Elkhart Lake: a Tiny Wisconsin Town Loves Its Brats, Beer and Fast Cars in a Picturesque Setting
Among the side effects of World War II was an American infatuation with fast European sports cars. That infatuation led to a need for racing the sleek, exotic machines among the rich men who owned them.
“My D-Jag can blow the fenders off your Mercedes,” was a familiar challenge of the early ‘50s. “And that goes for that Ferrari over there, too.”
The only way to find out was to lay out race courses, preferably where the rich played. The chosen spots were quiet little resort villages away from the mainstream. Names like Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake, Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach became to the sports car set what Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Phoenix were to the Indy car crowd.
City streets and country roads became makeshift race tracks. The races at first were as much social events as sporting contests.
“These are not ‘hot-rod’ races,” a 1950 editorial in the local weekly assured anxious Elkhart Lake residents. “The spectacle of 30 or 40 fine sports cars, driven by expert amateurs, hitting the starting line is an inspiring sight.”
The first race in Elkhart Lake, a sleepy summer resort community a few miles inland from Lake Michigan, attracted 5,000 curious spectators. It was the first major sports car race in Middle America since a Sports Car Club of America national event in 1933 at Elgin, Ill.
But in time, the excitement, the noise, the speed and the parade of socialites attracted the masses. Two years later, there were more than 100,000 here to watch the Jaguars, Ferraris and a new American car, named for its builder, Briggs Cunningham, race on a 6 1/2-mile road course around the lake. The resident population was 583.
As crowds grew, so did the hazards and the complaints. The results were inevitable.
A small boy sitting on a curb at Watkins Glen, N.Y., was killed by a sliding car. Eight spectators were hospitalized by an out-of-control racer in Elkhart Lake. Residents became irritated by the two things they had moved to a rural town to escape--crowds and noise.
By 1952, legislation had been adopted in most states, banning motor racing from public roads. An era was over almost before it began.
But the seeds of speed had been sown. Places to race the ever-growing number of sports cars had to be found. The answer was a closed course where a strip of asphalt could be laid down to look like a country road but which could be fenced in to protect spectators.
And, perhaps even more important, tickets could be sold.
Clif Tufte, a lanky mining man who lived in Elkhart Lake, was the first to move. He laid out a four-mile course through the wooded area of Wisconsin’s scenic Kettle Moraine country. He called it, appropriately, Road America.
Road America became the watershed of American road racing. But not by much.
The first Road America race was Sept. 11, 1955. Less than a year later, enthusiasts in Watkins Glen, N.Y., moved their race from city streets to a fenced-in site overlooking Seneca Lake. Riverside, Bridgehampton (N.Y.), Laguna Seca and Lime Rock (Conn.) all opened in 1957.
Daytona International Speedway, which stock car fans tend to think has been there forever, did not appear until 1959. Road America, in fact, was the site of a NASCAR stock car race in 1956--three years before the Daytona tri-oval was built.
Road circuits tend to have trademarks that portray their personalities. Watkins Glen had its bog, Riverside its dust, Lime Rock its P.L. Newman, Bridgehampton its sand.
Road America has Sheboygan County bratwurst and sauerkraut, roasted corn dipped in melted Wisconsin butter and cool Milwaukee beer--all in a down-home Midwestern glad-to-have-you-here atmosphere.
That, and meadows of green, green grass create a feeling unlike any to be found at other race courses in the country. There are only a few grandstands within the circuit. Spectators spread out on grassy knolls, shaded by thick stands of elm, spruce and oak, as if they were on a picnic in the park.
If the racing is good--and some drivers say that Road America is the best of all American road courses--its food and its ambiance are even more memorable.
The concessionaires are not fly-by-night fast-food dispensers; they are just plain folks who live in Wisconsin communities like Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Manitowoc and Oshkosh.
Year after year, the same people work in the colorful infield booths and sell the brats, the corn and the beer--and homemade rhubarb pie. They come from St. John the Baptist Catholic church in nearby Plymouth, the Johnsonville Fire Dept. women’s auxiliary, the Elm City Bow Hunters. . . .
There is plenty of time for eating and drinking. Road America, with its long straights and sweeping turns, is one of the fastest of all road courses, but because it is four miles around, it still takes between two and three minutes to complete a lap. So, once the main pack of cars disappears around the corner, there is usually a long wait with little to do except have another brat, another ear of corn, another can of suds.
