By Nicholas Dettmann
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears insisted he is done racing, even as he sat in the paddock area of one of his favorite race tracks – Road America.
Instead, he sat near the Penske trailers reminiscing about the time he spent at Road America and how much it has changed since he last raced here in 1991.
“It’s great to be here,” Mears said. “This was always one of my favorite road courses to run on. It’s long, it’s got everything, elevation changes, blind corners, long straightaways, tight corners, fast corners.”
Mears’ list went on and on and on.
When he arrived at the track for the race weekend, rather than any specific race memories coming to mind, it was how the facility has changed.
“It’s a great area, the people are great, it’s a great setting,” said Mears, who won three times at the Milwaukee Mile, but never at Road America. “It’s hard to beat.”
An often-said phrase in the days leading into the weekend and throughout it was it’s just like the good old days. And the one thing that hasn’t changed was the area’s support for IndyCar racing at the famed 4-mile road course.
Road America President and General Manager George Bruggenthies was glowing moments after Will Power took the checkered flag to win the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Kohler Grand Prix on June 26, a race nine years in the making.
“I have to congratulate the Road America staff and the whole that does all the operations here,” Bruggenthies said. “They worked very hard preparing. I think we delivered.”
The weekend was a blast from the past. An estimated more than 50,000 people packed the grandstands and the hills throughout the 640-acre facility, as well as people lining campers, RVs and canopies down every straightaway and in every corner.
After the race Bruggenthies relented against giving an estimated number. Several media outlets before the race reported attendance figuring to be close to 100,000.
“I know they probably exaggerated numbers in the early days, but I talked to a couple of my board of directors, and this is likely the largest event ever hosted by Road America,” he said. “So that’s really something.”
Then he announced the date for next year’s race and it’ll be the same weekend: June 25, 2017. It is a three-year agreement between Road America and IndyCar.
Power said it is a shame IndyCar won’t be at the Milwaukee Mile this year. The status on whether the series goes back is murky. One thing’s for certain: IndyCar is back at Road America. And it appears it is here to stay.
“It’s just a cool, old-school track,” Power said. “There’s not many of them around that we go to anymore, and any of the ones that we do go to, you go to Mid-Ohio, there’s a big crowd. You come here, it was amazing just walking around on Thursday. There was so many people.
“… We should have been back here a long time ago.”
When IndyCar returned to the Mile in 2011, uncertainty of whether the race could be maintained hovered over the nation’s oldest race track, even though the track often got praise from drivers.
But that wasn’t enough. The crowds didn’t turn out the way it was hoped. Part of that was the lack of support on the business aspect as well.
At Road America, it was different … way different.
“You need to come back to these old tracks on the same time every year so it becomes routine for me, and you can build a really good fan base,” Power said.
Of course, it didn’t hurt for fans to be clamoring for the series’ return since it left in 2007.
“Well, we have a three-year agreement, so you can count on that, and if everything continues positively, we’ll extend that,” Bruggenthies said. “We’d like to. The fans love the series. They put on a great race. I think that was demonstrated. So it’s something we would like to keep here, certainly.”