A funny thing happened to me the year we went up to Road America in the hearse. I became a racing fan. I found I was looking forward to going to Road America as much for the racing as I was for the partying. My first trip to the Sprints was not the first time I had seen an auto race. The first one was when I was just a kid and it was a stock car race at the venerable old State Fair Park in West Allis, just outside of Milwaukee.
I remember going to the race with my father and my uncle. I quickly picked out my favorite car that just happened to be a pale green Chevrolet. I had no brand loyalty at the time; I just liked the looks of the car and green was my favorite color. My uncle scoffed at my choice and told me that the Chevy was just too light and could not hold the road like the other heavier cars. He said the Chrysler would win, but my Chevy won and I have since learned two things: first, the lighter the racecar the better, and second, my uncle knew nothing about racing.
My first memory of the Indy 500 was listening to the race on the radio when we lived in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The year was 1959 and Roger Ward collected the first of his two Indy 500 victories, the second coming three years later in 1962. In 1960 we moved to Bensenville, Illinois and I met Ernie and Denny.
Ernie was into cars and the three of us would often go to the old O’Hare Speedway on Manheim road just south of O’Hare airport. There we got to see the great Fred Lorenzen race long before he became a NASCAR super star. We knew that Lorenzen was good because he often won races, but I always rooted for Dave Johnson in car number seven. His car had a red top and white sides. The number seven on the door was actually a painting of a shapely woman’s leg complete with garter on the thigh and high heels. I thought that looked pretty cool.
The O’Hare Speedway was a quarter mile track and there was a lot of fender banging and paint swapping going on. We thought it was all great fun to watch and would leap to our feet whenever a car would flip onto its roof or slam into the wall. A big favorite of ours was the Powder Puff Derby. This was a ladies’ race, but not for active racers. They would get ladies from the crowd in the stands to volunteer to race and would provide them with cars. Needless to say, with amateur drivers, most in a racecar for the first time, the Powder Puff Derbies were very entertaining. We spent many an enjoyable Friday or Saturday night at that track.
I did not see my first sports car race on a road course until I was in college. A buddy of mine invited me to go to a race with him and, as usual, not having a date or better offer that weekend I agreed. So early one Saturday morning, we climbed into Dave’s 356 Porsche and headed to Wisconsin.
The race was held at the Lindale Farms Raceway just west of Milwaukee. The track was strictly for amateur racing but was a great spectator track. The track was laid out in a valley with the front straight on the south ridge. From there, you could see the entire track except for a portion of the back straight, which went behind some trees. Sadly, a couple of years after my first and only trip there, the track was turned into a housing development. Parts of the track still remain as the streets in the development.
Prior to this trip, I had no idea amateur racing like this even existed and I was very impressed. I especially recall a battle between a beautiful red Lotus Elan and a beat up-looking black ‘58 Chevy Corvette. I was amazed that the Lotus could hold its own with the Corvette but it did (remember, lighter is better). The two would swap the lead two and three times a lap. In the end, the Corvette’s horsepower prevailed over the lighter and nimbler Lotus and it won by a car length or so. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and had a smile on my face as Dave turned the 356 Porsche for home.
Even though I had very much enjoyed that day at Lindale farms, I did not go to another race until a couple of years later when Ernie suggested we take the hearse up to the June Sprints. Ernie, as I have said, was into cars and I know he enjoyed the racing as did Eric and Tuna but none of them were what I would call a race fan. Tuna soon stopped coming to the Sprints. Ernie kept coming for a few more years and finally he stopped coming as well. Eric hung in there the longest and kept coming to a race once or twice a year until he moved to Texas. My new group of friends evolved from those who came for the party and would watch the races to those who came for the races and would party.
Having enjoyed my first trip to the Sprints so much, I started going to other races at Road America such as the Pabst 500, the Formula 5000, Trans Am, and to see the mighty Can-Am cars. I was there for every Can-Am race ever held at Road America.
Nestled in the beautiful hills of the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin, about a one hour drive north of Milwaukee, is the sleepy little resort town of Elkhart Lake (population 1,019). Two miles south of town on Highway 67 is the famed Road America racetrack. Road America is made up of four miles of twisting asphalt winding its way through woods and up and down hills. Drivers from all over the world, including 18 Indy 500 winners and at least 8 world champions from Formula One, have competed there and nearly all of them rate the track as one of their favorite tracks in the world. They love its three long straights, high speed sweeping corners and the tight right and left hand corners that provide plenty of opportunity for passing.
Fans love the track every bit as much as the drivers. The hills the track is draped over provide numerous excellent vantage points to watch from. Even when there are no cars on the track, the view of the Kettle Moraine from the hills is beautiful. With a cooler full of ice cold beer, a brat and maybe an ear of corn from a nearby concession stand, coupled with great views of some of the best racing in the world, a race fan has found a little bit of heaven on earth.
Prior to the construction of Road America, racing was no stranger to Elkhart Lake. Racing first began there in the 1950’s, using country roads and village streets. The races would start and finish in the village. The cars would roar down Lake Street past Siebken’s resort, out into the country on county roads and back into town.