There was no precedent for designing a closed road course in 1952 when Tufte tramped through the woods a few miles south of town to lay out his four-mile circuit, but he made the most of the 523 acres he had to work with. For one thing, he made the track 27 feet wide at its narrowest, making it much easier to pass than on most road courses.
It is a driver’s course. The boot-like design includes several high-speed straightaways--notably the Moraine Sweep past the start-finish line--where braking is critical in setting up passing opportunities. Many road courses have sweeping turns where the entrance speed is so great that it is difficult to set up a pass. Not Road America.
After the long straightaway, which ends abruptly with a 90-degree right-hander, the 14-turn course winds through the woods for a couple of miles before coming to the Hurry Downs, a series of switchbacks similar to Riverside’s esses. They lead to the Carousel, a looping U-turn that heads the cars through the Kettle Bottoms toward Canada Corner, where the course straightens out for a dash up the hill under the Billy Mitchell bridge onto the Moraine Sweep.
Road America, unlike most American tracks, paid for itself. Tufte bought the 538 acres for $56,686 and spent $175,000 in building the facility. To raise the money, he sold 377 shares. They held a mortgage burning in November of 1959.
Tufte died in 1981, but no one talks about the past around here without mentioning him first.
The first big sports car race in 1955 on the new track was won by a Ferrari Monza, driven by Phil Hill, a Californian who in 1961 became America’s first Formula One world champion. Hill passed Sherwood Johnston, in a D-Jaguar, on the final corner. He averaged 81.41 m.p.h. for 500 miles.
Danny Sullivan, driving one of Roger Penske’s Cosworth-powered Marches, set the track record last year at 128.538 m.p.h. in qualifying for an Indy car race.
A noted sports car driver long before he became an Indy car owner, Penske drove here often. In 1961, in fact, the young Pennsylvanian drove a 2.8-liter birdcage Maserati to victory in a 100-mile sprint for big-bore modified sports cars.
There is a tombstone alongside Turn 10, the one they call the Carousel.
It is for a cat. Brian Redman’s cat, they say.
According to the legend, which varies in telling from bar to bar along South Lake Street, a stray cat used to hang around the track, accepting scraps from crewmen and corner workers.
For reasons unknown, it took a liking to Redman, the polished Yorkshireman who has driven sports cars at Road America for many years. Course workers swore that when Redman swept through the Carousel in a Lola in 1981, the cat raced alongside, trying to keep up. When Redman would come into the pits, the cat would be there, waiting. It followed him everywhere.
In time, the cat legend grew. Corner workers showed up in T-shirts bearing the phrase, “To Brian Redman’s Cat.” Redman’s Cat buttons became one of the track’s hottest items.
When Redman clinched the Camel GT championship that year, spectators shouted, “To the Cat,” and Redman toasted them with champagne as the cat stood by.
Then late at night, with only the trees as witnesses, the cat was said to have streaked around the Carousel, hoping to beat Redman’s time. One night the cat didn’t make it through the turn. Workers found the cat the next morning, lying up against the guard rail. They buried the cat right there.
Last year, when Redman was here to drive one of Bob Tullius’ Jaguars, he went down to the Carousel with the corner workers, and they placed a tombstone on the cat’s grave.
The village of Elkhart Lake, which sits quietly just to the north of the lake that gave the town its name, is as much a part of Road America as the four-mile track itself.
In the 36 years since the first street race in 1950, Elkhart Lake has nearly doubled its population--from 538 to 1,054. If the locals have their way, it won’t grow any more than that in the next 38 years.
Except for race weekends.
Six times a year--in early June for the motorcycles, later in the month for the June Sprints, in July for the Trans-Am, in August for the Camel GT sports cars, in September for the Firestone Firehawk endurance race, and in September for the Indy cars--Elkhart Lake swells to the bursting point.
Siebken’s Resort is the racers’ hangout. Doug and Pam Lueck, who own the 65-year-old white frame landmark, open and close according to the racing schedule.
“We shut down the place, except for weekends, after the last race,” Doug said as he presided over a crowded seven-seat bar in the basement where the walls are covered with racing pictures. “We find out when the first race will be next year and that’s when we’ll open. There’s not much doing around here between races.”
When the Luecks were complimented on their pictures of old favorites such as Phil Hill, Peter Gregg, Carroll Shelby, Mark Donohue and Al Holbert on the wall, the proprietor chuckled.
“This is a sports car weekend. The sports car crowd likes to see sports car drivers, so that’s what they get,” Lueck said. “Come back for the Indy car weekend and you’ll see Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Jimmy Clark and Johnny Rutherford on the wall. And we’ve got a great bunch of motorcycle pictures, too.”
