The More Things Change…

The first layer, fresh and black, exiting Turn Three. [Pete Gorski Photo]

The first layer of last falls repave of Road Anerica, fresh and black, exiting Turn Three. [Pete Gorski Photo]

by Pete Gorski

The internet has made looking up stories and stats about racing’s past supremely easy. But one thing it can’t do is recreate the experience of poking around in Grandma’s attic at the stuff your parents stashed away up there, like car magazines from the 1950s and 1960s. (This assumes you’re my age.) And even if VR one day features a “Grandma’s Attic” preset, it won’t be able to recreate the smell of stuffy air and aging paper. Probably.

Those magazines were eventually moved from Grandma’s house into my parents’ house before finding a home in mine. So during the downtime between seasons last winter, I read through those old Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and Road and Track issues. As somebody who spends a lot of time in the vintage racing world, it’s been quite enjoyable to read stories comparing the 1960 Corvette and Porsche 356, seeing ads for the “new” Alfa Romeo GTV or reading about the 1966 Le Mans race when that event was current news. Those magazines had fairly consistent coverage of racing of all types (man Richard Petty sure looks young there…because he was!), from Formula One to IndyCar and NASCAR when it was still very much a regional sport.

One unexpected piece in the January, 1966 issue of Road and Track, a conventionally formatted story and photo essay (in color!), was a celebration of the first ten years of Road America’s existence. From May through September, much of my time is spent hiking around the 14 turns and 640 acres (according to the article, 523 acres; apparently there’s been some acquisition since then), camera in hand, so this story was a treat to find. And the first thing that leaps out at you is, things really haven’t changed that much. I mean sure, there have been changes, both functionally and aesthetically. But looking at the pictures and reading the text, it’s remarkable how so much of what makes Road America special was built in from the beginning, and remains so to this day.

One of the dozen or so photos included in the story is something that, if you’ve ever been to a vintage race at RA, especially the WeatherTech International Challenge with Brian Redman, you’ve probably seen in person — the long line of Porsche 356s queued up from the base of the paddock hill to near the entrance of the Gear Box concession stand. What I thought was a vintage-inspired formation is actually something that stretches back to (at least) 1966. Makes me wonder how many of the bathtubs you see today were in that 57-year-old picture.

The rest of the photos? Turn Five is well represented, showing fans pressed along the fence ahead of a family parked in chairs, cooler behind them, kid sitting on the ground…just like you’d see today. Sure, there’s no paved runoff, no gravel trap, no concrete barriers, and a few trees and shrubs in places that are now clear, but the topography is nearly identical. There’s a panning shot that everybody tries on the run into Turn Five — had to be much easier without all the catch fence in the foreground. Canada Corner both looks the same and yet different — fewer trees on the hillside driver’s left than now, but a big trunk driver’s right that is no longer there.

The article mentions the quality of the concessions at the track, saying, “people have been known to pay admissions in order to eat the food”. If you’ve been to Road America lately, you know the food is still a big part of the RA experience. When you consider that one of the most-liked posts on the National Park of Speed Facebook page last year was a picture of an Egger sandwich from the Gear Box, or that some people chose menu item names for their personalized Road America license plate, the appeal of the track’s offerings can’t be denied. Most broadcasts from RA reference the quality of the food available…but don’t mention it at other circuits around the country.

Another aspect of the track that was highlighted in 1966 still gets mentioned on those aforementioned television broadcasts — the beauty of the place. Well maintained, and if you’ve been there in person, you know it comes by its nickname as the National Park of Speed honestly. The article refers to the constant improvements made to the facility in just the first ten years. The direction Clif Tufte charted over 68 years ago continues to this day, with each year bringing new bathrooms, improved audio and video capabilities, and the recently relocated and improved Victory Circle.

There were two things written in the article that haven’t held true for all 68 years the track has operated. Apparently, the first ten years had nearly perfect weather. If you’ve attended the IMSA races in the past few years and heard that “IMSA” stands for “It’s Monsoon Season Again, you can only wish that statement held true. Sure, it’s interesting to see who’s a Rain Master and to watch the rooster tails twist in the air. Personally, I’ll take it dry.

