In sync with the sunrise, Parker John’s owner Aaron Sloma lifts the lid of his outdoor smoker after a 12-hour overnight cooking. A cloud of smoke releases, eliminating the light but not the warmth, and the essence of hickory wood burning takes over without a fire. Inside, up to 500 pounds of brisket and pork sit. Their fat has long been melted and absorbed, leaving the outside black and crispy (better known as bark) but the inside tender and juicy.
That aroma will continuously waft around the paddock at Road America, as the concession stand opens and closes with the garages Thursday through Sunday of race weekend. Once the pork and brisket are pulled, chicken breasts and wings are placed inside the smoker. They take about an hour and at least two hours, respectively, and are replaced as needed throughout a day’s service – thus never allowing the air to clear.
“It reminds you that you’re hungry, if for some reason your body forgot, the minute you smell that,” Road America’s hospitality coordinator Andy Anderson told NASCAR.com. “And that’s by any of the stands. You’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, today I want broasted chicken.’ Or, oh yes, they want corn on the cob. Or, like with Parker John’s, they have that smoker right there. You can smell the different options, so it’s like, ‘I think I’ll park right here.’ ”
Parker John’s is just one of Road America’s 12 concession stands scattered about the track, which will host the NASCAR Xfinity Series (Saturday) and Cup Series (Sunday; both at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
RELATED: Road America weekend schedule
*Paddock Concessions by Parker John’s: Midway Road south end
*The Gear Box: Midway Road north end
*The Gear Box 2: MotorPlex area
*Lakeland University Launch: Turn 12
*Altona Supper Club: Turn 14
*Antoinette’s: Turn 3
*WIN Tunnel: Next to VIP Tower
*Perl’s Mexican Restaurant: Turn 1/Family Fun Zone
*Perl’s on the Hill: Turn 7
*Plymouth Optimists: Between Turns 5/6
*Elkhart Lake Lions Club: On Fireman’s Drive near Corvette Bridge
All of them are powered by Wisconsin natives rather than a national food distribution company, and all of their menus advertise cuisine popularized in the state regarded as “America’s Dairyland.”
The only guidelines vendors have to follow pertain to track partnerships, and while those brand names extend outside the state borders, even they originated in Wisconsin. For example, cheese must be Sargento – headquarters is in Plymouth, same town as Road America – and ice cream has to be Cedar Crest – factory is in Manitowoc, 30 miles from the track.
Otherwise, the stand is their home and fans are their guests.
“We were already local before we were a race track, if that makes any sense,” Anderson said. “We’ve just kind of kept that, let’s say, flavor. It is about food.”
Though large chunks of Wisconsin are flat with farmlands, cornfields and wheat crops, Road America’s 640-acre, park-like grounds are anything but. The 14-turn, 4.048-mile circuit steers drivers and fans through a landscape that features full foliage and rolling hills thanks to the nearby Kettle Moraine State Park. Track personnel have even compared a walk around the venue to a trip through different ecosystems.
Road America is equidistant from Milwaukee (south) and Green Bay (north) – an hour’s drive either way – so not a big-city light in sight.
“It’s absolutely beautiful out there,” said Shaun Thome, owner of Antoinette’s and WIN Tunnel. “I really enjoy, honestly, going onto the track when I’m getting the stands ready and just enjoying the peace and quiet.”
Because he knows it’s not going to last once fans show up – better yet, customers.
No two concessions are stationed next to each other, so when foot traffic does roll in, it’s to a specific stand.
We make all our food with love.
And in order to ensure all of them are visited, Anderson and his team require owners to submit a menu before the season starts for approval. This way, they can double check there’s variety – a.k.a. a reason for fans to make the trek from one place to another between cravings.
“What we started with and what we have now, (the menu) has grown so much,” said Stacy Iserloth, founder of The Gear Box, which powers two stands. “My staff always tell me if I add something else, I have to take something off because we’re just strapped with space and stuff.”
It’s busy, difficult work. Every stand wants to, well, stand out among its competition. And they each do so in their own way.
At the Antoinette’s and WIN Tunnel stands, employees butter Sheboygan hard rolls and brat buns by hand in advance of and as needed during any mealtime. That way, when orders do come in, the buns and rolls are ready to be toasted and done so to a point where they remain moist and golden but hold a fair amount of crunch. This additional step is admittedly time consuming, but worth it.
There’s a surprise hint of garlic mixed in the spread, so the end result is a light garlic bread paired with a bratwurst, burger or sandwich.
“I always tell people: We make all of our food with love,” Thome said. “You can slop something together, and it may taste like slop. But if you put something together and you have passion for what you’re doing, people can taste that in whatever they’re tasting.”
