Back on track: Drivers hail IndyCar return to Road America
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) Wearing shades and a white firesuit that gleamed under a bright sun, Mario Andretti hopped out of the car after taking a few spins around Road America.
For a moment, it looked as if the IndyCar great, and the series itself, had never left this rural Wisconsin road course.
Andretti, 76, is still retired. But the open-wheel series is back.
The Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday marks the return of IndyCar at Road America for the first time since 2007.
''This track has been here since the `60s. We had the glory days of IndyCar here back in the `80s and early `90s,'' Andretti said this week. ''To be back, I think it's what the series needs.''
The return of Road America kept an IndyCar stop in Wisconsin after another historic track in the state, the Milwaukee Mile, fell off the schedule. A series of different promoters struggled to draw crowds there.
The buzz felt a little different in the days leading up to race weekend in Elkhart Lake.
Kohler Co., which is based in nearby Sheboygan, is on board as a big-name sponsor. Attendance doesn't seem like it's going to be a problem. Drivers appear happy.
''It's one of my favorite tracks in the United States, and I was bummed when we didn't come here for many years,'' driver Tony Kanaan said. ''We're back! We're back for good, so I'm happy.''
A unique layout adds to the allure.
First, the venue looks more like a woodsy campground, with the track hemmed in by lush stands of trees and rolling hills.
As for the track itself, there are elevation changes. Fourteen turns. Fast corners and slow corners.
There's a series of two turns in the middle of the 4-plus mile circuit called the ''Carousel,'' which leads into a short right turn called the ''Kink.'' That stretch leads into the ''Kettle Bottoms'' straight, which, taken together is a favorite section for Kanaan.
''You have to choose where you want your car to be good because you're not going to have it good in every corner,'' Kanaan said. ''It's just completely different every time you go around in different sections of the track.''
It's that variety that puts drivers of different levels of experience on more equal footing.
''It's got real good flow, high-speed corners, definitely keeps your concentration,'' said rookie Max Chilton. ''Puts it more of a level playing field for the rookies.''
Andretti knows this place well. He has finished on the podium five times, including victories in 1983, 1984 and 1987. Of the three wins, the 1983 race stands out to him.
''We had a real (bad) car the whole season, and we turned the season around right here,'' Andretti said Wednesday, when he gave guests rides around the track . ''We landed a huge sponsor because of that. ... It was a special day all around and unexpected.''
The return of Road America wasn't unexpected once it became clear that the Milwaukee Mile would have trouble drawing a sponsor to save its IndyCar date, though the series had initially said that a race at Elkhart Lake didn't necessarily mean that the Mile would get bumped.
''The difficulty the last number of years was always the schedule,'' track president George Bruggenthies said.
Until, that is, the last weekend in June opened up as an option for both sides. Andretti sounded like he was ready to get back into a car on Sunday.
''It has just about all the varieties that you want on a road course. It's got high speed, low speed. Elevation changes. ... You've got three long straightaways,'' Andretti said. ''I've liked this place from the first time I set foot here.''
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