He grips a steering wheel, not a lance, sits in a sports car, not on a warhorse, but in temperament the visored combatant on the opposite page is of medieval times. He is Chicago Businessman Wayne Burnett, and like thousands of Americans engaged in a new ritual of risk, he jousts with throttle foot and gearshift. He belongs to a company of part-time warriors who court racing thrills on the road circuits that have flourished since World War II. Driver Burnett is pictured at the wheel of his Ferrari at Elkhart Lake, Wis. It is a green, comely place, as shown on the following pages, where spectators will gather again this weekend to view sports cars ranging in ferocity from gnatlike Sprites to fire-breathing Chaparrals and to applaud doctors, lawyers and merchants of speed at their 20th-century lists.
WITH DAD IN HIS ALFA-ROMEO AND MOM IN HER PIT
When Elkhart Lake's Road America opened for racing 10 years ago the sports car was a novelty and the U.S. sports-car enthusiast something of a freak. Track racing, Indianapolis style, was the native dish. Road racing bore an "imported" label; the cars came with such unfamiliar names as MG and Jaguar, Porsche and Ferrari, and some members of the new cult indulged in British lingo alien to the American ear, saying windscreen for windshield, boot for trunk, bonnet for hood, changing for shifting gears. Sports-car people generally ignored Indianapolis and the rest of the track scene; Indy men despised what they took to be effete airs and graces in the wire-wheel crowd. Madison Avenue set all sail on an opposite tack, correctly sensing glamour in those funny little foreign cars and a cosmopolitan and fashionable air about their admirers. Detroit, having spent millions to engineer shift levers up off the floor and onto the steering column and further millions to do away with shifting gears altogether, was not then terribly interested in four-on-the-floor, especially in teeny-weeny cars with itsy-bitsy engines. The motor capital let the sports cars stream in unmolested by domestic competition. Readers of most sports pages could scarcely have been expected to know that a revival of U.S. road racing was under way; they were given little to read about it.
Thus Elkhart Lake was, in the beginning, as much a missionary outpost as an arena for sport. Madison Avenue, for all its interest, wasn't digging down to buy gravel and asphalt for Elkhart Lake's four expensive miles of racing surface. That dubious privilege went to a group of Wisconsin adventurers, their spiritual leader being "Gentleman Jim" Kimberly—who was making a splash in those days with his meticulously brushed silver hair and red racing helmet, coveralls and Ferrari. Skeptics saw Elkhart Lake as four costly miles to oblivion; such pioneering road courses as Watkins Glen in New York and Thompson in Connecticut had more hay bales than customers; Sebring in Florida was still groping feebly for the international limelight it would ultimately claim. Most of the country's sports-car races were run by and for a minuscule cult on unappealing airports left over from the war.
So what happened? Elkhart Lake was a hit. It did more than offer the prospect of a scenic outing and a bit of motorized competition; it got people involved. Mittys with the price of an MG and some spare parts could put Mom in the pits with the watches and lap charts and go out and make like Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill, stars whose style they then could examine in the feature race. A man with the means to own something hot—say a Ferrari or Maserati—could tool along behind the name drivers in the very same race. Spectators with Triumphs or Alfas in the parking fields could identify with the drivers of similar models on the racecourse.
Nobody can say with accuracy when American sports-car racing turned the corner toward national acceptance. Certainly Elkhart Lake, as a model circuit, gave the sport an indispensable lift. Some 16,000 cultists buzzed out into the hills north of Milwaukee to munch bratwurst—the regional counterpart of the hot dog—and gaze at Elkhart's first race meeting. Last year 30,000 citizens attended the spring show; this weekend Elkhart expects 35,000. The place is actually making a little money, a consummation devoutly wished but anticipated only by the starry-eyed a decade ago.
The few sports-car road courses extant when Elkhart's bratwurst first sizzled have multiplied amazingly. There are no fewer than three dozen—from Bridgehampton and Lime Rock in the East to Riverside and Laguna Seca in the car-crazy West. A decade ago the Sports Car Club of America could boast but 308 competition drivers. Today the SCCA has 5,000 competition licenses outstanding and, all told, claims 15,000 dues-paying members, who may be classified as priests and prophets of the true faith. There are by now half a million sports-car owners in the U.S., each a potential road-racing customer by virtue of the impulse that took him into the showroom in the first place.
Few American sports car racing drivers are professional racing men. They are largely weekend warriors—doctors, lawyers, architects, pilots, car dealers, an occasional housewife—who get no kicks on Route 66 from an ordinary passenger car yet want no part of hard-nosed track racing, who seek out the milder disciplines and gentler dangers of circuits like Elkhart Lake for the joys of competition and, if things go well, a trophy and a party before the workaday week begins.
They are also movers and shakers out of all proportion to their numbers, the spearhead of an extraordinarily vital force that has not only established a major sport in what was a desert of indifference but also has conquered Detroit. The automakers labor tirelessly to spread sports-car racing's halo of élan over their passenger lines: witness the birth of the Ford Mustang, the appropriation for model names of sports-car shrines and racers (Le Mans, GTO), the revival of the bucket seat, the ersatz knock-off hubcaps of some far-out street models, the race to get four back on the floor.
They're rolling at Elkhart Lake, those funny little sports cars, and will be for a long time to come.