A third-pound burger hugged inside a grilled-cheese sandwich is called a “Gear Box Melt” and available at either of The Gear Box locations. Both also offer a plate of “RGP,” which stands for real-good potatoes; they’re boiled, seasoned and smothered by nacho cheese.
A pound-plus baked potato topped with pulled pork and macaroni and cheese is dubbed a “Sconnie Stuffer” and sold at Parker John’s. Or there’s the “Texas Burrito” chock-full of brisket, cheese and scrambled eggs; it’s so big customers jokingly lift one like a dumbbell.
“We’re from Wisconsin,” Sloma said, “so our portion sizes are probably a bit bigger than those in other markets.”
RELATED: Watch NASCAR on TV this week
Nicknamed items are clearly signature dishes offered at those select concessions, but there is one constant about Road America: bratwurst. All of the stands sell the German sausage.
“It’s fun to see someone have their first one, not knowing quite how to eat it,” Anderson said. “And, wait a minute, there’s two on this piece of bread? They’ve never heard of the term double brat.”
Said Iserloth: “I mean, Wisconsin is very well known for our bratwurst. It’s made locally, probably five miles from the track, in Johnsonville, so we sell a ton of bratwurst. And a ton of cheese curds. Because we’re Wisconsin.”
We’re from Wisconsin.
Cheese curds are another Road America staple, a track-wide side. Battered and deep fried, yet the cheese is so fresh the curds still manage to squeak when chewed.
For this upcoming four-day affair, Thome ordered 40 cases of cheese curds to split between his two spots. Each case carries 40 pounds. That’s 1,600 pounds of cheese curds.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s absolutely crazy.”
Especially considering cheese curds aren’t even the intended highlight at either of Thome’s stands. WIN Tunnel’s is the mac and cheese, and Antoinette’s is the broasted chicken.
Have to give the people what they want, though, and that’s really no different than what they’d personally whip up for friends or family any other weekend.
“They’re very community orientated,” Anderson said. “If they weren’t here, they’re having a brat fry or whatever type of food maybe at the local grocery store. It’s kind of literally in the blood.”
Except not kind of. Just literally.
“Oh my God, no, we go to my dad’s house for Father’s Day, and what do we do? We have brats and hamburgers,” Iserloth said. “I’m like you guys, really? You couldn’t make something else?”
After the last meal ticket gets punched, the final customer walks off and the cash register totals sales, concession workers across Road America wave their own checkered flag. Time to pack up and head out. Supper is waiting for the chefs themselves.
Another 12-hour day of work in the books.
“When we had an annual concession-stand meeting, I walked into it and I’m like 20-plus years younger than everyone else,” said Samantha Damrow, Lakeland University Launch’s concession stand manager, who is a junior at the college. “I felt so young. These people all thought that I could not do this, so it’s really cool that I am doing this.”
NASCAR’s visit will be Launch’s fourth race weekend, with two more planned this summer. The 2021 season is its first, just like it is for Parker John’s.
The Gear Box has been around for 22 years; The Gear Box 2 is nearing a decade. WIN Tunnel joined five years ago; Antoinette’s was added in 2020.
The fact that they care is why they’re here.
Road America’s emphasis on variety goes beyond each stand’s food and includes the people in charge. From brick-and-mortar restaurateurs to stand-only promoters and college-run programs to non-profit organizations, resumes include different experience levels but equal professional capabilities.
“It’s neat because it gives outsiders kind of a view of small-town life,” said Amanda Brandt, a Lakeland University senior and Launch’s chief marketing officer. “Like everyone thinks Wisconsin is kind of small town, and you get that nice niche of Elkhart Lake, what Elkhart Lake has to offer the surrounding communities. There’s a little bit of uniqueness to that.”
And a bit of local love.
“The fact that they care is why they’re here,” Anderson said. “That’s the other reason we pick local. The people that they’re serving here, they might see in town tomorrow. It’s not like a traditional corporation, where they drive in, serve food and then get in the trucks, and then we won’t see them again for a couple of weeks and they’re not going to see anybody in the area for a couple of weeks. These people have a vested interest.”
If they didn’t care, college students wouldn’t give up their weekends, Iserloth wouldn’t pick such a demanding seasonal job, Thome’s crew wouldn’t bother with the butter and Sloma wouldn’t trust meat unattended off the clock.
Luckily for Road America, they do care – a lot.
“There are some sleepless nights when you know how much pride you have in that smoker,” Sloma said. “You’re hoping nothing triggers it to shut off or something before the big race.”