Posted on November 08 2016
The canning factory in Elkhart Lake closed in 1949. The US economy was booming post-World War II, but with so many people from the factory out of work, this small Wisconsin town, halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, was in a rut.
A little ways south, some sports car racing enthusiasts were in search of public roads that would be suitable for a circuit to host a race for their newly formed Chicago and Milwaukee Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). They boarded a plane, and from the sky, they spotted the roads around Elkhart Lake. Once approached, it didn’t take long for the village leaders to recognize the economic opportunities that a race could bring to their little community. Planning quickly began, and the first race in Elkhart Lake was held on July 23, 1950.
The course for that first race was a roughly triangular combination of public highways that formed a 3.35 mile circuit. It included an impressive list of drivers, including a young Carroll Shelby, and drew a crowd of 5,000 spectators.
Over the next few years, more races were held in the town, and with each one that course grew to include more public roads. And the spectators ballooned to as many as 50,000. By the time the races in 1952 were being held, it was impossible for spectators to sit down, both because of the crowds, and because they had to be vigilant in case an errant car ran off the road and they had to make way. This kind of situation led to a tragic accident at Watkins Glen in 1952 where a child was killed. Legislators felt the situation had grown too dangerous, and passed a ban on racing on public roads.
After the ban, it looked like racing around Elkhart Lake might be done for. Land in the area proved to be too expensive, difficult to purchase, or difficult to build on. And if not for Cliff Tufte, that might have been that.
Tufte was a civil engineer whose company were experts in road building and ballasts, and happened to own a plot of land two miles south of Elkhart Lake. Tufte took on the challenge of keeping Wisconsin racing alive, and in 1955, Road America was built.
The 14-turn, 4.048 mile course has remained mostly unchanged in the time since, and is one of the few courses in the world that has maintained its original configuration. Road America has become synonymous with road racing in the US, many around the world place it in the same class as the best circuits in Europe. The course is known for its length and for the backside turn, referred to as “the kink.” It’s also know for the amazing scenery in the surrounding area.
Road America currently hosts over 400 events per year, including vintage car events, motorcycle events like the MotoAmerica series, SCCA events, the United Sports Car Racing Series, the Pirelli World Challenge, and the NASCAR XFINITY series.