The races were popular and drew drivers from all over the country. In 1952, a crowd estimated at 130,000 showed up for the race through the streets of Elkhart Lake. Eventually, concerned about safety, the State of Wisconsin banned the closing of public roads for private purposes. The roads of the day were not designed to handle the speeds the cars were running and there were few safety measures to protect a crowd of that size.
Townspeople like Ollie Siebken Moeller, owner of Siebken’s resort, and Cliff Tufte recognized the economic value of racing for the community and wanted to keep racing in the Elkhart Lake area. They sold stock to raise money for a private, permanent, natural terrain road course. They bought a couple of farms south of town and Tufte invited civil engineering students from the Wisconsin Institute of Technology to help survey and lay out the course. The track first opened in 1955 and the legend of Road America began.
One of the things the track is famous for is the food available at the many concession stands around the track. Road America has by far the best racetrack food in the country. Various civic groups from the surrounding area run the stands. The food varies from Mexican food available in corner one to a great pork chop sandwich on the hill overlooking corner seven and the Hurry Downs. But what really makes the track famous for its food are the brats, short for bratwurst. Not just any bratwurst, but good Sheboygan bratwurst. Back in the sixties, you could not find this type of bratwurst in the Chicago area. That is why we waited till we got to Plymouth to buy groceries. In Chicago, the only bratwurst you could find was the German style which was a pale white brat made from who knows what.
A Sheboygan bratwurst was pink like an Italian sausage and was usually made with pork, although you could sometimes find beef brats. I loved the beef version but most of the guys preferred the pork variety. Sheboygan brats were made in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, hence our name for them. Sheboygan is only 20 miles or so east of Plymouth, so that style of brat was plentiful in area stores. These days, thanks to companies like Johnsonville and Hillshire Farms, you can find the Sheboygan style brat almost anywhere.
Not content to eat our fill of brats at the track, they became a staple for dinner back at the campground as well. We would cook the brats in beer and onions until they puffed up and turned white. Then, on the grill they would go to be browned. Once properly browned, the brats would go back into the beer and onion mixture to stay warm. The guys would pick a brat out of the pot and put it on a bun along with some onion from the pot or chopped raw onion. Add some brown mustard and you have a gourmet treat.
The old Barn at Road America
Because of the unavailability of Sheboygan style brats in the Chicago area back then, the only time we had them was when we went up to Road America so we considered them to be a real treat. The ones from the track concession stands were not properly cooked in beer and onions so they were not as good as the ones we cooked ourselves. They were still good though and you could even get them with sauerkraut and/or pickles, but I did not care much for that.
We had to have a vegetable to go with our brats and tradition said that would be corn on the cob. Since our grill was usually occupied with brats, I made a special grill to cook the corn. I would lay some aluminum foil down on the ground, and then put a layer of charcoal on the foil. For a grate, I used an old refrigerator shelf which I positioned over the coals and supported it with empty beer cans.
I would soak the corn in water overnight and throw it on the grill still in the husk. I would cook and turn them until the husk was charred black all the way around. We would then peel back the husk and use it as a handle to hold the corn while we ate it. Add some melted butter and salt and you had a great treat, although a messy one as butter drips off and pieces of burned husk fall off. When in season, you can also get corn cooked this way from a couple of the concession stands at the track.
In the early years at Road America our preferred viewing area was on the outside of corner twelve. Corner twelve, also known as Canada Corner, is located at the extreme northwest corner of the track and is the lowest point on the track. I have heard a couple of different stories as to how corner twelve became known as Canada Corner. The first version is that the first car to pull off in the corner with a mechanical problem was driven by a guy from Canada. The second version is that after the first event at the track in 1955, clean-up crews found huge amounts of empty cans of Canadian beer and lots of empty Canadian cigarette packs. For whatever reason, corner twelve at will always be known as Canada Corner.
The old Road America Pagoda
The racecars enter Canada Corner from the stretch of track known as the Kettle Bottoms, which is the fastest part of the track. Canada Corner is a tight right hand turn so the cars have to brake hard for it, resulting in great passing opportunities. That is part of what makes it a great place to watch from since there is always a lot of action.
As the track exits the corner, it begins a climb up through a valley, appropriately known as Thunder Valley, and under the Billy Mitchell Bridge. As the cars accelerate uphill through the valley, the sound of their un-muffled racing engines reverberates off the valley walls, multiplying the noise level. The sound of a full field of Can-Am cars with their big ground-pounding V-8s was especially impressive in Thunder Valley.
The viewing areas on both sides of the track are steep hills, which form the valley. We have tried the inside of the corner, but it was too far to carry coolers from the parking area and did not have the best view. Nowadays, the inside hill has been reclaimed by brush and rarely does anyone watch from there. The outside was much more user-friendly. There are a lot of trees on the hillside, so for much of the day you could be in the shade, depending on where you sat. We could park our cars at the top of the hill and only had to carry our coolers, chairs and other necessities a short distance down to were we chose to sit. There was also a restroom - well, outhouse is a better name - and a concession stand at the top of the hill.
