NASCAR’s top series to invade Road America July 4
By Nicholas Dettmann
He heard it regularly. He heard it more recently. No matter when he was asked or how often, Mike Kertscher, general manager and president of Road America, couldn’t answer the question: When will NASCAR’s top series come to Road America?
The answer finally came in last offseason. The date is Sunday, July 4. Since then, the weekend has expanded to be an opportunity to be a historic weekend for the legendary 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course known as America’s National Park of Speed.
The event also has a chance to be an economic boost to the region with long-term effects, featuring a handful of local partnerships.
“Everywhere I go, everyone I talk to that’s what they’re talking about,” Kertscher said. “It isn’t just the Cup race, it’s our entire season and the Cup race is headlining that without a doubt.
“Our community is excited to see so many fans, so many new fans. It’s all got to work hand in hand. It’s not just what we do here. It’s welcoming them to Sheboygan County. For a lot of them, they’ve never been to our county.”
He added, “We’re seeing a lot of new people coming for the event.”
The announcement of NASCAR bringing its top-tier Cup series to Road America was made in September. A month later, the track announced its most “robust and dynamic season schedule to date,” according to a press release, featuring nine events. Those events include the traditional events such as the SVRA Vintage Festival Weekend, the SCCA June Sprints, the motorbike weekend and the Brian Redman Challenge.
Also returning were NTT Data IndyCar Series, IMSA and World Challenge. But, the headliner was going to be the Fourth of July weekend featuring the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Trans-Am Series.
Then, in April, it was announced that local partner, Plymouth Dirt Track, located at the Sheboygan County Fairgrounds in nearby Plymouth, would host an open-wheel racing event, featuring the Bumper to Bumper IRA Sprint Car Series on July 1 to serve as the kick-off event for the weekend. The race winner would cash in $5,000 and quickly got NASCAR stars such as Chase Briscoe to commit to the event.
What a race weekend for a race fan.
“It has a chance to be an incredible season for everybody,” Kertscher said. “There’s a high tide in what we’ve been able to do. My opinion may be biased, but I don’t know of another track that’s got a better schedule throughout the course of the year. I know our season pass holders appreciate that.”
Thankfully, because of the vast property space that occupies Road America, more than 600 acres, the facility didn’t see many negative influences caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Many tracks around the world had attendance restrictions, if they were allowed to open. Social distancing is not a problem at Road America. Because of that, the track saw positive returns from visiting race series and the race fans. That tourism also softened the blow a bit for local tourism and the local economy caused by the pandemic.
Now with Road America being wide open and drawing the top stock car series in the world to the region, the local economy is easily excited. Kertscher said the excitement in the region for the event is “electric.”
“It’s an expanded audience for us,” said Bill Weinaug, who oversees sales, marketing and promotions at Plymouth Dirt Track. “We do get some crossover from the track between fans and crew members, but this takes it to a whole other level.”
He added the opportunity to be connected with a NASCAR event is “huge” for the track and “an honor.”
NASCAR debuted at Road America in 1956, with the Grand National Series, which today is known as the Cup Series. Tim Flock won the race that also featured Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson. It wound up being the 39th and final NASCAR victory for Flock, who won 18 races the year before on his way to his second and final season championship.
NASCAR made a slight comeback to Road America in 2001 with the NASCAR Midwest Series, a race won by Wisconsin native Paul Menard.
NASCAR made its official return in 2010 with the then-Nationwide Series – today known as the Xfinity Series. The race was won by Carl Edwards. The race was exciting and the facility had one of its largest crowds in recent memory.
Then, after the race second-place finisher Ron Fellows was asked what he thought about the NASCAR return to Road America. He held the microphone and said two words to the contingent of media members in the room: “Sprint Cup.” At that time, NASCAR’s Cup series was sponsored by Sprint.
People heard it and the discussion, as well as the wait for Cup’s return to Road America started.
As the years passed, each passing race at Road America by the Xfinity Series offered excitement unlike NASCAR had ever seen before, especially on a road course. As evidence of that, since 2010, there hasn’t been a repeat winner. One of those was Menard in 2015. In addition, the race has generated five first-time winners.
Each of those elements combined to ramp up the debate on if or when NASCAR would bring its Cup Series to Road America.
Rumors on why it hadn’t certainly hovered over the facility and its staff. Those rumors included possible track reconfiguration was needed or the garage area not big enough.
“It’s been marinating for over 10 years,” Kertscher said. “We’ve had some really good Xfinity races. Not only the racing has been good, but the attendance has been very, very healthy. Over that 10-plus year period, the excitement, with each passing year, what is the possibility? We’ve been talking about it for years.”
He added the discussions between Road America and NASCAR regarding the Cup series intensified over the last couple years. According to Kertscher, there was one simple element as to why it took so long and what it took to finally put a pen to the contract.
“It’s change, its evolution,” Kertscher said. “They’re looking to shake things up, but they’ve been doing that with some of the changes to their format.
“But also, the timing was right. Timing is everything. Last year, we were having an incredible year with all things considered. We were able to do some things last year most people couldn’t do and I think that opened up some eyes in our industry.”
Kertscher is in his 15th season working at Road America, having served in several roles. The 2021 season is his fourth as the track’s general manager and president, a role once held by George Bruggenthies. While he does work at a race track, racing is at Kertscher’s heart. He’s a former sprint car racer with the Bumper to Bumper IRA Sprint Car Series.
“It’s a natural fit because there’s a large part of the NASCAR community that’s come up through dirt track racing,” Weinaug said of the NASCAR/Road America and Plymouth partnership. “You look at Tony Stewart, (Ricky) Stenhouse, (Kyle) Larson, even some of the Busch brothers (Kurt and Kyle) have done some dirt racing. I just think it’s a natural partnership between us and Road America and for NASCAR to promote this. I think this will be a longtime venture hopefully.”
The efforts of Kerscher and his staff as well as the track’s Board of the Directors haven’t gone unnoticed. He said the season pass holders have “more than doubled in the last five years.” Kertscher said the track averages about 800,000 fans through the gates per year. That doesn’t count race teams and its drivers across several disciplines of racing such as sports car, motorcycles and IndyCar.
“Mike’s done an excellent job,” Weinaug said. “He understands what we’re doing on our end and I really like what he’s doing out there. Hat’s off to Mike and his staff.”
Now that the top stock car series is coming to Road America, what else could be on the track’s radar? Right now, Kertscher doesn’t know. What he does know is it’s finally good to have an answer to a question he and the staff at Road America were asked regularly for about a decade regarding the NASCAR Cup Series.
“It’s July 4,” he said.