Drivers enjoy trip to the challenging Road America road course
By Nicholas Dettmann
Road America already poses plenty of challenges, with its long straightaways, hard braking zones and winding roads. They’re challenges just about every race car driver to ever conquer the four-mile, 14-turn road course can’t help but love and can’t wait to come back to.
Not many have done it in two drastically different race cars. Alex Tagliani, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter, is one of those.
Tagliani, who drove for Roger Penske Racing for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Gardner Denver 200 Fired Up by Johnsonville, won a Champ Car World Series open-wheel race in 2004 at Road America. It didn’t take long for “Tags” to realize the differences of Road America in an IndyCar and a stock car.
Even he was blown away by the differences.
When asked about the difference between driving an open-wheel car at Road America compared to a stock car, he leaned back in his chair, flashed a big smile and said “It’s a lot.”
“You have to completely block everything you’ve done in an open-wheel car,” Tagliani said. “If you don’t, you can get in trouble very quickly. It’s unforgiving.”
What are the differences?
Well, in corners he remembered in an open-wheel car, say Turn 1, which could be done as a quick brake and a right-handed turn in fifth gear, that can’t be done in a stock car. In a stock car, a driver has to drop almost 100 mph off its straightaway speed in a downhill breaking zone in order to take the corner in second gear.
Other differences include longer braking zones and longer wait to get on the throttle out of a corner.
Another example is Turn 5, another long and downhill braking zone where a driver almost feels like it is standing on the brake to get the car to slow down.
“It almost feels like a different track,” Tagliani said.
But that’s what makes Road America special, unique. Ron Fellows even joked once that Canada Corner, which is Turn 12, has a feeling of like being in Canada because drivers feel so far away from the pits and have been on a lap seemingly forever.
“It’s awesome,” said Dylan Kwasniewski, a rookie with the Nationwide Series this season. “I’ve been to a lot of cool road courses, but this one is fast. It’s a cool track.”
Kwasniewski, who turned 19 on May 31, said he was surprised a track that was so long and winding had so much speed to it.
“You’re hauling the mail, but there are some technical parts to it too,” he said. “You definitely can bust yourself. You’ve got to stay out of trouble.”
Kwasniewski has had success on road courses. Last year, he won at Virginia International Raceway and at Road Atlanta with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East en route to the series championship.
To prepare for the weekend, Kwasniewski reviewed race footage and watched it on TV.
“Track’s pretty tight; it’s pretty narrow,” he said when asked what stood out to him from watching Road America on TV. “That’s especially true with these stock cars.
“You’ve got to mirror drive a lot; make sure of your surroundings. It’s tough racing, definitely tight racing.”
One common theme that seemingly always comes from challengers of Road America is stay on the track and you’ll be fine. That’s true for any track. But at Road America, the margin for error is often less than at other tracks, especially other road courses.
“Keep the car on the track,” Kwasniewski said about the advice he got about Road America. “It’s a fruition race.”
“I heard a lot about the speed and I heard it was big. It’s a beautiful track, too. It’s a fun race track and I’m glad to be here in Wisconsin.”
With all its speed and technicality, imagine what it was like to challenge the course when it started to rain, which it did during the June 21 Gardner Denver 200 Fired Up by Johnsonville.
“It was a handful,” said Chase Elliott, who finished fourth. “I think anybody will tell you that. We dodged a couple bullets.”
It was Elliott’s second appearance at Road America. He finished fourth last year in the ARCA Series.
“It was ridiculous; it really was,” he said about racing Road America in the rain. “It was a handful.”
When the rain stopped with about 10 laps to go and the sun poked through for the first time all weekend, that made it a challenge too.
“You couldn’t see,” Elliott said. “Basically, you were driving off the lights of the car in front of you.”
Driving practically blind on one of the country’s and arguably the world’s most difficult road courses, now that’s a challenge, right?
“It was pretty intense,” Tagliani said. “The wet was tricky.”
Tagliani and the other drivers were tip-toeing their way around the track, trying to figure out what was the tolerable thing to do with the car in the different parts of the track.
It was like driving another track.
“It was pretty crazy,” he said.
“I took some risks to try the car in places where the run-off was quite big, like Turn 5,” he added. “Once I judged the limitation of the car and the brakes, I tried to apply it everywhere else without going off.
“Looking for the line and searching for the wet to try and get the tires to be durable was pretty amazing, and the Carousel too. You have to drive the Carousel like pretty much on the outside, the edge of the grass. You just have to hope you don’t put two wheels in the grass because it won’t forgive.”
“It’s challenging,” he added. “But I really loved the day.”
(This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Full Throttle Magazine.)