Welcome to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Nestled in the Kettle Moraine State Forest and home of Road America. This 4.05 mile, 14 turn facility sees a total elevation change of 176 feet from the crest of turn one to the depth of turn twelve, also known as Canada Corner. Opened in 1955, NASCAR’s first race at the historic facility was held in 1956 which saw Tim Flock win the day. While the track hosted many SCCA events, Grand Am, ALMS, IMSA, IRL, CART, AMA Superbikes, and many other series events it did not see NASCAR return to the circuit until 2010 for the Bucyrus 200. Originally hosted in June, the event has been moved to August and shortened from 200 miles to 180 miles.
Turner Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have each won the event twice, both back to back while Roush-Fenway and Penske have each prevailed once. Last year saw Wisconsin native, Paul Menard, win while the prior year it was Las Vegas’ Brendan Gaughan. Three of the six years the race has been extended into overtime and the track often sees a combination of strategies, including fuel mileage, which has bit competitors multiple times.
A typical trip around the track will start on the Road America straight, over a half mile (3,025′) uphill to turn 1, a near 90 degree right hand turn onto the short chute through the gentle right of turn 2 over the Briggs & Straton bridge. After a small downhill turn 3 is another right hand turn, tighter than 90 degrees and launches you down the third longest straight into the bends of turn 4. The Moraine Sweep is a gentle downhill bend to driver’s right that comes back on itself down into a fan favorite turn 5, a slow speed 90 degree left under heavy braking which often sees cars in the gravel and a prime passing opportunity. After making the hard left drivers charge uphill a short distance into turn 6, another heavy braking left 90 degree turn. Drivers work their way up through the gears through the 45 degree right of turn 7 into the “Hurry Downs” a near quarter mile downhill run into turn 8, yet another 90 degree left under heavy braking. Another fan favorite passing zone characterized by a large asphalt runoff and a pea gravel pit. Following the hard left drivers see a short run into the sweeping right turns 9 & 10, also known as the carousel. The Carousel features a 30′ drop, under throttle, and directs the cars into the Kink and Kettle Bottoms (the second longest “straight”), turns 11, 11A, and 11B… this section features a medium right turn, into a right-left-left-right bend into the famous turn 12, Canada Corner and into the eyes of MRN’s Tony Rizzuti. This 90 degree turn will see cars under heavy breaking from 180 mph to 60 mph and into one of the last and possibly the best passing zone with multiple lines through the turn. As drivers up shift and run into turn 13, Bill Mitchell bend, they will climb 35′ and take a short sweeping right-left hook and into the final 90 degree right of turn 14. Then it’s up the 100′ hill and back under the flag stand.
Pit Road starts to driver’s right on the uphill and runs three quarters of the distance of the front stretch. Wednesday night I had the pleasure to sit down with Tyler Rader, gasman for Austin Dillon in the Sprint Cup Series number 3 Dow Chemical Chevrolet SS and the Xfinity number 2 Rheem Chevrolet Camaro to talk about Road America’s unique pits.
CCC: What are the unique challenges of Road America’s pit road and how does it compare to others on the circuit?
Rader: The challenges are its the only week where Xfinity is doing backwards pit stops and we gotta go to Michigan and do straight up normal pit stops. As far as that goes we don’t focus too much on the Xfinity backwards stops because Michigan is such a pit friendly race track that there are gonna be some awesome times laid down by pit crews so you know we try to get ready and go for it at the Michigan Cup race and we kind of rely on our experiences and from 3 weeks ago when we were at Watkins Glen to make this stop happen.
CCC: At Road America you can’t see much, if any, of the race from the pits. Does this affect you & the team in any way?
Rader: It kinda sucks because it’s such an awesome racetrack and you know it’s really racey and they get after it. It’s high speeds but like you said, the only thing we see is them coming down the straightaway. As far as where you’re pitted, when they crest that hill you can’t see much at all there either. I wish you could see more of the racetrack from the pits; it would be a lot cooler.
CCC: Yeah, least year when I was in the pits I noticed everyone was watching the big board in turn 1...
Rader: Yeah, we rely a lot on spotters as far as cars on track and all of that.
CCC: I can only imagine in the headset it’s pretty crazy at Road America…
Rader: It was really cool when Brendan Gaughan won a few years ago on the rain tires & everything, that was a real exciting one to listen to.
CCC: I know the teams practice stops for road courses, with the car being “backwards” in the box, does this throw crews off anymore or is it really just a formality these days?
Rader: I think nowadays with the amount of veterans that are on pit road it’s kind of normal. Like I said we didn’t focus too much on it, we talked about it, in practices certain teams wanted to do a stop or two, they could if they wanted to but we’re trying to go to Michigan, trying to get in the Chase. That has to be our main focus.
CCC: Is there anything special you look forward to on the Wisconsin trip?
