Tuesday, March 15, 2005

So Long Road America

I say so long and not goodbye because although the Champ Cars are not scheduled to run at Road America in 2005 I still hold out hope that they will someday return. Although I no longer live in Milwaukee I would still make the pilgrimage there to see them run if they come back. After moving to Milwaukee in 1991, Road America quickly became my favorite road racing course and the annual trip to see the Champ Cars was highly regarded as a favorite summertime activity. The window for summertime activity in Wisconsin can be very narrow as many of the natives will admit. I even made some new Champ Car fans by asking them to join me on my annual trek. During the more than a decade I was privileged to go there I can honestly say I never had a bad experience. Even sitting in the rain with a poncho and umbrella trying to keep dry wasn’t enough to detract from the thrill of the event.

Champ Cars first raced at Road America in 1982 when Hector Rebaque a Formula 1 driver scored his first and only Champ Car win. He led only two miles of the entire race but it was the most important two as Unser ran out of fuel on the last lap giving the lead and win to Hector. A similar fate befell Al Jr. in 1996 when his engine went up in smoke in Canada corner on the last lap giving Michael Andretti his third Road America win shutting out the Unser’s from ever winning at Road America. Both Michael and Mario scored three peats at Road America the most by any driver in the 23 years of racing there.

Attendance at the 82 Champ Car race was estimated to be approximately 40,000. Attendance at the last race in 2004 was estimated to be 35,000. It’s little wonder that it has been omitted from the 2005 schedule. After 23 years of racing Champ Cars at Road America there was a net loss of approximately 5000 in attendance. However during the peak years in the 90’s attendance was very good. I can remember at one race there was an announcement that came over the PA system proclaiming the race was being attended by the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in the state of Wisconsin. I don’t know the exact number but it must have been in the range of 85 to 90,000. In those days you couldn’t always find a good seat to watch the race from if you didn’t go early and reserve it. There was some unwritten rule which allowed you to unofficially reserve a seat or spot by placing a blanket or some other identifying object over the seats you wanted. I always thought it was very presumptuous of the fans to assume they would still have their belongings much less the spots they were trying to reserve come race time but it always seemed to work out, I never saw any disagreements over the process when the fans returned to lay claim. Also, in it’s heyday you waited in line to get eats, the paddocks were full of fans with huge crowds gathered around the most popular teams even the Neon paddock had crowds. And getting out of the facility after the race was an art in itself. At the 2003 race, my last, it was as though I was the only one there. No waiting for any of the facilities, my years of learning the best escape route after the race wasn’t even needed. It was a sad commentary for what used to be a really great event.

One of my fondest memories will always be the pace car ride I got. I knew that by not being invited as a sponsor or other support member, which the pace car rides were reserved for, I was not likely to get a ride, but after a lot of finagling and some very helpful advice found on the internet I scored a ride. And, oh yeah, you do have to sign away your life before you get in! The rides began and ended at the turn five cut through. After I got in and buckled up, the driver a very nice young lady, yes I said lady, who later told me see would also be driving in the Neon race, took off up the hill to turn six. As we entered six I became convinced that it would not be possible to go that fast through this turn. As we exited the turn my whole outlook on the speeds through these turns was altered forever. When you are watching from trackside it is night and day different than when you are actually doing it! After turn six Hurry Downs and the Carousel was a piece of cake. As we exited the carousel and accelerated towards the Kink I glanced down at the speedometer to see it approaching 100. The Kink began to look more like a 90 degree turn to my rookie eyes than a kink. But once we were through it I thought, this is really fun where do I get a license. I don’t even remember Canada corner, said to be named after the large crowds of Canadians which gathered there in the track’s early days, so I assumed by then I was getting used to the speed. When we arrived back at the cut though and what should have been the end of the ride there was no one waiting for a ride, the driver looked at me and said this is your lucky day and off we went for another lap. This time I was completely prepared for turn six I even secretly wished she would have tried going faster.

Everyone that has been there agrees the food at Road America is great. It goes beyond the usual hot dog or hamburger that is commonly available at other venues. My first stop after arriving at the track was always Siebkens in the Champ Car paddock for some of their Cajon potatoes. It was not unusual to have to wait for them to finishing cooking a batch as they were very popular. You could get a brat at almost any of the stands around the track. My favorite was to get one from the Johnsonville barbeque; a huge promotional Barbie made the size of an 18 wheeler, to promote the Johnsonville brand.

Every October the track sponsors a walk and run for the American Cancer Society and all of the entry fees are donated. Everyone entering gets a nice long sleeve T shirt. Long sleeved you ask, hey it’s Wisconsin. After losing a friend to cancer I decided to get off my can and at least enter the walk part. It was an opportunity to see the track close up and besides I could use the exercise. This trip was almost enlightening a as my pace car ride. When I took off walking I saw that there were some very serious runners also in this event. Before I reached the first of the watering stations, which were set up at one mile increments, the PA announcer was excitedly reporting seeing the first runner crossing the finish line. Sure glad I signed up for the walk part!

For the sake of future generations I hope Champ Car and Road America can work through their differences and find a way to co-promote an event at this beautiful track. I would love to go back there to experience some more of the many thrills I have had there. Perhaps Champ Car can revive itself to the popularity it once had, then maybe it will be easier for the two parties to get together. If it doesn’t happen I may have seen my last race there. I certainly hope not.


Bill Sheets
© Copyright 2005

1 Comments:

Blogger al said...

Hi,

Just stumbled across your site at random while looking at other blogs, and it was a very nice surprise to see someone writing about Champ Car racing.

I've been watching and loving IndyCars / Champ Cars for as long as I can remember, and to see the series fight for its life the way it is now is heartbreaking. But underneath the surface of the buniness story, when you see the guys driving the cars and the mechanics and crews, you continue to see many more smiling faces than at oter racing events. There's got to be a reason for that, and I hope it's enough to keep it around.

As for RA, I think it absoutely sucks that the road courses are disappearing from the schedule. If they're at all interested in TV ratings and presentation they have t realize that 15 or so races going tightly around city streets won't grab anyone's attention, it will look like a circus act sticking cars onto a track that they weren't made for. I remember the Miami race a couple of years ago when the Toyota Atlantic cars, being zippier and nimbler in tight corners, but less powerful, actually got better times than their big brothers who had to pussyfoot their way around that unsuitable course.

Here's hoping things cycle back to some real success soon.

5:25 PM  

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