: “When you track out of Canada Corner on the left-hand side of the road, stay to the left. When you get to where the road really bends to the right, that's where you apex and carry back over to the right to have it nicely lined up, right side tires on the right side of the road to prepare for Turn 13. It’s similar to Turn 7 – a flat-out corner in some cars. When you track out of 13, if you're doing it right, you're using part of the connector road that leads to Turn 5. You really need to let the car flow through there and maximize your speed. It's all you can do to not run out of road.”
MR: Turn 13 is flat, definitely, in the Production car. Once you crest the hill at track-out, there's a service road, and once you hit that, you can really feel the car get light. I try and keep up the speed, try to keep it as straight as possible, so I end up maybe with right-side tires on that service road a little bit just to keep the speed up before moving over to the left for Turn 14.”
MM: “Turn 14 leads onto the longest, as well as uphill straightaway, and to start/finish. The exit curbing is a little more friendly than it is out of Turn 5, and you definitely use it. Every bit. It's just more road and more momentum than you can carry, and more speed translates down the straightaway.
“There have been countless times over the years where the driver leading out of 14 did not win the race. I think I would want to be leading coming out of 14 and take my chances, but it's hard to say.”
PC: “Turn 14 is tricky because it's unusually shaped, and it's one of the most difficult on the track to find a rhythm on. Entering the braking zone, you don't need to get over to the left too quickly. The car tracks to the right out of 13; let it go. You don't end up back on the left side of the road until the turn-in point. Again, you want to brake in a straight line there and just let the car find its own way there, aiming right for that ‘1’ marker. When you're done with your braking, easing off the brakes as you're going past the ‘1,’ that's where you turn in. The curb there is pretty hard on the equipment, but many people use every inch of it before another important, long, straightaway.”
MR: “This is one of those where you don't want to really jump over to the left and follow the track the way it goes. You end up cutting diagonally, trying to keep it straight in the braking zone, with your turn-in point just as you get farthest left. The apex at Turn 14 is one that's easy to turn in early on. The key is not to turn in too early because you really want to get on the throttle and stay on the throttle here.”
Words by Steve Nickless
Image by Mark Weber