Rader: Man we always stop off at this beef jerky place and we get beef jerky and cheese curds, that’s the thing. The hauler drivers always have to get cheese curds. I’m from West Virginia, I’m new to them but they are good, I like them.
CCC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Rader: As far as pit stops go, pit stops are slower at road courses, you’re waiting on fuel anyway… Road America you can make it on one stop? I’m not sure, but a lot of the road courses we go to you can make it on one stop in the Xfinity race, if you play your fuel strategy right. So a lot of times they might bust off a 13 second stop but you’re waiting on fuel for 14. So you just tell those guys lets get 5 lugs tight and wheels and race it out on the racetrack.
CCC: So it’s on your shoulders then to make sure fuel gets in as quick as possible?
Rader: Yeah, me and the jackman [Sam Abney] have to check off on each other.
CCC: Cause then typically the driver leaves on the jack, correct?
Rader: Yep. With the veterans we are going with, like Michael McDowell, a lot of these guys know that they can make it up on the track, anything we lose in the pit. We aren’t going in there to lose any time in the pits but they know that tank has to be full of fuel and lugs have to be tight.
(I want to take just a moment and say one last time, thank you to Ray Wright for setting this interview up and thank you to Tyler Rader for taking the time and allowing me this amazing interview. I would feel bad if I didn’t mention the charity these guys are so invested with, Pitstops For Hope. Check them out at http://www.pitstopsforhope.org which is by far, my favorite charity. I look forward to meeting the crews this weekend. They really are amazing guys.)
On pit road the over the wall guys shine and there’s so many good crews that can gain positions in the pits and help their driver make up valuable seconds on the track.
Some notable drivers to watch for this weekend are the one-off road course racers, Alex Tagliani (22), Alon Day(13), and Owen Kelly(18). With backgrounds rooted in technical road courses these drivers look to upset the field as Tagliani nearly did (coming in second by only 0.82 seconds after marching forward from 25th) in 2014 when Brendan Gaughan won on rain tires.
Ty Dillon enters the race 4th overall in the points and looks to cement his place in the Xfinity series Chase with a win. With a 15th position average at Road America and 11th position career average at road courses I think Ty could easily come home top 10 given the history of RCR at Road America and the experience he has gained every week.
Michael McDowell will pilot the number 2 Rheem Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing and will be the only driver doing double duty at Michigan and Road America this weekend. McDowell nearly had the race won years ago until running out of fuel. With his background in road racing, McDowell could easily pilot the number 2 into Victory Lane with the help of his pit crew that also has to “do the double” at Michigan as Tyler Rader spoke about.
Ryan Sieg and Justin Marks both have had solid finishes at the 4 mile circuit and Marks comes off his win at Mid-Ohio just a few weeks ago. These drivers look to make their presence known and will likely be near the front sometime during the race.
Another of the young independents to watch for at Road America this year will be Jeremy Clements, driver of the number 51 Repairable Vehicles Chevrolet Camaro. Coming off a 6th place finish at Bristol, Jeremy holds a 23rd place average in all his starts at Road America and a 17th place average over the last 2 years. With his history of finishing races, Jeremy could easily see another top 20 this weekend, if he manages to stay out of trouble he could achieve a top 15 with the attrition wars throughout the race.
Finally, Wisconsin’s own, Paige Decker is entered in the 97 Vroom Brands Obaika Racing Chevy Camaro. Having finished 31st at Iowa, she looks to post a new career best this weekend. Having made a start in the Mid-American Stock Car Series in 2010 at Road America she has experience at the track. Decker could easily see top 30 or better if she is able to avoid incidents.
I will be in attendance with Derrike Cope Racing throughout the weekend, I look forward to the experience as Timmy Hill will pilot the number 70. I will try to update from the track, if there is anything you wish to see or know, feel free to send me a tweet @couchcrewchief and I will try to help! My father and I have camped at the track since NASCAR started visiting, we will be down in the carousel for camping and in Turn 12, Canada Corner, for the races. Also running this weekend is the SCCA Trans Am Pro series which always results in an amazing series of races. Ty Dillon has driven in the series in a Camaro and savvy Twitter followers may have noticed Brendan Gaughan talking about the possibility of competing this year.
Best place for food will be “The Gear Box” in the paddock and St. John the Baptist located by the pedestrian tunnel in the garage area, they have the biggest and best ice cream cones. Turn 8/carousel has a great stand with full food and also has the best showers around.
The forecast for the weekend has looked good, however recent developments are showing possible rain (20% chance as of the writing of this article) on Saturday for the race. We could see another deluge like Mid-Ohio or a light mist like a few years ago or even a downpour of sunshine. One thing is for sure, we will race on Saturday. I will be cheering on Ty Dillon, Brendan Gaughan, Michael McDowell, Brandon Jones, and Timmy Hill in hopes that one can bring home the checkers.
I hope to see you there in the box!