The bartender at Siebken’s is Guy Hobbs, 20, whose father, David, won the 1983 Trans-Am here. Young Hobbs’ home is in Upper Boddington, England, but he’s been coming to Elkhart Lake each summer since he was 4.
“I came here with my dad for years when I was a little boy,” Guy said. “When I was 14 I stayed a few weeks and worked around the place, sweeping out, doing the pots and pans and stuff like that. The last six years I’ve worked full time. Now my dad comes here to visit me, whether he’s racing or not.”
There used to be five resort hotels in Elkhart Lake to accommodate the drivers, crews, hangers-on and some spectators. Now there are only two, Siebken’s and Schwartz’s Resort, which caters so exclusively to Chicago patrons that you can’t even buy a copy of the Milwaukee Journal there.
“The owners are from Chicago, and all our guests are from Chicago, so why should we bother with a Milwaukee paper,” a concierge said haughtily.
Maxine Radke, who moved here from San Diego, runs the Loading Zone, one of the busier village watering holes. She likes the race crowds, for business reasons, but also likes the turn-of-the-century atmosphere.
“When the city closed the lake to boating on Sundays, it really cut back on tourists,” Radke said. “It hurt our business, but it sure makes it a nice place to raise your kids. We can always tell when there’s a race on, even if we didn’t read the papers. The place is packed. Sometimes they get a little out of hand, but not so much that we don’t welcome them.”
In the rebellious ‘60s, things did get out of hand, and the city fathers wound up sealing off the city to the racing crowd.
“I don’t know what it was about those years,” said Floyd Dixon, the city’s retired postmaster, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce during the year of the riots. “The young people didn’t have any respect for anything--property, people or even themselves. They just invaded us. They took over the beaches, tramped over our flowers, slept on our porches, jammed up the streets just milling around. It was frightening.
“The only way we could deal with it was to issue special stickers and put guards on all the entrances to the city. If you didn’t have a sticker, you couldn’t come in. Fortunately, it’s much quieter now. We still have big crowds that get rowdy once in a while, but not like it was then. I guess it was just a symbol of the times.”
Nearly every race driver of note in the last 30 years has driven at Road America, but perhaps the best known is Paul Newman.
It was here in 1968 that Newman “won” the fictional Redburne 200 in the opening scene of “Winning,” the movie revolving around the Indianapolis 500 that triggered Newman’s interest in driving a race car.
“I still think that picture was as honest a portrayal of racing as I’ve ever seen,” Newman said a few weeks ago when he was here to drive a turbocharged Nissan in the Trans-Am series. “There were a lot of drivers (Rodger Ward, Bob Bondurant and others) around who made sure all the racing was authentic.”
Filming of the $10-million picture by Universal International was the biggest thing to hit the Kettle Moraine since the glacier that formed it.
“Universal had hired about 300 or so extras, but when the actual shooting began there were over 800 unsolicited extras there,” Peter Laun, the town historian and himself one of the extras, recalled. “Every female, single and married, in Sheboygan County must have been there. At least, it seemed like it.
“Lakeland College, which is just down the road a piece, had everyone that wasn’t in class, lining the area around the shooting. The few single males hired as extras--including me--were in seventh heaven but it seemed all the women cared about was Newman.”
After “Winning” was released, Road America officials received numerous requests to use the facility for other movie and television scenes, but Tufte turned them all down.
“Clif felt they all had something in them that would hurt racing,” Laun said. “In one script, it was a murder at the race track. Another time it was a fixed race. And another, I think, was about an accident where someone was killed. Clif said he’d rather turn down the money than give a black eye to his sport.”
The most distinctive “Winning” scene taken here involved Newman on the victory stand after winning the Redburne 200. It was right in front of the old three-story, red-roofed pagoda that served as press box, scoring headquarters and officials’ stand for 30 years. The pagoda still stands today, a gutted relic of the past, but soon it will be torn down to make room for more pits.
Across the track stands a monument to the present, a $1.5-million media tower complete with state-of-the-art electronic equipment for press, radio and TV, plus nine VIP suites for sponsors.
“It looks like an artist’s rendering,” driver Elliott Forbes-Robinson observed. “I’ve seen pictures of what buildings were supposed to look like, but this one does. The way it’s framed by the woods makes it look more like a picture than the real thing.”
That might also be said of Elkhart Lake and Road America.
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