One problem we had was that lawn chairs do not work well on a steep hill because you were likely to fall out of the chair due to the angle. There were a few spots that were more level, but these were usually grabbed up early. For the first few years, we would just spread a blanket on the hill. Then we went with a variety of short-legged chairs and even some with adjustable front legs. This helped with the seating problem but you were still in danger of having your cooler slide away downhill. Jerry finally came up with the solution when he showed up with his "entrenching tool."
This was a short handled military surplus shovel on which you could adjust the blade to a ninety degree angle or have it straight out like a normal shovel. With this weapon, we attacked the hillside and created our own level spots. Others sitting around us copied the idea and by the end of the season the hill was pretty well terraced. This gave us a level place for our lawn chairs and kept the coolers from sliding away.
The view from the other side of the fence on the hillside in Canada Corner
One of the advantages of sitting on the hillside is that people sitting in front of you did not obstruct your view. It was like theater seating. One of the disadvantages was trying to get up the hill to the john. The hill was steep enough that this was not an easy trip. After a few beers it was even more difficult. We had almost as much entertainment watching inebriated fans trying to go up the hill as we did watching racecars.
Seasoned veterans of Canada Corner knew you had to plan ahead for trips to the john. If you put it off until it was a matter of some urgency, you were in trouble because it was going to take some time and effort to scale the hill. The later in the day, the tougher it got and each of us at one time or another was part of the entertainment.
We each had our own preferred route up the slope. There were the main paths which were ok for coming down but they were full of loose dirt and gravel making the return trip much more difficult. You would take one step up and slide two steps back down. Many a time we would see guys trying to make it up these paths on their hands and knees. We generally avoided these on our trips up the hill and would find our own less traveled path. We would have to do that each year, as erosion would change the face of the hill significantly over the winter.
There was one easy way up, but it was a long route. At the bottom of the hill where the slope started to level out was a picket fence, which delineated the boundaries of the spectator area. Along this fence was a reasonably level trail that led up through Thunder Valley and came out at the parking lot level by the Billy Mitchell Bridge. To take that route to the john would be nearly a half-mile hike, so we took our chances with the hillside.
The trail along the fence was not without its own hazards. In addition to the occasional exposed tree root, there were the flying empty beer cans. Whenever someone on the hill would finish a beer, they would throw the can down against the picket fence. By late Sunday afternoon, there was usually about a two-foot high pile of beer cans all along the fence. The steady rain of beer cans also made sitting near the bottom of the hill less than desirable even though it was more level there. The farther up the hill you sat, the less likely you were to be in the trajectory of an empty can. We would try to avoid hitting anyone below, but accuracy and range tended to deteriorate as the day wore on.
You may be thinking we were environmental pigs by pitching our empties against the fence, but in fact, we were contributing to a good cause. After every race weekend, local Boy Scout troops would come in and pick up all the empties, sell them for scrap and use the money to help fund their troops. Besides, the few trash barrels that were provided were soon overflowing with all manner of garbage, a lot of which would not be fun to pick through looking for cans. It was much easier for the Scouts to just pick them up from the ground.
Soon the Boy Scouts had competition for the cans. Youngsters people had brought to the race soon realized there was money to be had on that hill. It was not long before we saw kids with garbage bags picking up empties during the race. The competition got so bad that you would often find some kid with a garbage bag standing next to you, patiently waiting for you to finish your beer. When we did, we would hand the empty to him and he would put it in his bag and move to stand next to the person he thought would finish his/her beer next.
All good things must end and so did our time on Canada Corner. Things change and that was certainly true with our group. We started going up there with just a bunch of guys, then we starting bringing girl friends, and they turned into wives. We progressed from camping in hearses to tents to pop-up campers to motor homes.
It was the motor homes that ended our days on Canada Corner. The wives decided they wanted to have the motor homes nearby at the races. This was not easy to do at Canada Corner. While we may have been able to get them down the hill, getting them back out again would be another matter. Leaving them parked at the top of the hill and carrying all our gear and supplies down the hill was not an option the girls liked. Besides, our gear seemed to have multiplied with advent of girlfriends/wives. Now, in addition to other stuff, we were all carrying two coolers down to the seating area. The second cooler would contain green stuff! We had veggies and dip along with fruit! Gone were the days when we only worried about whether or not we had enough beer and ice. So we moved to the outside of corner five. There we could park the motor homes right along the fence and have a great view of another action corner.
We still often go down to Canada Corner to watch but we do not spend the whole day there like we used to. Things have also changed dramatically in Canada Corner. The track owners leveled a section at the extreme west end of the viewing area, taking out a lot of trees, and putting in bleachers. They also built a stairway from the concession stand down to the bleachers, which took away all the fun getting up and down the hill. They even put a portable restroom facility at the top of the hill with toilets you can actually flush. Some fans still sit on the hill east of the bleachers, but it is just not the same any more.
The new "Pagoda"
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen