News & Media

Road America right at home in NASCAR

June 22, 2011, Mark Aumann,

It's a tired cliche, but "being at the right place at the right time" is a perfect way to describe how NASCAR wound up racing at Road America last season for the first time in more than five decades.

In 1956, Tim Flock drove a Mercury through the rain to win the only Cup race ever run on the 4.1-mile road course near Elkhart Lake, Wis. Since then, the track had hosted nearly every other major racing series -- but not NASCAR.

However, near the end of 2009, Wisconsin State Fair Park officials began debating whether to renew contracts for racing at the historic Milwaukee Mile oval. That's when Road America track president George Bruggenthies got involved in the conversation, offering to host the Nationwide Series some 60 miles to the north.

"I actually was talking with [NASCAR executive vice president] Jim France about [the American Motorcycle Association Superbike series] and toward the end of that, we started talking about the Nationwide Series at The Mile," Bruggenthies said. "And I said we'd probably be very interested in hosting that, if it wasn't clear what was happening there. I made it very clear I did not want to get in the middle of a fistfight for that. But if there was an opportunity there, somebody should talk to us."

It didn't take long for NASCAR managing director of racing operations George Silbermann to return the call.

"I got a call from George the next day and ended up getting with [NASCAR vice president of racing operations] Steve O'Donnell," Bruggenthies said. "They were still in the process of evaluation another promoter for The Mile, and they asked if we would still go through the process and determine whether this promoter was acceptable. There were a lot of local groups that were trying to support the series' continuation there.

"I ended up getting a call in the next 10 days or so and we worked out the terms. We had a deal by the end of the year."

Bruggenthies admitted landing the race date was the easy part. Hosting the Nationwide Series? That's a different animal, altogether.

"They've got a book of operations that's a bit different," he said. "There's formulas for everything, as far as needs and equipment and support.

"Of course, they have a large racing series with a lot of vehicles that have specific needs, and their experience has taught them what they need. Ramping up, safety wise, was a bit more than other series we'd have previous experience with."

In addition to making the track fit for NASCAR's specifications, personnel needed to brought up to speed on the NASCAR way of doing things.

"Our safety team went through the training," Bruggenthies said. "Our department heads went away and had orientation. I and my staff went to a couple of races to try to make sure we did a good job, and I think we exceeded what our requirements were.

"We had a great show. It was nice weather and we had a great crowd. Everything went pretty well. It was a good experience, a good partnership, and we're glad the Nationwide Series is coming back."

Bruggenthies said from the responses he received, drivers and fans couldn't have been more pleased with the running of the inaugural Bucyrus 200.

"[The drivers] really love it because of the speed and the elevation," Bruggenthies said. "The comments at the drivers meeting, after they had done practice and qualifying, they loved the track. I didn't hear from anybody saying, 'Darn it, I wish I was someplace else.' Not at all.

"The fans said it was awesome. Whether you were at Turn 5 or the start/finish bridge, when 43 of these machines come in a close pack, the hair is standing up on the back of your neck, there's no doubt about it. TV's great and ESPN did a wonderful job with the broadcast, but there's nothing like being at a race. You can feel the speed."

One of the biggest concerns -- full-course cautions on a track more than four miles in length -- is something Road America officials are learning to live with, although Bruggenthies would whole-heartedly agree to local yellows to give the fans more green-flag racing.

"The yellow flags and some of the rules NASCAR have don't necessarily acclimate themselves to Road America," Bruggenthies said. "The one situation where if a driver doesn't get himself and his car back to pit lane, he's got to go to the medical center -- that's kind of a big motivation when you get a flat tire or a little incident, [because] you're going to try like heck to get back to pit lane.

"And meanwhile, you're just trashing the racing surface, spilling debris all over it, and it forces a cleanup and probably a full-course yellow. And it's four miles around, it's a long way to go and it's a big cleanup."

Bruggenthies believes the first-year bugs have been ironed out.

"There's been a lot of tweaking, everything from sanitation to parking to pricing," Bruggenthies said. "There are a lot of requirements that have been modified a little bit because they realize we don't need eight jet dryers, things like that.

"They didn't know us, either. They didn't know how we would perform. They did some testing here to set the rear differential and gearing, but they know us very well, even though we've been in the business for 56 years and racing is what we do all day long."

This time, it didn't take another 54 years before NASCAR found its way back to Elkhart Lake.