The other aspect that has changed is what the author of the 1966 piece, Harry Longbaugh, called “Big Race Policy”. Road America states on the History tab on their webpage that “over 500 events are held annually at Road America”. But during its opening decade Tufte wanted to put on only “big races”, which meant two or three events a year. Fans knew they were attending a “big” event and drivers wanted to appear for the same reason, so both groups turned out. Personally I think we’re all happier that that policy changed.

One thing Longbaugh didn’t address, because he had no reason to after only ten years and twenty-some events, was the track surface itself. But if you’re a fan of Road America or follow their social media feeds, you know that a total repave of the entire 4.048 miles (pit lane included) occurred last fall for the first time in 27 years. For a race track that is justifiably proud of the fact that, unlike other road courses built in the same time frame, Road America is fundamentally the same course Clif Tufte laid out (and I just spent hundreds of words elucidating all the other ways it has stayed “the same”), this was a big change.

I had the opportunity to get up to the track before the project wrapped. Approaching along Highway J with its view of Turn Three and the long run toward the Sargento Bridge, it was a little shocking to see how dark the new pavement was. We’ve all heard the term “blacktop”, but the relentless sun “fades” new pavement pretty quickly, turning anything asphalt-based into “greytop”. For years I’ve used the color of the race surface as a reference point for color-correcting photos, so next season could require some adjustments.

You might imagine there was a temptation to use this resurfacing to “improve” the course. But the irreplaceable history and pedigree was top-of-mind when it came to the repaving process. “The Walbec Group and Northeast Asphalt engineers were mindful of the track’s history and authentic character,” explained Road America Communications Director John Ewert. “Before milling the old surface and underlayment, the entire racecourse was laser surveyed, and engineers loaded the survey data into the computer-guided pavers. To further guide the pavers and underlayment preparation, over 7000 laser markers were placed to ensure that the track width, camber angles, and curbing locations were within thousandths of an inch.”

They did make some changes “behind the scenes” so to speak. “Engineers made additional steps to improve drainage around the property, including adding culverts and pipes for running conduit and cables during events,” said Ewert. Any paving project is a big production, and while all infrastructure projects have a timeline, this one needed to be done relatively quickly so the surface had enough time to cure before the 2023 season begins. “The Walbec Group and Northeast Asphalt were selected due to previous experience and overall capability in completing the job within the desired time frame.”

“Over 800 dump trucks removed more than 17,000 tons of milled asphalt surface and underlayment, with nearly the same number of trucks replacing the old material with new asphalt. During the project, two paving machines ran in echelon style (side-by-side) to remove any center seams and ensure a parabolic crown for improved surface drainage over the entire racecourse,” Ewert continued. The unique demands and stresses of a race track meant special material was used. “All the asphalt is a highly polymerized mix with aggregates sourced from around Wisconsin. Tests were run regularly, some as frequent as every hour, to ensure the surface was perfect.” Drivers who have competed on it for years, and will so for years to come, would be the first to tell you if something changed in a negative way. Nobody cares if you change the character of Interstate 43. But here?

I visited several places around the circuit that day. Obviously the Turn Five complex still looked like the Turn Five complex — that’s the whole point of all those measurements and sensors — but absent the new material, there was a drop from the height of the curbing and runoff down to the still-grooved base layer. (As you may have figured out, none of the curbing was outright replaced as part of the repave. So if you’re a curb-hopper, the experience should feel the same.) Turn Six still bore its grinding marks, while Turns Two, Three, and Seven had one layer of new asphalt laid down. The short chute from the apex of Turn Thirteen to Turn Fourteen was the closest to “completed” that I saw, fresh tarmac laid right up against the edge of the grass.

It took just about a month to redo the entire 4.048 miles plus pit lane. Having spent hours looking at cars and bikes competing on the existing pavement for years, it’s going to be interesting to see how a race at the same-but-different circuit plays out. Lap times are expected to drop, although familiar bumps, dips, and seams have all been eliminated, so for competitors, it might be a “take the bad with the good” situation.

There have been a handful of smaller events run in the 2023 season already, with the cars of the World Racing League spending the most time on the new surface at the beginning of May. Two weekends back the SVRA SpeedTour (you might know it as Spring Vintage) kicked off the “magnet” portion of the Road America schedule, so we’ll have pictures and some observations from drivers as they turn a wheel on the new pavement.

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